SAFETY4SEA: How did it come about that you joined shipping industry and your field of expertise specifically?
Karen Purnell: I am a doctor of Chemistry and I saw a really exciting job advertisement wanting a ‘Technical Adviser’ to join a small not-for-profit company in London. I joined ITOPF over 25 years ago and I am now its Managing Director. I have never doubted that I made the right decision as the shipping industry is one of the most interesting communities I have ever encountered.
S4S: What about your current job/ role most excites you and why?
K.P: I do some amazing work in some amazing places in the world and get to meet some amazing people. It is exciting to know that my scientific expertise is valued for such an important purpose as helping to protect the environment in cases of accidental pollution.
S4S: When you think of the word successful who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?
K.P: Probably Jeff Bezos (Amazon) because he demonstrates the importance of ‘adapt to survive’. This ethos underpins most successful companies, especially those in the shipping industry, and was first illustrated by Charles Darwin in ‘Origin of the Species’.
S4S: Who is/was the most influential person/mentor to you & why ?
K.P: David Attenborough – He is truly dedicated to the work he does and passionately shares his knowledge to educate people in all walks of life. He achieves the difficult balance between optimism about our world and caution against our destructive habits. He is probably the most influential scientist to have lived in our age.
S4S: What is the best and what was the worst piece of advice you’ve ever been given and why?
K.P: The best and worst advice I’ve been given was the same: namely, “ you’ll never do it!”. These words were spoken by my boss in a previous company when I was about to embark on doing a PhD. I resolved to prove him wrong and I did!
S4S: What is the most worthwhile career investment (in energy, time, money) you’ve ever made?
K.P: Giving up my permanent job to do a PhD!
S4S: If you could give a piece of advice to your 18-year-old-self one thing, what would it be and why? What piece of advice should you ignore?
K.P: “Believe in yourself and push your own boundaries” It is too easy to doubt your own abilities, whereas I’ve found that you typically rise to each and every new challenge and can surprise yourself. You should ignore anyone who says “ you’ll never do it!”.
S4S: In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your business life?
K.P: Recognising that the most important role of someone in a leadership position is to inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves and become the leaders of the future – pave the way for someone else to follow your lead and don’t ever underestimate the talent and energy of the young people you employ!
S4S: What would you like to change in the current maritime landscape and your area of expertise specifically and why?
K.P: I would like to see the maritime community better represented in the educational curriculum. So many young people are not aware of the fantastic careers that exist in the shipping community. The STEM initiative needs to be taken more seriously in many schools, and events to showcase these careers need to be more widespread.
S4S: What is your personal motto?
K.P: “Love the life you live and live the life you love!” (Bob Marley)
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.
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. She has contributed to several environmental damage assessment processes, including the COSCO BUSAN incident in the USA. Prominent amongst her achievements is the expansion of ITOPF’s capability to respond to spills of HNS (Hazardous & Noxious Substances). 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 through delivery of its five key services. She is also Chairman of ITOPF’s Board of Pension Trustees and is a non-executive director on the board of the Harwich Haven Authority.