Profiles: marine

Grounded in 150 years of marine and maritime heritage, and a cutting-edge Marine Building driving engagement with industry and higher education research and development, the University’s expertise covers marine biology, marine chemistry, navigation, oceanography, geoscience and environment, coastal processes, coastal shelf-seas engineering, marine technology and engineering, marine policy and development, shipping and logistics, leisure industries, science communication, and law.

Profile: Professor Deborah Greaves

I’ve always been fascinated by water, the sea, and waves. I grew up at Wembury Point, so joining Plymouth in 2008 was in many ways a return to the sea for me.

Renowned for her research in computational fluid dynamics - the modelling of fluids using algorithms and equations - it is in the very hands-on environment of the Marine Building that Deborah Greaves, Professor of Ocean Engineering, is spearheading the University’s work in marine renewable energy.

As Director of the COAST (Coastal, Ocean and Sediment Transport) Laboratory and the University’s academic lead in the realm of coastal and ocean engineering, Deborah not only played a founding role in laying down the specifications for the building’s cutting-edge wave tanks and flumes ahead of its 2012 opening, but has led and been actively involved with a number of major research projects and commercial tests that have quickly established the facility on the regional, national and international stage for marine energy R&D.

They’ve included the EPSRC-funded study to test new, flexible concepts in marine energy conversion and the pan-European €2 million SOWFIA, which examines how wave farms can operate within EU directives for environmental conservation.

It is profile-raising projects such as these that has led to Plymouth becoming a member of the SUPERGEN marine energy consortium, and hosting their first-ever annual assembly to take place outside of Scotland.

“Coastal engineering and marine renewable energy are trying to address some of our most pressing issues: climate change, rising sea levels, increasing storminess, and the security of our energy needs,” says Deborah. “So finding that balance between supporting the sector and protecting the environment is key.”

With Plymouth now awarded City Deal status by the government - effectively a mandate to forge ahead with marine renewables development and investment - Deborah is set to play a key role in that balancing act.

Profile: Professor John Spicer

Research and teaching are one and the same for me. The research-informed ethos of our degrees makes them some of the best in the world: we’re training the next generation of marine biologists.

“I want to know how animals work where they live, not just in the laboratory,” says John Spicer, Plymouth’s world-renowned Professor of Marine Zoology. “And when things change in the ocean, what effect does that have on its inhabitants?”

These are some of the questions that have fascinated John since the day his four-year-old self looked down into a rock pool on the Isle of Cumbria in the Firth of Clyde and wondered how shrimps were able to crawl out of the water, and why they would want to!

These questions John would answer in his PhD years later, and the first of many he has applied himself to through laboratory research, field experiments, and crucially, field observations.

It’s an approach to ecophysiology (the study of how animals work where they live) that he relishes, a ‘detective game’ that unfolds in the interaction between the three approaches.

Internationally recognised for his work on ocean acidification - in particular his involvement with the government-funded consortium investigating its impacts - it’s his research on the threat to marine biodiversity posed by rising temperatures and falling oxygen levels that he considers most urgent.

The author of over 150 scientific papers, not to mention the key text on biodiversity, found in every school in the United States, John recently completed a defining analysis for the Journal of Experimental Biology, an exercise in deconstruction which saw him ripping into some of his own past work and methodology as a way of reconstructing a more realistic ecophysiology.

“Science is not just knowledge, it doesn’t exist in a book,” John says. “It is caught and not taught. It relies upon human activity, building models of nature, testing and refining them.”

From low oxygen affecting krill placed in specially made cages lowered into Swedish fjords, to examining how crabs, shrimps and snails make survival ‘decisions’ in CO2-rich waters, John is still building models - and passing on his passion to his apprentices.

Profile: Professor Gerd Masselink

Coastlines are incredibly dynamic, I’m interested in how sediment moves along them - through waves, tides and currents - and how that changes the way the coast looks and functions.

It is at the dynamic meeting point of the oceans and the coast that you’ll find a Plymouth research partnership that is contributing world-leading insight into the forces shaping our marine boundaries.

Gerd Masselink, Professor of Coastal Geomorphology, and Paul Russell, Professor of Coastal Dynamics have brought together their complementary expertise and fused around them a team of scientists, technical staff and students whose coastal fieldwork is unparalleled in the UK.

From studying the behaviour - and predicting the danger - of rip currents in conjunction with the RNLI, to mobilising a ‘flying storm-watch’ unit that travels hundreds of miles at a few hours’ notice to beaches across England, Paul, Gerd and their team are at the very elemental end of the research business.

“One of the big questions in coastal science is ‘What are the likely effects of climate change on our coastlines’?” says Paul. “In particular, how will sea-level rise and any changes in winds, waves or storminess affect our coastlines? Which parts of the UK coast may become prone to flooding or erosion in the future?”

“Coastlines are incredibly dynamic,” adds Gerd. “I’m interested in how sediment moves along them - through waves, tides and currents - and how that changes the way the coast looks and functions. And our research considers those dynamics along different scales, from individual grains of sand to entire sea levels.”

A European Surf Champion turned physical oceanographer, Paul joined Plymouth in 1992, and was a founding member of the Coastal Processes Research Group. He now heads the University’s Centre for Research in Coastal and Ocean Science and Engineering.

Gerd joined the University in 2004, and is Associate Head of the School of Marine Science and Engineering. Together, they have authored more than 100 refereed journal papers, supervised 20 PhDs to completion and, since 2000, earned in excess of £4 million of RCUK grant income. And in 2013, they led the organising committee of the world’s largest coastal conference, the International Coastal Symposium, which was held at the University, with 500 delegates in attendance.

They have also helped to build both a substantial state-of-the-art equipment base for studying coastal waves, currents and morphology, and a sustainable knowledge base of experienced research staff and students who drive forward the ‘labour intensive’ research projects landed by the group.

Among them have been the Natural Environment Research Council-funded Dynamics of Rip Currents and Implications for Beach Safety project, in conjunction with the RNLI, and more recently the New Marine Understanding and Prediction of Storm Impacts on Gravel Beaches, funded by Professor Paul Russell the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and involving study across nine gravel beaches in England.

“There is a strong element of application in our work,” says Gerd. “Whether it is the development of predictive tools to help beach managers and lifeguards assess rip current risk, or liaison with policy makers, such as through the Marine Climate Change Impact Partnership Annual Report Card, it is important that we try to apply the science to the benefit of society.”
A strong personal connection with the sea runs deep for both academics. For Gerd, it’s rooted in his native Netherlands, a country whose precarious position below sea level has inspired a remarkable tradition of exporting knowledge, from the experts who drained the Fens in the 1600s to the engineers who helped build Dubai and shore up Vietnam. While for Paul it’s found in the dynamics of the water itself.

Profile: Professor Paul Russell

I still remember my first ride, standing on a surfboard and looking down at the water moving underneath. That water motion associated with breaking waves also shapes our coastlines and it is something I have spent the rest of my life studying.