Find Posts By Topic

Worker Wednesday – Marine Chemist Trailblazer Amy Liu

Liu standing with her father, Don Sly, at a job site.

In honor of Women’s History Month, the Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) is celebrating Amy Liu for this week’s Worker Wednesday feature! Liu is a marine chemist at Sound Testing, with 18 years of experience. Liu also serves on the Maritime Advisory Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (MACOSH) – a U.S. Department of Labor committee that advises the Secretary of Labor on matters relating to the safety and health of workers in the maritime industry.

For those wondering what a marine chemist is – a marine chemist is crucial to the safety of the maritime industry, as they conduct safety inspections on vessels before workers can begin repairs . As a marine chemist, Liu is responsible for conducting inspections that can require climbing through tight spaces to conduct atmospheric tests to see if a vessel has airborne toxic chemicals, or confirm if it’s safe to do welding in order to prevent a fire or explosion. Chemists assess all types of vessels, from tugboats and fishing vessels in the Fishermen’s Terminal to large industrial ships at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. After completing the inspection, the chemist creates a report to inform workers and the shipyard on the condition of the vessel to safely conduct repairs.

“At the end of the day, I feel that I help people make their job to run smoothly and more safely. I feel very privileged to be able to do this job, go out and meet people, and support them and the hard work that they’re doing.” said Liu. “It’s pretty amazing work that’s happening out there, and I’m just a small little minute piece of it. I get to share in the pride with everybody when vessels leave the shipyard and go sail.”

Liu with her father, Don Sly, at a job site.
Liu with her father, Don Sly, at a job site. Photo is pre-pandemic. Photo from the Marine Chemist Association.

Liu hails from West Seattle. Her father, Don Sly, was also a marine chemist. Although Liu didn’t plan on becoming a chemist, when she was finishing up college her father suggested she consider the career and invited her to shadow him.

“It was 180 degrees from what I thought of the science world, and the maritime industry really grew on me. I was very lucky that my dad introduced me to it, otherwise I would never had known about what a huge industry it is,” Liu reflects.

Liu studied chemistry at a community college and transferred to Seattle University, where she attained a Bachelor of Science. For graduate school, she attended the University of Washington (UW) and earned a Master of Science in Occupational Health and Industrial Hygiene. While at UW, Liu began training to become certified by the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA). In order to receive certification, all applicants must also pass the Marine Chemist Qualification Board and be re-certified every five years.

Liu is also the first woman marine chemist in the country to receive a NFPA certificate. Of the 100 certified Marine Chemists in the nation, she is the only woman chemist.

Liu adjusted her work with COVID-19 safety guidance by wearing a mask. Photo is taken from West Seattle, with the city skyline in the background.
During the pandemic, Liu has adjusted her work with COVID-19 safety guidance. Photo by Amy Liu.

“I am very lucky to be the first woman to do this… I was very surprised because people really welcomed me with open arms,” said Liu. “I didn’t know what the shipyards were going to be like when I first started working there, but there were so many people who took me under their wing and showed me something here and there; old tricks of the trade. It has been more welcoming than I imagined. I’ve had a really wonderful experience.”

In addition to her professional career as a marine chemist, Liu balances her work life with her home life as a wife and a mother to two small children.

“I believe the hardest thing is trying to give everything that I have in everything that I do. Balancing all of that – trying to be the best mom I can be, trying to be the best parent I can be, trying to be the best co-worker I can be – that is the biggest struggle for me. I constantly feel like I should be giving more to whatever is I should be doing.”

The maritime industry is not a typical 9-5 office job, instead it is a 24/7 demand. Some days Liu may work a full day shift, go home to spend some time with her family, then have a job at 9:30pm on a Friday night.

“It does take a village. I couldn’t do it without my husband, my parents who help out, and I had to hire a nanny during COVID because my child’s daycare shut down,” said Liu.

During the pandemic, women have been disproportionately impacted by the additional care work required – such as having children home full time, supporting virtual schooling, or taking care of love ones who become sick. Some women have had to decrease their work hours or leave the workforce entirely to accommodate these additional care responsibilities. According to National Women’s Law Center, the majority of pandemic-related job losses since February 2020 were jobs that women were over-represented in, such as leisure and hospitality, education, and retail. A year into the pandemic, women are still short 5.1 million jobs since this time last year.

“It would be wonderful if we had more infrastructure for childcare. It is very hard for women to be in the workforce and to give it all – to give the time that any job requires and to take care of family. Without the support of childcare, whether it’s daycare, nannies, things like that – there’s no way to be able to solve it without having that support system in place,” Liu commented.

Liu sticking her head out of a tank during a vessel inspection.
As a marine chemist, Liu is responsible for conducting testing in vessels, which may require climbing through tight spaces and being familiar with different types of ships. Photo prior to the pandemic. Photo by Amy Liu.

Maritime is an essential industry, and has been critical during the pandemic. In King County, the maritime industry employs over 16,000 individuals, with 30% of the workforce being women. At 65%, the majority of the maritime workforce identify as White. Asians represent 12% of the workforce, whereas Black and Latinos comprise of 7% and 10% of the workforce. 45% of the workforce is between the ages of 45-64 and will soon begin retiring. In recruiting for the next wave of maritime employees, the industry is looking to recruit younger employees who are more diverse in gender and ethnicity to hold these middle and high earning wage jobs. The maritime industry has diverse career opportunities, from captain of a vessel, naval architect, shipping broker, and more.

After nearly two decades in the industry, Liu has some advice for young women entering maritime.

“Be everything you can be. Ask the questions. Be noisy, don’t worry about asking the wrong question – because that’s how you learn things.”

The Seattle Office of Economic Development’s (OED) Key Industry and Workforce Development Team focuses on economic development and growth in key industry sectors including maritime, manufacturing, technology, clean technology, healthcare, creative sectors and clean technology.

If you are interested in a career in maritime or looking to grow your maritime business, contact OED’s Maritime and Manufacturing Advocate Sarah Scherer at or 206-256-6986.