Interview with Jessica di Toro

Jessica Di Toro has a degree in Animal Welfare and an MSc in Animal Science in Italy. After extended fellowships in several countries such as China and Portugal, she began her career in the Scottish aquaculture sector as a laboratory technician at the Nutritional Analytical Service, University of Stirling. She is currently completing her PhD in lumpfish welfare and nutrition at the Institute of Aquaculture, Stirling, in collaboration with partners from the Faroe Islands.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture? 
During high school I had the chance to do a diving course and since then I have been very passionate about the sea, and everything related to it and its inhabitants.  

However, during both my Bachelor and Masters degrees, I decided to study animal welfare and animal science as I was concerned that my passion for fish was not strong enough to specialise just in aquaculture. My background allowed me to study lots of different aspects of animal farming and to work with several species, from cats and dogs, cows and sheep to sea turtles and dolphins. During these years, I realised that I was always more fascinated by fish farming than anything else. Finally, after spending 4 months in China doing my Masters project in salmon fillet quality, I decided that was time to fully commit to aquaculture. I decided to come to Scotland with the Erasmus+ programme to learn everything I could with the Nutrition group at the University of Stirling.  

Briefly describe your aquaculture career 
After completing my Masters degree, I kick-started my aquaculture career as an Erasmus student as part of the research team of Professor Brett Glencross, sampling on the West Coast of Scotland and analysing samples in the Nutrition laboratory at the University of Stirling. While in the laboratory, I was also working alongside the team at the Nutrition Analytical Service (NAS) within the same university, and I got offered a job as a laboratory technician after completing my Erasmus fellowship.  

I spent almost a year in NAS working mainly on lipid extraction and fatty acid, and learning all aspects related to nutritional analysis and laboratory procedures for both commercial and research projects. I was always very interested in the on-going research projects within the laboratory, and I kept an eye on aquaculture-related PhD opportunities. In 2019, I applied for a PhD project investigating welfare and nutritional requirements of lumpfish, a collaboration between the University of Stirling and Fiskaaling, a research institute based in the Faroe Islands. After 3 years, being based between Scotland and the Faroe Islands, working in both the field and laboratories, I am currently writing up my PhD thesis and I am looking forward to continuing my career in this fascinating sector. 

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational? 
During these past five years involved in aquaculture, I have met many people working in the aquaculture sector, both at conferences and in my daily work. Both the managers of NAS were very encouraging and supportive throughout my first steps in the laboratory and in my career. 

I am very lucky to have amazing supervisors in my PhD; Professor Sonia Rey Planellas and Dr Asa Johannesen whose knowledge in fish welfare is very valuable, and Professor Monica Betancor whose expertise and passion in fish nutrition is an inspirational guide in my journey. After working with him in the feed formulation for my trial in the Faroe Islands, I find Hans Jákup Jacobsen, manager at Havsbrun, particularly inspiring as he is always trying to put research into a practical industry perspective.  

How important has networking been to your career? 
Aquaculture is a small field, you realise that as soon as you are in it, and networking plays a major role. In particular, for my career, it has been very important. Whilst I was a laboratory technician at NAS in Stirling, I managed to get to know and network with the professors and lecturers at the Institute of Aquaculture and this allowed me to keep an eye on PhD and job opportunities available in the sector. Thanks to this, I applied for the PhD project which I am carrying out now.  

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? 
Unfortunately, yes, as in many other animal farming sectors. When you work in academia though, inequalities are milder than in the industry, but they are still there. Organisations like women in STEM, WiSA, and EDI in Aquaculture are doing a great job of overcoming inequalities and improving policies in the sector.  

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date? 
In 2022, I was very lucky to present my work at different aquaculture-related conferences such as the Sea Lice Conference (Faroe Islands, May 2022), the EAS Conference (Rimini, September 2022), the PhD conference (Stirling, October 2022) and the International Lumpfish Conference (Inverness, November 2022). Receiving positive feedback about my work from people that have been working in aquaculture for many years both in research and industry is my proudest achievement.  

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career? 
If you are passionate about this sector, do not be scared of getting started. Aquaculture is full of opportunities, challenges and new things to learn and constantly improve. Always keep an eye on openings and keep networking with the people that work in different aspects of the sector.  

Also, don’t be afraid of trying different things such as working in the field, in a laboratory, or in a farm so that you experience first-hand different aspects, and you will find your own passion and your own place in the sector. 

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade? 
The future aquaculture industry needs to focus on animal welfare and environmental impact. To achieve this, I expect the future of this industry to become more information-based. This means better and more continuous monitoring, using many different methods. Extensive monitoring with the use of AI will help to support the decision-making process and share knowledge between fish farming sites. In nutrition, there is constant research into new fish feed formulations, novel ingredients and alternative sources of protein and fat to make feeds more sustainable.