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Dr. Karen Purnell2018-06-23T20:37:24+00:00

Project Description

You might not know about ITOPF, but you have benefitted from their advice on many occasions. Set up by the international shipping industry in 1968 to assist the crude oil spill of one of the World’s first supertankers, their key purpose today is to advise and give technical support regarding accidental ship-source pollution.


Dr. Karen Purnell joined ITOPF as a Technical Adviser in 1994 and moved through the ranks, becoming Managing Director in 2009. Her experience in damage limitation and crisis management is second to none, but it is perhaps her bold choice to take a step back in order to move forward which makes this interview so inspiring. I take my hat off to her! Enjoy…

Let’s kick-off with the obvious question: how do your projects start? Is it as exciting as a phone call in the middle of the night telling you the taxi is on its way?

KAREN: “Yes it can be” is the answer to that question.

Two examples spring to mind. My very first call out was whilst I was at the IMO (International Maritime Organisation). They were holding a big meeting, similar to a UN meeting with delegates from the US, France and many other countries.

ITOPF has Observer status at the IMO and I was sat in the middle of a very long row of delegates attending the event. Somebody came to the end of our row and people began to pass a note down the line. I was getting ready to pass it on, but it had my name on it.

It simply said “We have an incident in Brazil and you need to go”. It turned out to be quite a remote incident and upon reflection it was, to this day, one of the most difficult spills I have ever had to attend.

The second story was an incident in Argentina. There was another event taking place when it happened and all the key players in the maritime industries were around one table, including some of my colleagues from ITOPF. Everyone’s telephones and pagers went off informing the attendees that a fully laden tanker had been “T-boned” (hit in the middle) by a container ship.

I was at home at the time and around 11pm, I got a call to go. The message was simple. An oil company chartered plane would be waiting to pick me up at a certain location at 3am that night.

The worrying aspect of that incident was that the ships were both still in contact. There was a very valid concern that pulling them apart could create sparks and a possible explosion, so a decision had been made to keep them together until an assessment could be made.

I can only begin to imagine how you felt when you travelled to your first major incident. Is this the kind of work you can train for?

KAREN: What we look for in our new employees is a certain mind-set and a level of competency, but after that it comes down to experience.

The nature of our work means we often need to work with people with little or no experience of dealing with oil spills. The 3Ps: the press, politicians and public can often be alarmed and emotional and our skill is to be accepted into the existing structure swiftly and so, be able to advise.

One of the other things you have to bring is diplomacy. We somehow have to see above the noise and remain calm. You try and visualise the situation you are facing, to take stock, to not allow yourself to be taken in by all the chaos going on around.

So how do you avoid new team members making mistakes?

KAREN: Well, we plan with a three to five year period before we expect someone to take the lead of one of our cases. Certainly for me, it was around that time, that I first felt really confident when flying to a new incident.

We don’t, however, believe you can eradicate mistakes, so we have a culture which does not scold mistakes. On the contrary, we actively share the mistakes we have made with new employees to encourage openness and to learn from them.

In my case, as a chemist for instance, I found a beautiful shell on a beach on one of my first incidents. It was covered in diamond shaped markings and I picked it up to show a biologist on our team. He froze told me to put it down very slowly. He then went on to explain it was a cone snail which shoots a poisonous dart and it could well have killed me.

I felt foolish at the time, but sharing these kinds of incidents helps us all to realise we are human and, more importantly, to stay aware.

You have made your way through the ranks and now head-up the ITOPF organisation. What have you learned along the way?

KAREN: Well I left school at 16 and took a job working in a lab. I did an ONC in Biology at night school, then changed jobs into a chemistry lab and started an HNC in chemistry.

I struggled and had to do a lot of extra courses, I was working full-time and there are only a certain number of hours in the day. I’m somebody who doesn’t like to fail, so getting low marks was distressing me.

So one coffee break before an important exam, I walked out of my HNC course and took a step back by starting an ONC in chemistry. I knew straight away I had made the right choice and two years later re-started my HNC, going on to win the student of the year award, partly in recognition of my courage to go back a step before going forward again..

I then did a Royal Society of Chemistry degree, again on a part-time course, and thereafter a PhD, which I also got an award for. So, 12 years of part-time study but also 12 years of work experience.

I could imagine that setting the right priorities plays a significant role in a crisis. Do you have tools you apply or is it all down to common sense and experience?

KAREN: Well it’s basically the same approach as the emergency services at a road accident: if you go into a crash situation, the ones making the most noise generally need you the least.

We try and go in and instil some level of calm. We deal with these cases about 25 times a years, but for a small port in some countries, it may be the first time they have seen an oil spill.

We take a ‚helicopter view‘ of the whole situation; by that I mean a high-level, strategic view. Keep calm, buy time to think for the first few moments and then act.

Working through a translator can be disconcerting as you may not know what is being said, but I now use it to my advantage: even if you don’t speak the language, you can tell if someone’s angry. This gives you time to think about your answer and how you are going to deal with the situation.

You seem to have a very diverse team. How do you go about recruiting people to work in those sorts of environments?

KAREN: We are a science-based organisation. What Science gives you is that questioning mind to analyse what you are facing. As mentioned earlier, diplomacy and staying calm are key characteristics. You’ve got to have stamina and certainly need to retain a sense of humour.

Our work is international, so we need a good balance of gender, language and technical abilities. I was the first woman to join the technical team and I’m happy to say we now naturally have a 50:50 split, but it’s not just about political correctness at ITOPF. We need that level of diversification to do our job.

We have invested in our people and we need to put mechanisms in place to keep them, for instance, by offering non-emergency support roles to our colleagues who return after having a baby.

We have a family friendly policy and our reward structure is geared towards longevity.

I was very impressed by ITOPF’s website. Like the Pocket Progress Coach, it is full of great advice and information. How does ITOPF benefit from this level of transparency?

KAREN: You’ll notice from our mission, that the aim of our organisation is to be a trusted source of technical advice. The only way to be trusted is to be completely honest, regardless who is asking and to ensure that science-based criteria underpins our advice.

A large part of our work is education. In addition to our 24/7 support, we give support to industry and government organisations to help them to prepare in case of an accident. If people understand that accidents could happen and realise the importance of preparing for them, then they will be more effective at protecting the environment.

The nature of your work means that each major incident brings its own challenge. Do you need to start from scratch every time, or do you meet the same international team of specialists and follow standard procedures?

KAREN: No two incidents are the same but there is a worldwide framework called the OPRC Convention set up between industry and government. It’s basically a framework of preparedness and 110 of the World’s countries have signed up to it.

Each country should have a contingency plan, but the level of preparedness in their plans differs drastically. Some countries are very well prepared and we are simply there to advise and support. Other countries’ plans will be much less thorough, so you often have no idea what you will face and our role is more pro-active in those cases.

Does that mean you have less chances of success in some countries?

KAREN: Not necessarily. Planning is key, but if you find yourself in that kind of situation, the right frame of mind and attitude are essential. However, it is better to be prepared.

Contingency plans set up before the incident happens and tested through realistic exercises and drills instil confidence which, in turn, instils calm. Even the most basic of equipment can be effective in willing hands; for example, a rope can act as a boom, bales of straw can stop tar balls entering a salt marsh etc.

Is there anyone in particular, who has inspired you throughout your career?

KAREN: I have reflected on that a lot recently. The one person I keep coming back to is Sir David Attenborough. He’s credible, not just as a great TV presenter, but also as a scientist. He has a wealth of knowledge and is not afraid to deliver hard-hitting messages when needed.

I have a great deal of respect for him because he is true to his core values and that is what ITOPF is about, being true to your values.

That’s what our team is to the people they meet at each incident: their advice relies on both their scientific knowledge and their experiences. That’s why they’re credible. They believe in what they do and scientific objectivity is at the core of everything we do.

Why is objectivity so important? Is it not just about resolving the issue as soon as possible?

KAREN: Because science always speaks the truth, even if that truth may be inconvenient for one party or the other in a certain circumstance.

It is not our place to help an insurer. Neither is it our place to think “poor fishermen, how can we get the best deal for them?”

We are a not-for-profit resource established on behalf of the entire shipping industry to provide objective technical advice for the benefit of all parties, whether government or industry, fisherman or insurer. Our advice is neutral and intended to minimize damage caused by an oil or chemical spill. Admittedly, trying to get that over in a foreign language can be a challenge.

If there has been damage and economic loss we will use science to analyse the situation. In one instance the insurer may pay less than they expected, in the other they may have to pay more, but for us it is not about saving money but ensuring that money is spent wisely and that damage is compensated fairly. Science is our bench-mark.

What golden advice would you give to a young scientist getting ready to start their own career?

KAREN: Follow your dreams and be true to yourself.
You might try to fit yourself in a mould, but if it’s the wrong one it will soon hurt.

Monty Don is a famous gardener. I read his autobiography in which he describes his jewellery business in London, which collapsed and his meeting with a Chinese fortune teller who told him that he needed to have his hands in contact with the soil. He followed his heart and now look at him.

I’ve been very lucky in my career as I always enjoyed science and always followed that path. My parents told me that, from an early age, I could be found with backside in the air studying rock pools on the beach. I now have a job where I marry science with a love for the sea and spend a lot of time looking in rock pools. If you can get a career that fulfils your dreams, then you will feel content.

I am lucky in that I can get up in the morning and enjoy my job.

Dr. Karen Purnell

“Be true to yourself and follow your dreams.”

Some words about Dr. Karen Purnell:

Dr. Karen Purnell is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry with a PhD in Chemical Physics from Bristol. She joined ITOPF as a Technical Adviser in 1994 and, having found the perfect environment in which to combine her strong principles of science-based decision making, objectivity and service to the maritime community, she moved through the ranks, becoming Managing Director in 2009.

During her career with ITOPF, Karen has attended several major oil spill incidents in many different countries including the SEA EMPRESS, in the UK in 1996, the PRESTIGE in Spain in 2002 and the TASMAN SPIRIT in Pakistan in 2003.

In her role as Managing Director her focus is to ensure that ITOPF is recognised as the leading provider of objective technical advice on accidental ship-source pollution. She is also Chairman of ITOPF’s Board of Pension Trustees.

Outside of ITOPF, Karen serves as a Non-Executive Director on the Board of Harwich Haven Authority, which is a trust port in the UK – thus continuing the maritime theme of her career.

Karen lives in Surrey where she is a keen gardener and strives to be self-sufficient with her homegrown crops and chickens.

Interview Date: 10 October 2016