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Nicola Simpson: following a passion for marine ecology

Nicola is Technical Director for the marine consenting environment team in RPS. She has worked for RPS for 17 years, first as a principal consultant and later becoming an Associate Director before taking on her current role. In this interview, written for International Women's Day 2022, she talks about her career, what inspires her, and her career advice.

08 March 2022 | 1 min read
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Q What was your career path?

I did a marine ecology degree at Plymouth University. I really went there because they had scuba diving on the course! I was into scuba diving and I was quite good at biology. That’s how I got into a marine ecology. After my degree, I did a Masters in taxonomy and biodiversity at Imperial College and the Natural History Museum. I then worked offshore, taking samples at aggregate sites. I did a lot more research and development projects at that point in my career. Then, after seven years, I came to RPS.

My Masters was very focussed on the impacts that we're having in terms of climate change. That was quite a foundation stone in my career. That was about 20 years ago, before most people were talking about that topic. I became interested in our impact on the environment, but also what I could do in my career to make a difference.

Q What are some of your career highlights or most exciting projects?

I would say coming back after having children is one of my career highlights – being able to work whilst having three children!

I’ve done lots of offshore wind farm projects. I’m based in Chepstow and I’ve also enjoyed working on projects that are locally based to me in Wales. One of the first was the MRESF project. This was mapping out what the future for Welsh waters would look like in terms of marine energy – looking at the constraints and planning where future marine renewables (wind, wave and tidal) could be located. I was the Project Manager and then Project Director. Recently, I was Project Director for the META project – assessing potential test sites for different components of wave, tidal and floating wind devices off Pembroke. Much of my work has been in the North Sea, but it’s really interesting to also do projects on the Welsh Coast. I'm now the Project Director for Morgan and Mona, two offshore wind farm projects for bp/EnBW, one in Wales, one in England.

Q You mentioned coming back into the workplace after having children. Is this industry a good environment for that?

I think so, yes. We have a lot of people in our team who work part-time, and returners who’ve come back into the industry after several years. Everyone has to make the right choice for them and we’re quite supportive of that. It’s more important for us to get the right people with the right skillsets and then accommodate their work life balance.

It does get more difficult at my level, but one of the attractive things about consultancy is that you're not going offshore, you're not away from your family. That's one of the career decisions I made when I was out at sea a lot. Being able to work from home or a local office makes a big difference, whereas in sectors such as engineering or IT, part-time roles often don’t often exist, and if you’re an engineer (e.g. civils), you often have to move with the job. That isn't a lifestyle that always suits women with children. And working and having children can be a difficult balance anyway!

We’re definitely looking to grow our team at the moment, as well as looking to support our brilliant graduates, at the first step of their career and right the way through. Part of that is making sure we're giving them the right career pathway and that they’ve got the right opportunities as well, as we have some really exciting projects to work on.

Offshore wind vessel Gwynty Mor at the windfarm Colwyn Bay UK

Q What career advice would you give your younger self?

When I was first looking at careers in marine ecology, it didn’t look like there were a huge number of opportunities. I thought I was going to be a scuba diving instructor, because I loved marine ecology and marine science. I would say, definitely follow what you feel passionate about and you'll end up in the right direction. I didn’t have a big career plan, but the things I actually liked doing have led me down the right path.

Q What was the most useful thing that you did to further your career?

Getting practical work experience. I actually get very seasick, so not great as a marine ecologist, but I did spend seven years on boats! Getting a feel for real-world, hands-on marine ecology has given me a really good set-up for my consultant role now.

Q The theme of International Women's Day 2022 is ‘Break the bias’. Is there more we could be doing?

When I did my degree, it was a very even split. I don’t know why there are more women in our part of the business at RPS – I’m not sure there are necessarily more women in the industry itself. However, I think what we are getting right are things like part-time hours and giving people choices, including those who chose to have a career break and supporting them as they return to their careers, and there have certainly been improvements with maternity/paternity leave over my career, although there is still work to be done.

Quick Q & A

What are you most proud of?
Owning my own house, looking out of the window at the countryside. I was destined to end up with a builder so we could have house projects together!

Of my siblings, I’m the most academic although I’m also dyslexic. You can thrive in consultancy, as we use a lot of the same technical language in what we deliver, so this has really helped, plus structuring reports using a computer. Being very organised also really helps.

Which woman or women inspire you?
My mum, who raised four children. She didn’t get the career that she wanted, as an art historian, as there were different opportunities for women then. She really encouraged us to get a good education, having left school at 15.

Which woman scientist or pioneer should people know more about?
Marie Curie. She’s one of the women scientists people actually know about. She had a huge work ethic.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
The reason I’m a marine biologist is that my sister won a holiday in Tesco's! We went around the world – scuba diving in Australia and swimming in the sea in Hawaii. That really inspired me.

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