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  Career & Employment  
  July 18,  2005
Volume 83, Number 29
pp. 53-57

Chemists dive into job opportunities in the marine sciences


Fiji. The Arctic Ocean. Papua New Guinea. If only every chemistry lab could boast such striking locations. Chemists in the marine sciences, such as marine natural products research and chemical oceanography, may not spend every day calling the ocean their lab, but they're certainly not afraid to get their feet wet in what is still a relatively new and unexplored frontier. Though funding challenges limit opportunities, organic and analytical chemists can be well-positioned to take advantage of a seafaring adventure or two.

Both marine natural products research and chemical oceanography rely on a strong background in chemistry. They also draw upon other disciplines to answer very different questions. Marine natural products researchers focus on the chemistry of marine organisms such as sponges, algae, and coral, often to develop new pharmaceuticals. Chemical oceanographers study the chemistry of the ocean itself--including the effects of pollutants--in relation to physics, biology, and geology.

OFFICE SPACE The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy served as home and lab for oceanographers during an Arctic expedition last month.
Russell G. Kerr, biomedical sciences professor at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, swims in both academia and industry. He recently helped start the biotech company Tequesta Marine Biosciences, which focuses on the synthesis of marine-based molecules to treat inflammatory conditions. The company just received funding from a National Institutes of Health grant, which will enable Kerr to hire his first few employees. The new hires shouldn't expect to get rich, however. "At a small start-up, I can tell you the salaries are going to be quite modest," Kerr says.

Kerr, who has a Ph.D. in synthetic chemistry, became a marine natural products chemist "almost by accident" when he became "absolutely hooked on marine chemistry and marine biotechnology" while working on marine biosynthesis as a postdoc in Carl Djerassi's lab at Stanford University.

The transition to marine natural products was fairly easy for Kerr. "The community is a very supportive one," he says. "The senior people in the field were a great help to me early in my career. They were actually quite critical in helping me get started."

There isn't much difference in skill sets between terrestrial and marine natural products, Kerr notes. "It really doesn't make a whole lot of difference if one is dealing with a piece of coral or a piece of plant," he says. One skill unique to marine natural products, however, is scuba diving. Scientists participating in a university research dive must be certified by the American Academy of Underwater Sciences.?

Kerr finds marine natural products research attractive because of the "newness and the ability to ask lots of questions that really haven't been rigorously addressed by the scientific community." Such questions aren't limited to isolation and elucidation of compounds; they "bridge chemistry and biology." Because of the interdisciplinary nature of the field, Kerr advises students to have training in biology--particularly microbiology, molecular biology, and cell biology--in addition to chemistry.

Working in such a new field can be difficult. Kerr finds that progress is often slower than working in an established field, especially when there are few standardized protocols to work from. However, the fun of working in a marine environment outweighs any drawbacks for Kerr. "That's a fringe benefit that all of us enjoy, I think."

Such fringe benefits inevitably lead to a highly competitive job market.

Guy Carter, assistant vice president for chemical sciences and screening at Philadelphia-based Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, directs the company's natural products discovery group. He says positions are difficult to come by. There are only 25 people in Wyeth's entire department. "These jobs are greatly desired and sought after," Carter says. "We have a large pool to choose from, since there's not a lot of industry currently following this route."

Carter says hiring for the group is a unique experience in that "you hire someone from a university position, and you ask them to come and work in industry and do almost exactly the same thing that they had been doing as a student or postdoctoral researcher in academia."

MOST POSITIONS at Wyeth are available at the Ph.D. level, and Wyeth prefers a background in organic chemistry or biochemistry. Wyeth also looks for experience with bioassay-guided fractionation, isolation, and structure identification of natural products. Salaries for starting Ph.D.s are at the same level as starting Ph.D.s in the other chemical sciences.

SUNKEN TREASURE Harbor Branch's Wright (photo at top) looks over samples that will be processed and evaluated for possible pharmaceutical compounds; Mako Masuno, a fifth-year grad student in the lab of UC Davis' Molinski, collects samples in the Bahamas.
Wyeth's research focuses primarily on microbial marine sources. Most of the research is done in-house, but Wyeth also collaborates with academic groups that have expertise in other fields. For instance, Wyeth currently works with Chris M. Ireland's group at the University of Utah and Raymond J. Andersen's group at the University of British Columbia. Both groups have expertise with and access to a wide variety of organisms, such as tunicates and sponges. Another advantage of the collaborations is that the academic groups often have already worked out agreements with host countries allowing collection of samples. Through the partnerships, Wyeth has access to the samples without having to struggle through the difficulties of negotiating such agreements.

One way to gain an edge in the job market is to take a cue from the collaborations by offering a unique skill. An area Carter would like to see filled is microbiology. "We want to be able to make practical use of these wonderful organisms that we come across in our studies of the ocean," he says. But few people "can come in and have some facility to work with and understand these microbes." Carter also values people with expertise in separation sciences, such as chromatography. "Everybody does some of it," he says, but "it's very difficult to find people who are really trained in it."

There's room in this field for biologists as well. Mary Kay Harper, a member of the instructional research staff at the University of Utah, runs the biology side of Ireland's research group. She coordinates field trips, such as the one the group is currently on in Papua New Guinea. Once the group returns, she handles the initial processing of samples collected for biological and chemical screening. Such jobs are "really few and far between," says Harper, who received her B.S. in marine science biology from Long Island University's Southampton College, in New York, in 1982.

Harper knew for a long time that she would end up in the ocean. "It just seemed natural," she says. After obtaining her bachelor's degree, she wasn't sure what she wanted to do other than see the Pacific Ocean. So she took an internship at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. She never left the West. At Scripps, she met the late natural products chemist D. John Faulkner and took a "low-end tech job" in his lab. In 1999, she moved over to Ireland's lab.

Harper recommends lots of hands-on experience when looking for a marine natural products job. Unlike those doing the hiring at Wyeth, Harper thinks the master's level is the most employable, based on her experiences with students in the Ireland group.

But Tadeusz F. Molinski, chemistry professor at the University of California, Davis, believes that a Ph.D. opens more doors, especially in management or directing research, and that a terminal degree is essential for academia. Molinski thinks the marine sciences are currently a "niche market" and says, "You have to hunt for the right locations and bring together the right combination of skills in organic chemistry and biological sciences." Some of those skills include chemical genomics, molecular biology, and pharmacology.

But even just the background of organic chemistry can be useful. "Synthetic chemists can bring a lot of valuable experience to the field of marine natural products because they understand how molecules are built and have a natural affinity for the spectroscopic methods used to discover new molecular structures," he says.

Molinski spends most of his time in the lab or writing grant proposals. His group is divided into three areas: isolation and discovery, synthesis, and biological chemistry. "But every year or so, we conduct an expedition to collect organisms, bacteria, and seawater samples from some of the most beautiful sites in the Pacific and Bahamas." These "exciting and fun" excursions also serve as "an important training experience for my graduate students," Molinski says, "who may not have learned that much about marine science until this point." The Pacific Ocean, he says, is his group's "other lab."

Unlike some of his counterparts, Molinski never formally studied biology. But just as Harper picked up chemistry along the way, Molinski learned biology through making field observations, reading journals in other fields, and interacting with marine invertebrate zoologists.

ONE PLACE that scientists with expertise should consider is Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution in Fort Pierce, Fla. Amy E. Wright, director of the Division of Biomedical Marine Research, says, "We need more." When her division--which focuses on the discovery of new medicines from marine invertebrates, algae, and microorganisms--is looking for postdocs, they have a hard time finding anybody with a marine natural products chemistry background.

Wright received her Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of California, Riverside, in 1984. Her career with Harbor Branch began with the C&EN Classifieds. Searching for postdoctoral positions, she came across an ad for a director of the natural products drug discovery group at SeaPharm, a start-up biotech company based at Harbor Branch. She thought she didn't qualify, but she sent an inquiry letter anyway. Shortly after interviewing with SeaPharm at an American Chemical Society meeting, she started with the company as a postdoc. Wright stayed on as a staff scientist, When the stock market crashed in 1988, SeaPharm folded, but both Wright and the drug discovery research continued on at Harbor Branch.

One aspect of the field that Wright enjoys is determining the structures of unusual compounds. Even though Wright's background is organic chemistry, her group does a lot of analytical chemistry. "Finding new medicines, of course, is an interesting field," she says. But combining drug discovery with marine sciences "gives an interesting twist to chemistry."

Wright used to dive in Harbor Branch's submersibles regularly but now finds herself in her office writing grants and working on patents. When she "gets lucky," she'll go to the lab and work on structures.

She and her group members are changing direction and now doing a lot of work with affinity chromatography. Their goal is "not just to find the compound that kills cancer cells, but to understand how it's doing it."

Wright recommends that aspiring researchers gain experience with chromatography and spectroscopic methods, especially nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometry. "A little bit of modeling doesn't hurt" either, she says. But a strong understanding of basic chemistry (bonding theory, reactivities, structure types, and so on) is key. Biology can be added later. "We spend a lot of time in our postdoc program exposing people to more biochemistry and cell biology," Wright says.

"You have to hunt for the right locations and bring together the right combination of skills in organic chemistry and biological sciences."

Clearly, a life in the marine sciences does not mean endless days at sea doing nothing but diving among pristine reefs and enjoying beautiful sunsets. Most researchers spend at most a total of one month a year on the water. The more field-oriented ones spend two to three months at sea per year.

Gregory A. Cutter, a professor in the ocean, earth, and atmospheric sciences department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va., is one of those more field-focused researchers. He recently returned from a 14-day excursion in the Arctic Ocean aboard a Coast Guard icebreaker. Cutter hopes to learn about historical biogeochemical conditions in the western Arctic Ocean over the past 30,000 years by studying sediment core samples.

Cutter tends to spend about two months per year on fieldwork, often analyzing collections in cramped labs right on the ship. Worldwide travel is one of the main appeals for him, as is "the casual dress code." Fieldwork, however, also means "being away from home and family" and, of course, the potential for seasickness.

Inspired by Jacques Cousteau, Cutter originally thought he wanted to be a marine biologist. Then, as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, he discovered chemistry. Cutter was able to work in Edward Goldberg's lab at Scripps as an undergrad and was thrilled to learn he could combine his passion for chemistry and the ocean. Cutter says, "Passion is vital, because we do this for fun, intellectual stimulation, and working with colleagues, but not for profit."

Cutter also thinks that "a talent for analytical chemistry is ideal, because many of the research questions in chemical oceanography require methods development and implementation." Chemists are often required to study trace elements in seawater at nano- and femtomolar concentrations.

Cutter thinks government labs and agencies probably provide the best employment opportunities, because they seem to hire the most chemical oceanographers at all levels and at higher salaries than those of academia. Overall, he believes that the job market is "quite good" for chemical oceanographers. "But I credit this to the fact that they are good analytical chemists and can apply the skills they've learned with the ocean to other environments such as lakes and even the atmosphere."

AN EXAMPLE of an oceanographer who doesn't work in the open ocean is Jill M. Brandenberger, senior research scientist at Battelle Marine Sciences Laboratory in Sequim, Wash. Because she works primarily in coastal zones and estuaries as opposed to the open ocean, Brandenberger identifies herself as more of a marine chemist than a chemical oceanographer. She earned a master's degree in environmental chemistry from Texas A&M and works mainly on inorganic chemistry, specifically with methylmercury and copper.

SEA FANS One perk that marine researchers enjoy is being able to dive among pristine reefs.
Open-ocean work is a lot more challenging than estuary work, she says. Boat time is very expensive--for example, a large research vessel costs an average of $10,000 per day--and funds are tight. Such programs are often directed by academic institutions. Brandenberger has focused her efforts on the coastal zone, which she believes has the highest impact on humans and on spawning areas for fisheries.

She spends most of her time in her office reviewing data from analysts, who evaluate water, sediment, and tissue samples for levels of elements such as copper, lead, and mercury, which can pose health and ecological risks.

Attention to detail is important when working in this field, Brandenberger says. Internships in a lab are also helpful for gaining experience. As for schooling, "for what I'm working on in the coastal zone," she says, "definitely, a master's is extremely important, just so you understand and have the ability to design a research program, execute it, and write it up." If the open ocean is your calling, however, she strongly recommends getting a Ph.D.

Brandenberger believes the job market is currently "a little difficult" because of a downturn in funding. "I think the government has focused most environmental budgets elsewhere."

Mark Currin, product line manager at the Battelle Ocean Sciences Laboratory in Duxbury, Mass., agrees. The current government focus on the war in Iraq has led to "a bit of a flat market" in environmental job opportunities. Currin manages the technical resources for the Applied Coastal & Environmental Sciences (ACES) group.

ACES works with government groups, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Navy. It also works with the oil and gas industry, providing environmental research for offshore explorations.

Currin has about 100 people working for him, including 25 chemists. "We put chemists on boats to go out and collect samples and design field programs," he says. Positions range from entry-level laboratory technicians to senior research scientists, and salaries tend to follow industry trends so that ACES can stay in a competitive market for talent.

Most positions focus on organic chemistry and require familiarity with specific instrumentation used in Battelle's laboratory, particularly gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry.

The market may be flat right now, but Currin believes the Bush Administration's recently announced open-ocean plan will eventually result in more funding and jobs for related environmental work. Battelle is also expanding into international offshore oil and gas exploration work, "which is beginning to open up new markets for us," Currin says.

Domestically, Currin thinks the "next wave" of employment opportunities for oceanographers will be in the area of emerging contaminants, such as endocrine disruptors. Chemists who "have the skills relative to those particular contaminants, who can help us develop new methods for analyzing them," he explains, "are probably going to be in the best positions in terms of job opportunities."

ANOTHER ASPECT to consider--a bit more land-based--is education. Jonathan H. Sharp, oceanography professor at the University of Delaware, Lewes, thinks a master's or Ph.D. in oceanography is "wonderful background for teaching at the K-12 level" thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

He also sees room for improvement in the job market in the near future. Many researchers started around the same time and are nearing retirement age. "There's going to be a fairly large crunch with a whole lot of people retiring and jobs opening," Sharp says.

Sharp has also noticed that state agencies are recruiting Ph.D. scientists for their modeling and data-monitoring skills to help make decisions on resource management. For detail-oriented chemists interested in exploring new realms or solving the mysteries of trace elements, a career in the marine sciences is an obvious pool to dive into, even though the water's currently only lukewarm.

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2005

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