Interview with Sheila Voas, Chief Veterinary Officer for Scotland

Sheila Voas was permanently appointed to the role of Scotland’s Chief Vet in 2012. She joined the Scottish Government in 2007 as a veterinary adviser, and then as deputy CVO, having previously worked for the State Veterinary Service as a field based veterinary officer. Prior to joining the government services, Sheila spent almost 20 years in private practice, in a variety of jobs in the Scottish Borders and the North of England. She qualified from the “Dick Vet” college at the university of Edinburgh in 1988, having never considered a career other than veterinary medicine.

Briefly describe your career

I qualified as a vet in 1988 and have worked in practice and government since then with a brief spell off when my children were young. I have always enjoyed variety in my working life and enjoy combining companion and production animal medicine; individual and population health; and of course animal welfare. My current role with Scottish Government covers all if these, and gives me an opportunity to get involved more widely than I would in general practice.

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

I’m relatively new to aquaculture having not played much of a role in the sector until I became a government vet, but the principles are the same as for other farmed species, and my role includes responsibility for the welfare of farmed fish and notifiable diseases. I have been helped by a huge number of people along the way, too many to mention them all individually, but special thanks to Anne Anderson (SSPO), Ronnie Soutar (FVS) and Heather Jones (SAIC), and to Ben (Hadfield, Mowi) and Jim (Gallagher, SSF) who have coped with my incessant questions – often including “but why…?”  

How important has networking been to your career?

Networking has been important and enjoyable but only one of a number of things that have helped me. Who you know is important, but WHAT you know even more so. Knowing who to ask questions of and who will give honest feedback is worth developing.

For many women trying to move up the career ladder they 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 usually meet any suggested discrimination head on, and this approach has served me well. As a young vet in practice I was sometimes told “I’d rather see the (middle-aged, male) boss” and was never quite sure if that was because of my inexperience, newness to the practice or because I was female. My usual response was “well I’m on call so if you want Keith you will need to wait until tomorrow morning / Monday” then go on to demonstrate I was capable at whatever the task was. A little humour never went amiss either. So, when asked how I was going to pull an enormous calf out of a cow when the farmer hadn’t managed, my usual reply was “I don’t plan to. I’m going to provide the brains and the skill. YOU can do the brainless skill-free pulling once I’ve done the hard bit!”

You are having a successful career; what’s your proudest achievement to date?

I was recently awarded a Fellowship of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, so am now FRCVS (fellow) rather than MRCVS (member). It’s always wonderful to be acknowledged; but never more so than by your peers.

How do you see the role in aquaculture in helping the world address the challenges of climate change?

Feeding the human population of the planet as it grows to, and probably beyond, 8 billion is a challenge we must all face up to. Climate change also requires us to think differently about the way we use our resources for maximum benefit while protecting our planet for future generations. Sustainable aquaculture has a role to play in ensuring a good supply of high-quality protein, using fewer precious resources than some other forms of food production.  Generally, I think that we in the developed world should be thinking “less but better” when consuming animal products. So, in general that means perhaps eating them less often but buying the highest quality, produced to the best standards, and preferably locally sourced. Aquaculture is a part of that solution.

What is the message you would send to the aquaculture industry?

You are doing a pretty good job but there is more to do. Aquaculture is a relatively young industry in comparison to other types of farming, which have been accepted for thousands of years, so there is an opportunity to use innovation and technology, including genetics, to make improvements both to fish health and welfare, and sustainability, by continuing to learn as it develops. 

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