Interview with Janina Costa

After completing an MSc in Aquaculture at the University of Algarve, Janina joined the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling to do a PhD in fish virology and vaccine development, and as a post-doc participated in one of the first Scottish viral cardiomyopathy projects. After working for an environmental consultancy in Tenerife where she led the fish health section, Janina was involved in environmental impact studies as well as EU and Spanish Government research projects. Janina then returned to Scotland to join Moredun Research Institute’s aquaculture group as a researcher. At Moredun, she focused on fish vaccine development and immunology of salmon, tilapia and Mediterranean species, and the discovery of biomarkers for CMS, PD and HSMI. She is now an Aquaculture Innovation Officer with SAIC.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?
When I was a teenager, I had 2 interests - marine biology and animal health. As a Marine Biology undergraduate at the University of Algarve the only way to associate both was by choosing the aquaculture specialisation that my degree offered. After visiting what was, at the time, the biggest seabream and bass hatchery in Portugal, spending a few hours seeing what was involved in producing the eggs, fingerlings, the juveniles, the broodstock and the live feed production, and seeing their pre-ongrowing facilities, I decided that I could work in such environment. Also, I could see the benefit of studying something under the marine environment umbrella that was not just for the sake of being the next Jacques Cousteau and swimming with dolphins or studying sharks.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career
I was interested in fish diseases, so I pressed to do my undergraduate thesis in this area. Meantime, a partnership was established between the university and the Portuguese feed company Sorgal to open a fish pathology lab at the university, where they would perform bacteriology and parasitology analysis of the fish. I did that for 2 years under a young research grant provided by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, then I moved to perform the same role in a private company until I came to the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling to do my PhD in fish virology and immunology. I stayed in Stirling for another 2 years on a postdoctoral SARF project focussed on cardiomyopathy diseases in salmon.

I then moved to Tenerife to work in a marine environmental consultancy company under a KTP-like program where I set up and managed the fish health laboratory. We gave health support to all the fish farms on the island under a partnership between the company, Tenerife’s government and ACUIMAR, the farmers’ trade body. I also supervised the transfer of juveniles into cages and participated in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) of fish farms and other marine structures such as harbours. I was there for almost 7 years before I decided to come back to Scotland to join the aquaculture group that was being created at the Moredun Research Institute (MRI). For 9 years I worked on the development of vaccines for salmon, seabream and tilapia, and I worked on several SAIC-funded projects, such as sea lice recombinant vaccine and the development of biomarkers to CMS.

Finally, I joined SAIC as an Aquaculture Innovation Officer in 2022 where I help manage the projects that SAIC funds or supports, engage with companies and try to align the synergies between academics and companies to bring innovative research projects to Scotland and to Scottish aquaculture.

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?
Teresa Baptista, who at the time was the health manager at Timar (Portugal’s biggest hatchery and with on-growing facilities) introduced me to fish pathology, and always pushed me forward and believed in me. She is now a lecturer at the Institute Polytechnic of Leiria (Portugal) and we were still collaborating during my time at MRI. Later when I was a PhD student I met Kim Thompson who taught me and helped me with the foundation of my PhD – the monoclonal antibodies against Betanodavirus. I worked with Kim during my first postdoctoral position, and she was later my boss at MRI. Both are the most remarkable ladies. Apart from the knowledge that they share with such an open heart, they are an example of dedication, work ethics, friendship and are amazing human beings.

The Institute of Aquaculture in the 2000’s was thriving with students and wonderful professors, and had amazing collaboration projects between all the different departments. On my arrival I was mesmerised to walk down the corridors and on the doors were the names of so many authors of books that I had used during my aquaculture studies. But more importantly, they were proof that when people are focussed on a common aim – which was to develop aquaculture by doing amazing research – they can put their differences apart and work together to do unbelievable things.

How important has networking been to your career?
Until now and job wise it was important early in my career – it helped me get my first post-doctoral position as Prof Sandra Adams and Prof Hugh Ferguson already knew me; and when working in Tenerife it opened the door to applying for the grant that paid for the first two years of my salary. But all along networking has been fundamental for the simple things that make all the difference - “I need to know this – who can I ask” or “I need help with this – who is the right person to ask for help”. Apart from that it is amazing to speak with my network and know what interesting and diverse things they are doing.

During your career, have you noticed inequalities in the sector, be it in policies or culture? If yes, what actions do you think would best address those issues?
We can always see inequalities, but why are they there? Working in academia you would think “it is not there” but it is. Because of the simple fact that a woman took time off to have children they cannot produce the same number of scientific articles that male colleagues are producing, so promotion gets harder. I believe that the same happens in aquaculture – very few women can be a health manager for example, as this would mean spending a huge part of the week travelling to visit the farms when they have children at home that need to be picked up from nursery/school at a certain time. More and more men are, I wouldn’t say helping, I would say doing their jobs as fathers, so more women are managing to get there – to get a better job. I would like to see faster changes and I believe that policies are fundamental – now men have paternity leave, so they are using it, and mothers can return to work early. I believe that men taking their rightful position as fathers is the most crucial factor to reach equality. Women will not be seen as the “burden” because they are off on maternity leave or because their child is ill, or because they are the ones in your crew that have to finish on time.

Also, I’ve seen more than one brilliant young woman having to leave her research career because they cannot afford child day care. When I did my PhD I thought the UK was a great country as women can decide if they stay at home or go part-time after having a child. When I returned to Scotland with a 4-year-old child I was hit with the hard reality – it is not a woman’s choice, is what they are obliged to do to survive. At the time in Tenerife a private nursery I used cost the equivalent to 40% of the minimum wage, in Scotland it was the full minimum wage and sometimes more.  Government policies to create affordable day care, covering full working hours, are fundamental to fight against these inequalities. It shouldn’t be just the government leading the way, it should be one of the companies’ social responsibilities. In the 1970-1980’s, in Portugal, a vast number of factories had nurseries, but slowly and in the line with the mentality of profits before workers all were closed and workers forgot that it once was the norm in bigger companies.

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?
The implementation of the health monitoring program in all Tenerife fish farms. Seeing how little involved most of the farms and farms managers were when we started, to how involved they were after a few months, and some outbreaks that we minimised and the problems that we prevented – was simply amazing and very rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?
Be passionate about it. It doesn’t matter if you are in a farm, if you are part of the health team or working for a supply company– it will be demanding, tough, basically it will be hard. So, you need to be passionate about it. Be passionate, resilient and do your best. Nobody can ask more from you.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?
Health – with my background that was expected, no? But innovation in the health area is fundamental – better understanding of fish immune and physiological responses, since it is unbelievable how little is still known. The development of better solutions to mitigate health threatening events in the farms. The incorporation of new technologies for early detection of pathogens. Now most of the farms have all types of sensors and are collecting data daily or even in real-time – we need a better understanding of how the gigas and gigas of data that are being collected and analysed impact production and fish health. Not just immediately but also in the medium and long term.

If health is controlled all the other parts will fall into place – engineering, environmental impact, sustainability, being part of a circular economy; all will develop organically. However, without having health under control, the sector can have the latest technology, be immersed in green energy, sustainable feeds, etc. and still not thrive. 

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