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Charles West at a football stadium
Dr Charles West MRSC

Charles’s career took him from the football pitch to the oil fields of Saudi Arabia as a researcher.

Foray into football

For a footballer, torn ankle ligaments can spell disaster. But for teenage Charles West, whose childhood dream of being a professional football player was within his grasp, it sparked a radical career change from sport to chemistry. His injury cost him the interest of the larger football clubs, but Charles persevered and was offered a position with the smaller club Hereford United. But the frustration of having his career prospects forever limited by an injury gave him pause for thought:

“I thought, this isn’t a level that I’m happy with as a career. I looked around, and thought, my aims have changed. I want to achieve something in another discipline.

Following the advice of his parents, Charles had held out and completed his A-levels before throwing himself onto the football battlefield. So after a year of professional football, he decided to return to academia. Remembering his enjoyment of science at school, he picked chemistry for its wider subject range and the better employment opportunities it offered over biology, his second favourite.

“There was no eureka moment, I was quite pragmatic.”

Plymouth University became the institution of choice after a local side offered to pay him to play part-time, rounding off his educational experience with extra funding and a continued link to his first love.

The transition element

Moving from football to academic study was challenging, and one that Charles answered with his competitive streak. Concerned he would be behind his classmates, he buried himself in a textbook over the summer to bring himself up to date. 

To his surprise, chemistry and university had a lot in common with football, from meeting new people to taking different roles in group projects or team work in the laboratory. And if football had been his first infatuation, chemistry soon held an equally vaunted place in his heart, thanks to an undergraduate course focus on first-hand experience with state-of-the-art techniques, such as gas chromatography, mass spectrometry and NMR.

Forensics of crude oil

Charles West in the labThe lack of an upper ceiling on a degree encouraged Charles to pursue an academic career whole-heartedly.

His first postdoctorate position had almost immediate real-life relevance. At the time, Nigeria was having problems with tonnes of oil being stolen each year. The Nigerian authorities approached the UK for help through the connection with the Commonwealth, and were directed to the petroleum specialist lab where Charles worked.

By analysing the chemicals within different oils, Charles and others determined key ‘geo-chemical markers’ that allowed the identification of the oil’s origin. They then designed a simpler technique for field usage, and trained up Nigerian chemists. Charles’ second postdoctorate position delved deeper into oil analytics, studying the degradation of the waste products.

“Offshore oil platforms recycle the water used to extract the oil back into the sea, and any polar components dissolve into this water, which is of environmental concern. Inland, this water is stored in containment ponds, some holding up to a trillion litres, and can’t be released until it is safe.

By studying their degradation, the extent of this problem is better understood. Using gas chromatography and high-resolution mass spectrometry, they identified the polar chemicals in the water, and found that the simple, straight-chain hydrocarbons were degraded relatively quickly, with only some complex structures remaining.

Into industry and beyond

While presenting his results at a conference in Tenerife, Charles was approached by leading oil company Saudi Aramco, who asked him to join their research team. He agreed, and will bring his expertise in these new techniques with him to Saudi Arabia, where he will live.

“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse, being able to apply all of my academic experience in an industrial, practical setting. I felt like it had come full circle.”

Charles recalls collaborating with industrisl companies such as Shell in the past, and looks forward to collaborating with academia from another perspective – although he’ll always be an academic at heart.

Inspiring diversity

Charles found only enthusiasm and encouragement when he switched from football to chemistry, with the university welcoming a talented sportsman and neither staff or students treating him any differently for his unconventional start to the subject.

However, he thinks more could be done to promote chemistry as a viable career change, to make people aware chemistry can be approached from any walk of life, and to adapt its tough, exclusive image. Too often, it is seen as only reachable through school, where the support for doing so is securely in place.

“If you aren’t at school, who do you talk to, who do you get advice from? The information should be as accessible as possible to people interested, so it feels inclusive of them.

Words by Christine Parry
Images courtesy of Charles West
Published August 2014

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