Interview with Professor Sandra Adams

Professor Sandra Adams has recently retired from the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling after leading the Immunology and Vaccinology Team and Fish Health Group for many years.

What inspired you to first become involved in aquaculture?

It was actually just by chance that I started to work in the field of aquaculture! I completed my BSc in Biochemistry at the University of Glasgow and my PhD on human cancer at University College London and then moved to North Wales for my first Post-Doctoral position. This was with a company developing antibody-based diagnostic tests for the food industry (not aquaculture). I really wanted to move back to live in Scotland and came across an advert for a biochemist to join a fish vaccine development team at Stirling. I had an array of techniques and skills that seemed appropriate and loved the Stirling location but at that time actually knew little about aquaculture. I thought this would be an exciting challenge.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

I have worked on the development of fish vaccines and rapid diagnostic tests since 1985, all but two of these years at the Institute of Aquaculture (IoA). Furunculosis was a major problem at that time and my first research project was funded by the Crown Estate Commission. The aquaculture industry in Scotland was just taking off and there were many opportunities for research funding in fish health control. In 1987, I moved to the Innovation Centre on campus to work as Research Manager for a couple of years with a new diagnostics company, Stirling Diagnostics Ltd, that developed kits to detect pathogens in fish and plants. I then returned to IoA and fish vaccine research, becoming a Lecturer in 1997 and obtaining a Personal Chair in 2003. I have worked on a variety of vaccine development programmes in close collaboration with industry over three decades for diseases in different fish species, including Atlantic salmon (Furunculosis, Vibriosis, Bacterial Kidney Disease, Piscirickettsiosis, Amoebic Gill Disease, Sea Lice), cleaner fish (atypical Aeromonas salmonicida), Rainbow trout (Proliferative Kidney Disease, Rainbow Trout Fry Syndrome, Red Mark Syndrome), seabass and seabream (Pasteurellosis) and tilapia (Aeromonas hydrophila and Francisellosis). I also secured funding to conduct research on other pathogens, with regards to immune response following infection and development of rapid diagnostic tests (Infectious Pancreatic Necrosis virus, Infectious Salmon Anaemia virus, Mycobacterium species). My interest in rapid diagnostics led to the founding of Aquatic Diagnostics Ltd with my colleague Dr Kim Thompson in 2001, a spin-out company from University of Stirling. ADL markets monoclonal antibodies to detect a variety of fish pathogens as well as antibodies to detect components of the fish immune response (e.g. IgM and IgT). I recently retired from University of Stirling (March 31st 2020) after leading the Immunology and Vaccinology Team and Fish Health Group for many years.

Are there any individuals or organisations in aquaculture who you’ve found particularly inspirational?

The late Dr Tony Ellis from the Marine Laboratory in Aberdeen was leading fish vaccine development research in the UK when I started at Stirling. Tony, Professor Chris Secombes (from Aberdeen University) and I were partners in numerous research projects over the years and I can definitely say that both these scientists were truly inspirational. Professor Patrick Smith, who founded the first fish vaccine company in the UK (Aquaculture Vaccines Ltd) had great vision and provided vaccine industry knowledge and backing, both through funding and support for new ideas, as well as always thinking ‘outside the box’. Patrick has also been an invaluable mentor throughout my career, as was Professor Randolph Richards from Stirling.

During your career you built up a large national and international network. How important has networking been to your career?

Networking is key. I was lucky to be able to attend and speak at a large number of international conferences and be invited to present keynote lectures, chair sessions, host and participate in workshops globally, and to be a partner in large European projects. This led to invitations to sit on steering groups and boards on various networks such as the Gill Health Initiative, Veterinary Vaccinology Network and the International Veterinary Vaccinology Network. Networking is crucial for finding the most appropriate partners and brainstorming ideas for research grant applications. Of course, many good friends are met along the way.

Many women trying to move up the career ladder can be met with inequality challenges. Can you give an example of a discriminatory situation and how you dealt with it, or how to avoid it?

I can’t recall any inequality challenges as such, although in the early days I was often the only female attending meetings. I was actually well respected and supported as I moved through my career.

You’ve had a long and extremely successful career with over 50 PhD students, hundreds of papers and numerous books published. What’s your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

I don’t have one single proudest achievement. I have always been attracted to applied research and therefore was very proud to see some of the vaccines and diagnostic reagents developed in my group commercialised and used in the aquaculture industry. Each one was very much a team effort and so I am extremely proud of all the staff and students involved, as well as grateful to the external scientists who were partners in these projects. Some vaccines are still in development, including performing field trials (e.g. RTFS), so I look forward to seeing these progress in the future too.

Where do you think the focus will be in aquaculture immunology/vaccinology research in the next decade?

Exciting opportunities exist for rapid development of fish vaccines in the future, with continued reduction in the cost of technologies, introduction of novel antigen expression and delivery systems, development of novel adjuvants, and advancements in the elucidation of basic mechanisms of mucosal immunity. Development of effective mucosal vaccines and optimisation of their delivery will facilitate novel vaccine development, and should enable the aquaculture industries in low- to middle-income countries to also use vaccination routinely in the future.

Read more about inspirational women in aquaculture