Malcolm Woodward: Pushing the Boundaries of Measurements at Sea

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Malcolm Woodward (right) pictured with Rachel Mills (President of the Society) and new Council member Alessandro Tagliabue onboard the RRS James Cook.

I’m at sea on the RRS James Cook for Christmas, New Year and January with a great team of scientists from Liverpool, Southampton and all over the world. Malcolm Woodward is on board and this is a great opportunity to capture his career story while we spend 42 days at sea and to find out about his career that spans nearly 40 years.  The Challenger Society for Marine Science awarded Malcolm Honorary Lifetime Membership in 2016 at the biennial conference in Liverpool. This honour (Malcolm is the 5th living recipient) is in recognition of his huge contributions to the world-wide marine science community.  This blog is a preview of a full interview with Malcolm that will be published in Ocean Challenge later this year.

Malcolm grew up in Torquay; he has always lived by the sea. He graduated with a joint honours degree in Chemistry with Zoology from Bournemouth College of Science and Technology. Malcolm’s first experience of work at sea involved regular 3-4 day surveys of the Bristol Channel.

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‘Malcolm and Malcolm’ – The two Malcom’s swap uniforms for a day!

He built the first automated DOC analyser and measured the samples that were collected monthly by helicopter down the estuary by SW Water (yes a bucket from a helicopter!).

Peter Burkill joined Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) and Malcolm started work in Camarthen Bay. Rhodamine B release experiments in Carmarthen Bay with Nick Owens covered everyone in pink dye. Malcolm developed the ammonia colorimetric method for the estuary allowing measurement at the same sensitivity from fresh water to sea water right across the salinity gradient.  This same method is still the one of choice in the lab aboard the RRS James Cook today in 2018.

In all, Malcolm has completed 6 whole Atlantic Meridional Transect (AMT) legs and 5 partial transects.  Partial transects involved flying to the Falklands to set up the ship and train the scientists, leaving the ship at Montevideo and flying home.  Or he would go to Grimsby to set up, the ship would call into Portsmouth to pick up aviation fuel for British Antarctic Survey (BAS) aircraft and he would jump off and head home.

Malcolm assures me that he still is fiddling with his techniques and making them better. ‘You have to question what you do, examine your data with a critical eye and learn from the best’, he says.

Malcolm works with the global marine community and is recognised world-wide as one of the leaders in the field  – he has led the PML Nutrient Facility for over 22 years.

He is proud of everything he has built up but most of all he wants to get good numbers, good data and share this knowledge with scientists around the world.  His mantra is about attention to detail, ‘it is the many small changes and improvements you can make to cleanliness, handling, sampling, reagents, tubing etc’ he says.  ‘Lots of very small improvements add up to a large improvement in the overall quality of the analysis. There is rarely any one big thing, but everyone can make small cumulative changes’.

Reference materials are the key to good analyses but they are very expensive – Malcolm co-chairs a Scientific Committee on Ocean Research Working Group (147) that amongst its aims is to make low cost reference materials more widely available.  Malcolm oversaw the collection of nearly a tonne of seawater earlier this year in the Atlantic, he filtered, cooked, stored, autoclaved this water and sent it to Japan for processing.

Through his international working group, Malcolm has coordinated training workshops for young scientists from South Africa, India, China, Argentina and Mexico in the art of nutrient analyses.  This international effort to get the quality of analysis and data in all regions to the same level is absolutely essential to move international science forward. This attention to data quality becomes even more important as we try to measure changes in the deep and upper ocean nutrient inventory as we see the planet warming – ‘we can only do this effectively if our data are intercalibrated accurately’ he reminds us. He and his group are looking for ideas for funding to keep this international effort up.

Rachel Mills February 2018

President Challenger Society for Marine Sciences

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