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Interested in working outdoors, crossing disciplinary boundaries, and have keen analytical skills? You’ll enjoy a career in environmental chemistry, writes Helen Carmichael



Imad Ahmed with colleague Debbie Hurst sampling water in the Lake District, UK

Environmental chemists work in a variety of fields where the land, air and waterways are up for grabs. Those who are equally at home interfacing with stakeholders and regulators or getting stuck into complex environmental modelling and analysis in the lab will thrive, although it is a competitive market.

Careers generally require an undergraduate degree in chemistry, biochemistry, or a related discipline. ’A job in environmental chemistry always demands various skills in analytical chemistry,’ says Imad Ahmed, a senior research associate in environmental geochemistry at Lancaster University, UK, which has RSC-recognised environmental chemistry BSc and MChem courses. Many UK universities offer environmental chemistry degrees - either as a single discipline or as part of an environmental sciences degree programme. These include Plymouth University, with courses specialising in marine chemistry, and the University of East Anglia, with the UK’s largest interdisciplinary environmental science department.

A good undergraduate environmental science degree is a useful starting point. But Jo Barnes, research associate at the University of the West of England (UWE) Air Quality Management Resource Centre (AQMRC) in Bristol, UK, says that workplace experience and professional training courses are invaluable. ’Air quality is a broad and varied discipline, encompassing professions in atmospheric chemistry, policy development and local air quality management,’ says Barnes. ’These demand a diverse range of skill sets including modelling, monitoring, chemical analysis, report writing and stakeholder engagement.’ AQMRC offers one-day continuing professional development courses for those already working in the field. In September 2011, UWE aims to launch an MSc in air and carbon management, an area where there have been very few courses available.


Prior to summer 2008, regulators, environmental consultancies and environmental laboratories were all hiring. The recession has led to a sharp drop in opportunities for environmental chemists, initially in consultancy and, more recently, in the public sector, says James Lymer, an environmental chemist at Wardell Armstrong, a UK environmental consultancy in Sheffield. A number of factors are behind the downturn - Lymer’s work focuses on contaminated land risk assessment, so it is sensitive to changes in the property market and the construction sector. ’We work primarily for private sector clients who are often seeking planning permission to redevelop brownfield land,’ he explains. He advises on the transport and fate of contaminants in soil and groundwater, assessing risks to human health, and working with regulators on remedial strategies. 

’As with all areas, particularly in the pubic sector, air quality, and environmental science generally, are set to feel the squeeze of austerity measures to reduce the [UK] national deficit,’ says the UWE’s Barnes. This is likely to be felt most keenly at a practitioner level where the resources to both diagnose and amend local air quality may well be cut.  

Scientific research, on the other hand, has been somewhat protected with a funding freeze announced in the comprehensive spending review, Barnes says. This will mean a loss in real terms, but could potentially encourage students to pursue an academic career or undertake postgraduate study.  

Back at Lancaster University, Ahmed says that research positions in environmental chemistry are out there, but it is a very competitive field. He suggests also considering options in industry and research institutes in analytical chemistry and environmental sciences; environmental mineralogy is one discipline that is currently expanding.  

Why environmental chemistry? 

Ahmed came from the Middle East, where he says serious environmental problems have always been neglected. Today, he applies novel approaches to research the dynamics of trace metals in aquatic systems. ’If you are interested in scientific problem solving and a transdisciplinary career that stimulates your creative thinking, then environmental chemistry has a lot to offer,’ he says. 

Lymer had intended to work in his favourite subject, synthetic organic chemistry. But after postgraduate research at the University of St Andrews, he realised a long-term, lab-based career was not for him. ’I took an opportunity to start my career in environmental consultancy where I quickly realised I could apply my chemistry and analytical skills to contaminated land risk assessment, which I have now been doing for over five years, he says. ’I enjoy it because it is both multidisciplinary, and I have the opportunity to work outdoors for part of my working life.’  

Helen Carmichael is a freelance science writer and editor based in Vancouver, Canada 

Further Reading

Institution of Environmental Sciences (IES)
Institute of Air Quality Management (IAQM)
Committee of Heads of Environmental Sciences (CHES)