What career path and training has led you to your current job?
Since I was young I have been interested in science and the environment. I have always been passionate about protecting the environment and conserving it for future generations. At A-level I chose to study geography, biology and chemistry, and then I picked an Environmental Science BSc at Nottingham Trent University. This was quite broad and covered all aspects of the environment, but it was in doing this that my interest in the aquatic environment really developed. I also took an ecotoxicology module which fascinated me. After completing my BSc I decided I wanted to focus on the aquatic environment, so I started an MSc in Biology of Water Resource Management at Napier University in Edinburgh. One of the modules included in the course was ecotoxicology, but in more detail than I had done previously, and it was more focused on aquatic organisms. I found the module completely absorbing and subsequently chose to focus my dissertation on ecotoxicology. As part of my dissertation I worked for 4 months at the Fisheries Research Service in Aberdeen looking at the effects of salmon pellets treated with sea lice medication on crabs, which inhabit the area under the salmon farm cages.
Following the completion of my MSc I got a job as a chemical hazard assessor for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas). This entailed assessing chemicals used in the offshore oil industry. This then led me on to my current role as an ecotoxicologist in the National Centre for Environmental Toxicology (NCET), a specialist team within WRc, which is an environmental consultancy.
Why did you want to study Toxicology?
Having always had a passion for the environment and conservation and after having my interest sparked in ecotoxicology during my BSc, being able to combine the two seemed ideal. The increasing human population and advances in technology has meant there are increased volumes of chemicals being released into the environment, as well as new substances (for example nanotechnology) being manufactured and released. Consequently, without investigation, the environment could be being exposed to chemicals and substances that it cannot cope with. Therefore, working in this area I feel I can do my bit to prevent harm being caused by calculating appropriate concentrations that can be released without causing detrimental effects.
What’s a typical day at work like?
I am a desk-based ecotoxicologist, so I do not carry out any laboratory work, but rely on data I can find from the literature. My role is quite varied; I investigate the hazard and risk to the environment (usually an aquatic system, for example a river receiving a discharge from an industrial process) from certain chemicals being released on purpose or from accidental spills. A lot of my time is spent searching for data; I use the internet, journals and books. I check the reliability of the data by ensuring sufficient information has been provided on the details of the study procedure and that these were carried out using recognised guidelines etc. Once I have gathered the relevant data, I can derive a concentration at which no adverse effects will be seen in the organisms living in the river, stream, estuary etc. This concentration can then be compared to the concentration that is predicted to be present in the water body. I also evaluate the fate and behaviour of the chemical in question, for example to determine if it quickly disappears or not.
What are the best things about being an ecotoxicologist?
The best thing about being an ecotoxicologist is that I am contributing to protect the environment. I help companies ensure that they are abiding with the relevant standards and guidelines, which have been derived to ensure no adverse effects occur, I help the regulators derive these standards and guidelines, and I help assess, when accidents such as chemical spills occur, the effects on the environment (the information I provide is used to assist with the clean up).