Plymouth is a unique place to study marine biology. Professor John Spicer outlines why.​

Why is Plymouth so important for marine biology?

Plymouth certainly has a long and distinguished history of marine research. The place and the people have attracted scientists from all over to work here. Over a century ago the Marine Biological Association decided to locate their laboratory here identifying Plymouth as the best site to study marine biology. And that has not changed. The Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science, Plymouth Marine Laboratory, the Diving Diseases Research Centre, and the National Marine Aquarium are all based here and have excellent links with Plymouth University. The surrounding area boasts incredible rocky and sandy shores, and probably the greatest concentration of different types of estuary in the UK. Plymouth really is a hub of activity for anyone interested in marine life.

Why Plymouth University for marine biology?

You might expect me to attempt to dazzle you with our amazing facilities and infrastructure. I could do that  £19 million for our new marine building and £4.65 million for our new Marine Station on the shores of Plymouth Sound, a 25-minute walk from campus, and located beside the National Marine Aquarium; all pretty impressive for starters. But that is not where I would begin. The aim of the marine biology degrees at Plymouth is simple. By the end of the degree programme each student will have had the opportunity to acquire the academic knowledge and practical skills to experience what it is like to be a practising marine biologist. Whether they decide to stay on for further study or research, as many do, or change direction and go into accountancy, business, television, banking or management, all our students will know what it is to be a marine biologist. Good infrastructure and equipment are vital to 21st Century science, but infrastructure does not do science – people do.

So, why should you study marine biology at Plymouth University?

I would say because you would be part of a group of highly motivated and well qualified students young, old, from the UK or overseas all passionate about their subject. Because the course has been carefully tailored to achieve our aim academic and practical work providing the ‘tools’ for the practising marine biologist. Because we have staff who are passionate about their subject, and about passing their knowledge and passion on. Educators yes, but also research active, able to bring you cutting edge science much of it from Plymouth. And last (but not least) the physical and intellectual environment, the most amazing marine habitats literally on our door step and what must be one of the greatest concentrations of marine scientists in Europe. Many of our students volunteer or carry out their Honours projects with these institutions.

What does marine biology at Plymouth ‘look like’?

There are three marine biology (BSc Hons) degrees. They cover the same content but each has its own flavour. Marine Biology focuses on the organisms of the sea starting with the individual we look up to their ecology and down to the molecular and cellular levels. Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology covers much of the same ground but takes a more cross-systems approach, in which ecosystems and interactions take centre stage. Finally, Marine Biology and Oceanography integrates biological knowledge with an understanding of ocean processes. During the first year, students get to grips with key biological, ecological and oceanographic themes, with topics ranging from biodiversity and ecosystems to evolution and even microbiology. The actual content varies between the different degrees. Through a mixture of lectures, small group tutorials, laboratory and fieldwork you will begin to acquire skills giving you a firm base for being a practising marine biologist they will also boost your employability and help your career development. The residential field course abroad puts you at the centre of the process of scientific investigation, data collection and analysis. You attempt a mini-project you identify an important question and chase that using an experiment you have designed a foretaste of your Honours year. In the second year, things step up a gear. The content increases and is specific to your degree but you sharpen your practical skills often in the setting of the South Devon coastline, just minutes away. There is a second overseas residential field course. There is more on methods for collecting, handling and analysing scientific data, building on what you mastered in the first year, particularly during the field course. Taking a ‘year out’ is possible, an opportunity for a 6–12 month work placement. Alternatively a work-based learning module can run alongside your studies. Both can significantly improve your skills set and employability. Your final year is the opportunity to focus on your chosen area of study. You conduct an extensive personal research project, applying the skills and methods you have learned in the previous two years currently 11% of these projects are published, in full or part, in international, peer-reviewed scientific journals. There is also a range of modules to choose from, each reflecting the research interests of staff, all beyond the text book and at the cutting edge of the subject.

 So that’s what I say. But what do the students say?

 “I actually came all the way from Germany … Plymouth Uni is a great place to study, I’m really happy I came here. It gives you the knowledge and the practical skills that you really need … and this feeling that you’re ready to go out there and be a marine biologist”. (Kathy, Final Year Student)

I picked Plymouth University because I knew it was the place for marine biology. There is so much going on here … to be involved in ongoing research is a fantastic experience. It’s a really vibrant community and gives you that buzz when you are surrounded by it and it really motivates you to get involved in your own scientific research. It’s a very hands-on course. Lecturers give you lots of experience in lab work and fieldwork … I’m interested in the fisheries aspect … I spent my summer diving, being out on trawlers and that is real practical experience that I can put on my CV … it stands you in great stead for your future career”. (Henry, Final Year Student)

From left to right: Marine Biodiversity – first year students examining a preserved cephalopod. Image: John Spicer. Final year student Darcy presents results from her Honours project at the Society of Experimental Biology, Prague. Image: John Spicer. The New Marine Station on Plymouth Sound. Image: Plymouth University.

The 2015 National Student Survey reported that 97 per cent of respondents found the course intellectually stimulating and 97 per cent were satisfied with the course overall. But the bottom line is, if you really want to know what it is like to study here, come and talk to our students. Visit us at one of our open days.

Professor John Spicer ( School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University


John Spicer