Marine biologists study the fascinating animal, plant and microscopic life in oceans. An estimated 80% of all life on earth is found under the ocean surface! Plants and animals act as indicators of the effect of human activities on the planet, including pollution and climate change. Marine biologists play a vital role in studying these effects.
What does a marine biologist do?
Marine biologists investigate all kinds of issues and problems. Here are some typical areas of concern:
- over fishing has led to a reduction of worldwide stocks of certain fish species
- pollution has contributed to the loss of coral
- the release of hot water and other effluents by various industries has altered the ecological balance of the oceans
- pollution has caused an increase in water-borne infections in humans
- the use of pesticides and artificial fertilisers in farming has had serious consequences on food chains
- chemicals can cause ‘gender-bending’ and fertility problems in fish, shellfish and other aquatic organisms.
On a positive note, marine biologists are able to address many of these problems. For instance, they are working for offshore oil and gas companies to reduce the negative impact of their operations on marine life. They are also involved in developing designated marine reserves and creating artificial reefs/wrecks in order to encourage wildlife into an area. Concern for the marine environment and an interest in water-based leisure activities has made this area of applied biology a popular career choice. The opportunity of doing a job that involves outdoor work (perhaps including fieldwork at sea) is one attraction. But don’t be misled into thinking it’s a soft option as the work may involve lengthy, routine fieldwork and one field trip can generate many weeks of laboratory-based analysis.
Obviously, the balance of time spent outdoors and in the lab varies from one job to another. Most jobs are in research, development and monitoring. You could be involved in pure research – mapping what species are present in a particular area, for example, and trying to understand marine ecosystems. Or, you could work in applied research, using the results of pure research to solve practical problems and to aid industries based on marine life. There are also opportunities for consultancy work, for example, conducting environmental impact assessments, environmental audits or waste management studies on behalf of governments, oil companies and organisations involved in renewable energy etc. Laboratory assistants and technicians support professional marine biologists in the more routine aspects of their work.
What skills and personal qualities do you need?
A marine biologist needs:
- an affinity with the marine environment and an interest in aquatic life
- excellent numerical skills (particularly sought by employers)
- practical skills
- patience and good observation skills
- the ability to work in a team
- good written and oral communication skills
- to be prepared to work outdoors in all weathers – perhaps at sea.
What about entry, training and qualifications?
As mentioned, marine biology is a popular career choice and there are more people trying to work in the area than there are jobs available. It’s a really good idea to gain relevant experience as a volunteer as this will improve your prospects of finding a job. Professional marine biologists The usual requirement for professional posts in marine biology is a degree in biology or biochemistry. A specialist interest in marine studies is, of course, helpful and there are some degree courses specialising in marine biology or marine science. It is also worth checking courses that offer ecology or environmental studies as options. However, it’s advisable to start with a broadbased degree as this may offer you more possible career options and will ensure that you get a good understanding of how biology ‘fits into’ your marine interests. A relevant degree can be followed by a postgraduate degree specialising in marine biology – in fact, most jobs now ask for postgraduate qualifications. Chartered status is available for marine scientists via a number of professional bodies.
The IMarEST for example offers Chartered Scientist and Chartered Marine Scientist status to suitably qualified, competent and experienced people. The Institute of Biology offers Chartered Biologist status. For information on entry requirements for degree courses, see page 34. Suitable subjects to take at advanced level for entry to biology-related degree courses are biology and chemistry, and either maths, physics or another science. Laboratory assistants and technicians For those with good GCSEs or equivalent qualifications (including sciences and maths) and even for those with a couple of A levels (including biology) or equivalent qualifications, there are a few openings for laboratory assistants and technicians. However, many employers prefer to appoint people trained to a higher level of specialism in biological sciences. An HNC/D in applied biology or a relevant foundation degree can also lead to technical and research-related posts. For information on entry requirements to higher education courses, see page 34.
Who employs marine biologists?
Employers of marine biologists include:
- research and advisory bodies (such as the institutes funded by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries & Aquaculture Science)
- university research teams
- environmental charities and pressure groups
- commercial fisheries
- government-run regulatory and environmental bodies, e.g. the Marine and Fisheries Agency and the Environment Agency in the UK
- large industrial concerns, such as offshore oil and gas exploration companies
- environmental consultancies.
What about future prospects?
Job vacancies are often offered for a fixed-term of two to three years to work on a particular project. Many jobs are based overseas…or at sea! It is possible for marine biologists to progress to senior research scientist and management-level positions.
Where can I find out more?
- Challenger Society for Marine Science – www.noc. soton.ac.uk/OTHERS/CSMS
- The Institute of Biology – tel: +44 (0)20 7936 5900. Website has information on studying biology and on careers in biology in general: www.iob.org
- The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST) – tel: +44 (0)20 7382 2600. www.imarest.org
- The Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom – tel: +44 (0)1752 633207. www.mba.ac.uk
- Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – tel: +44 (0)1793 411500 for information about the marine laboratories that it funds, or see: www.nerc.ac.uk
- The Science Council – tel: +44 (0)20 7922 7888. www. sciencecouncil.co.uk
- The Society for Underwater Technology – tel: +44 (0)20 7382 2601. www.sut.org.uk