Issue 3 – One hundred and thirty five years of marine biology at the University of Liverpool

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By Dr Bryony Caswell

The University of Liverpool was the first UK university to offer a degree in marine biology (in 1973), and its marine activities can be traced back to the appointment of William Herdman (later ‘Sir’) in 1881 as a Professor of Natural History. Herdman developed and drove forward a major programme of marine biology and fisheries research. In 1890 the university’s first marine education programme began with courses to instruct fishermen ‘on biological matters with bearing on the fishing industry’ which ran for 14 years. The university’s marine biology degree can claim many esteemed alumni including Professor Nicholas Owens (Director, Sir Alistair Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science and previously Director of the British Antarctic Survey), Professor Steven Hawkins (Dean, University of Southampton and previously Director of the MBA), Professor Martin Attrill (Director of the Marine Science Institute, University of Plymouth), Professor Michael Burrows (Scottish Association of Marine Science) and Professor John Orr (former head of marine monitoring at the Environment Agency).

From 1973 until 2006 the marine biology degree at Liverpool was delivered partially from the Port Erin Marine Laboratory on the Isle of Man giving the programme a unique immersive aspect. However, the changing nature of the science and student body led the university to review its marine biology provision. This resulted in the programme being relocated to the main campus with £6 million investment in marine biology staff and infrastructure. Christopher Frid was appointed Chair of Marine Biology and worked with the new team to redesign the degree to reflect the challenges to marine biologists in the 21st century. The university offers three or four year IMAREST accredited degree programmes in marine biology and marine biology with oceanography that are delivered by a dedicated teaching team with diverse research interests. We also offer a range of MSc and MRes courses.

As a research-led university Liverpool’s curriculum is continually evolving to improve the quality and reflect advances in the core science. Over the last three years we have been revising the programme so that it has now had a complete overhaul. The syllabus is fresh and innovative and tackles many contemporary themes. The teaching is strongly informed by our research that aims to improve our understanding of how ecosystems are structured, how they function and how we can best manage them in the face of today’s societal challenges.

The Liverpool degree places a strong emphasis on field and laboratory training and our students embark on a one week-long residential field trip in each year of study to various UK localities. The students also undertake an independent overseas trip at the end of year 2. With a subsidy from the university the students spread across the globe to research what is ‘hot’ in marine biology at research institutes, universities, aquaria, non-governmental organizations and eco-education providers. Our students have spread far and wide visiting every continent except Antarctica. For students interested in travel we also offer a semester abroad to various international destinations.

Liverpool’s world heritage site: the three graces, as viewed from on-board the Marisa.

Liverpool’s world heritage site: the three graces, as viewed from on-board the Marisa.

In addition to our longer residential field courses we also undertake local field excursions. These sites include seven marine Special Sites of Scientific Interest, two Special Areas of Conservation, three Ramsar sites (wetlands of international importance) and four Special Protection Areas for birds. Within reach are a diversity of different habitats including the Sefton sand dune ecosystem (a national nature reserve), extensive mud flats, sand flats, rocky shores, saltmarsh, saline lagoons, marshland, heathland and man-made habitats such as Antony Gormley’s seaside art installation on Crosby beach (read an article by a former student and staff on which organisms inhabit Gormley’s inner thigh). The Irish Sea remains a key area for research with excellent facilities for linking marine biology to oceanographic processes and the need for scientific evidence to support management of contemporary challenges such as fisheries overexploitation, offshore wind and tidal power schemes and the designation of marine conservation areas.

The Marisa moored in the Albert Dock outside of Tate Liverpool.

The Marisa moored in the Albert Dock outside of Tate Liverpool.

Having the oldest fully enclosed dock system in the world Liverpool’s historic industries centred on international trade and the marine sector, and the city played major roles in the slave trade and industrial revolution. At the start of the 19th century 40% of the world’s trade passed through Liverpool. Although port trade is now of lesser magnitude it remains the sixth largest UK port. The dock system is home to our research vessel the Marisa (Watch a video of our students on the University of Liverpool’s research vessel the Marisa). The Mersey’s long history of human use led to it being described, in 1980, as the most polluted river in Europe. Since then the estuary has undergone extensive regeneration and being located at the interface between industry and the sea, Liverpool presents exciting opportunities to explore the impacts that we humans have had, and continue to have, on marine ecosystems.

Liverpool University recognizes that 21st century marine biologists need to be proximal to and focus on contemporary challenges, and their solutions. Our graduates are trained to be independent marine scientists with up to date knowledge and the skills to tackle the challenges presented by the rapidly changing marine global agenda. Recent marine biology graduates are employed within private consultancies, government organizations, renewable energy companies, universities, the fishing and water treatment
industries, the banking, health and biomedical industries, research laboratories, schools, zoos, international education providers, charities and non-governmental conservation organizations; others go on to further study.
One thing Liverpool has in addition to a diversity of marine habitats is loads of character. The city is intriguing for its history, architecture and culture. Scores of musicians, artists, writers and thespians originated here and continue to do so. With more galleries and museums than any UK city, except London, Liverpool has a multitude of extra-curricular offerings.

A student’s perspective on marine biology at the University of Liverpool

By Paul Scott.
Unlike most students I started my degree at Liverpool at age 49 and last month I graduated with a first class MMarBiol degree. I am one of the first students to graduate with this new degree from Liverpool. My marine biology journey started aged 9 on a deserted rocky shore on the west coast of Ireland. My rock pool interests spread to fishing and one day I watched amazed as a basking shark passed within 50 yards of me. In the years that followed I retained an active interest in the UK coast, its marine life and conservation, chastising myself for never having studied it academically.

Searching for a silver lining from within the dark cloud that was 2007, I decided to follow my dream and study marine biology. So, 30 years after I had decided to study marine biology I finally got there. Oh, and if you are beyond the first spring of youth, don’t let that put you off, not only do the staff give you a warm welcome, so do the other students, age makes no difference (other than a reduced capacity for alcohol).
At Liverpool marine biologists are able to follow a range of options beyond the core modules. For example, if you are interested in organism physiology, that is catered for as is advanced maths and statistics, chemistry and ecology, and this for me was one of the highlights of the degree. No degree would be complete without the field trips that provided fun, and a great grounding in practical skills. Liverpool has its own research vessel which is used for teaching and provides an extra skill layer. Also, you can laugh as your friends throw up.

A major part of the third year is spent on the honours project. The really exciting word here is ‘your’. My project was my idea and my supervisor provided backup, encouragement and made sure that the necessary science was included. The guidance and support that I received resulted in my dissertation being of sufficient quality for publication. The end result really felt like I had added something to science. I have recently been filming for a programme with the BBC, based on my research project, to be released later this summer. Overall, I’m delighted I chose Liverpool and that I now have a highly respected degree in marine biology from a university that has been engaged in marine research since the 1880s. Liverpool. It’s never too late!

Dr Bryony Caswell (B.A.Caswell@liverpool.ac.uk)
Department of Earth, Ocean and Ecological Sciences at Liverpool University.
Paul Scott is a recent graduate of the new 4 year programme at Liverpool.

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