What is an Environmental Chemist?
Environmental chemists try to understand how chemicals move through the environment and their effects on human health and the environment itself. This is done through field and laboratory work, including measurements, data interpretation and computer modelling.
What do you do in your job?
I work as part of the contaminated land team at Wardell Armstrong, an environmental consultancy. We mainly work for clients that want planning permission for the redevelopment of land.
My role involves giving advice on the movement and outcome of contaminants in soil and groundwater, assessing the risk to long term human health and agreeing corrective strategies with the Regulatory Authorities. My role also involves classifying soil as waste, in line with waste legislation, and being on site to supervise corrective works. For example, if the amount of chemical contaminants are high enough to be a significant risk to long-term human health, then the source of the chemical contaminant may have to be removed or treated to reduce the risk. I often have to travel to local and national contaminated land sites to do field work, as well as having meetings with clients and regulators at their offices.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy solving problems using techniques from different areas of science and working outdoors, even in all weathers. I also enjoy being part of the Royal Society of Chemistry Environmental Chemistry Group committee; previously as the Contaminated Land Representative and now as the Honorary Secretary, which has allowed me to meet environmental chemists working in other areas.
What attracted you to becoming an environmental chemist?
I found that organic chemistry research in a laboratory and working by myself wasn’t really me. So I was keen to find a science based job where I could apply my chemistry knowledge to lots of different problems. I also wanted to be outdoors and to work with clients, regulators and sub-contractors, working in a team more than I did in the lab.
How did you get in to your job?
During my A-levels, I did as much research as I could to try and find out what job I should do, including talking to my chemistry tutors at school. From this I decided to study a BSc (Hons) in Chemistry at the University of Bradford, with the idea of working in the chemical industry. There weren’t many local job opportunities where I was from and I thought a chemistry degree would give me more national employability. After graduating I wanted a career in synthetic organic chemistry, as that was my favourite degree subject, so I started postgraduate research at the University of St Andrews, working in the laboratory doing “hands on” chemistry. Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this as much as I originally expected, so I decided to finish the research and get into the work place. After a spell of voluntary work I was recruited by a small environmental consultancy, using my chemistry and analytical skills to help develop my knowledge of chemical risk assessment (particularly contaminated land). I then moved onto my current employer, Wardell Armstrong.
What are the opportunities for career progression?
The main employers in my area of work are the Regulatory Authorities, (e.g. Councils, Environment Agencies), environmental consultancies with some opportunities in remediation (clean-up of contamination), contractors and academic positions. The main opportunities are with the consultancies. A typical career path would be moving up to a management/business development position, or something specifically technical, which is more likely in a larger organisation. Alternatively some people move between all of the main employer types taking on a different role in the contaminated land sector.
What advice would you give for people wishing to enter your career area?
I would recommend working in contaminated land for a career. Although the financial benefits may not be as great as in other professions, it is multidisciplinary and there is variety in the job which I think is a big advantage. For example, you could be working on a site anywhere in the world and then you could move onto another site somewhere completely different, with a different contamination problem to assess and solve.