Interview with Sreeja Preetham

Dr Sreeja Preetham is a research scientist working on the development of a nanoparticle Tilapia Lake Virus (TiLV) vaccine. She has a Masters in Biochemistry from University of Calicut, Kerala, India and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Biology from the University of Regensburg, Germany.

What inspired you to become involved in aquaculture?

My entry into the field of Aquaculture research was quite accidental; the vast and innovative research opportunities related to natural reservoirs of the marine environment attracted me to this field. My visit to University of Aberdeen, Scotland in 2019 after receiving a MASTS-PECRE grant, was the real turning point where I realised how fascinating the aquaculture industry is in terms of upskilling and assimilating new knowledge. As a result of this visit, I felt very enthusiastic about reseach relating to fish farming, fish diseases and health management. Also important is the societal commitment of this research area to deal with the day-to-day challenges faced by fish farmers, as the fisheries sector provides livelihood for many people in low and middle-income countries, like India where I live.

Briefly describe your entry to aquaculture

I have a Masters in Biochemistry and a PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Cell Biology from the University of Regensburg, Germany. After completing my PhD, I took a career break when I had my first child. During this time, I remained committed to my career as a scientist and managed to write and publish scientific articles in peer reviewed journals and book chapters in the field of natural bioactive compounds for use in therapeutic strategies to treat human health disorders. Later on, I was awarded with a “Back to Lab Women Scientist Postdoctoral Fellowship” from a national funding agency in India to work on the role of marine bioactive compounds in disease management, in particular neurodegeneration. During that period, I was also awarded a MASTS-PECRE (Postdoctoral and Early Career Research Exchanges) grant and was privileged to work with Prof. Chris Secombes at the International Centre for Aquaculture Research & Development, at the University of Aberdeen, UK. During my time in Aberdeen, I worked on gill health issues and was exposed to different aspects of Atlantic salmon gill pathology and the immune response of Atlantic salmon gills to different pathogens. I found the management of gill health diseases to be an important area of research for sustainable aquaculture in the UK. Meeting with Prof. Pieter van West from the Institute of Medical Sciences and Dr. Eann Munro at Marine Scotland Science, Aberdeen, introduced me to the current processes used for disease diagnostics by the aquaculture industry. Following my interactions with these leading scientists, I could understand the extended possibilities pertaining to the academic research and career opportunities in the aquaculture industry. I was recently awarded an International Veterinary Vaccinology Network (IVVN) Post-doctoral fellowship in collaboration with Drs Kim Thompson and David Smith at Moredun Research Institute (MRI), UK. I consider this to be a big step in my scientific career, to work on nanovaccines for tilapia health management, allowing me to gain knowledge and experience to establish a good scientific basis in the field of tilapia health management. Tilapia is one of the most important aquaculture species farmed globally, including in India. Indian aquaculture is facing significant disease threats that adversely affect the export / import sector, livelihood of many people who rely on the aquaculture industry and hence the economy of the country. Therefore, research that increases the sustainability of Indian aquaculture carries an important significance for tilapia farmers in India and this is something I am personally connected to and feel passionate about.

Which individuals or organisations in aquaculture have you found particularly inspirational?

Being an early career researcher, I have been inspired by many eminent scientists in this field, both in India and at an international level, from Dr. P. Vijayagopal (ICAR-CMFRI, Kochi, Kerala), the first dignitary in the fisheries sector whom I met, through Dr. K. Gopakumar (Former Deputy Director General (Fisheries, ICAR) to Prof. Sureshkumar S, Dr. M V Joseph, Dr. Ranjeet K (Kerala University of Fisheries and Ocean Studies (KUFOS), Kochi, Kerala, India). They all stimulated me to courageously start on this career path. Also Prof. Chris Secombes, Prof. Sam Martin and Prof. Sandra Adams from the UK are people whom I admire as pioneers in the field of fish health. I really admire and acknowledge Dr. Kim Thompson from MRI for being such an energy booster for a person like me who is new to this field. Her way of listening to a newcomer and making us move forward by tackling challenges with wide options is highly inspiring. But on a regular basis I would say my husband Dr. Preetham, is the real inspiration for me with his high passion for research and academics.

How important has networking been to your career?

I feel networking is a key factor in this field. Since it is a highly diversified field, associating with the right people or societies is very crucial to find the appropriate opportunities for advancing my career and supporting my research. Event meetings and conferences provide a friendly environment for meeting people, learning more about their background and for sharing experiences in the field of Aquaculture. I have recently developed a diverse network with researchers throughout the world, including Dr. Kim Thompson and Dr. David Smith (MRI, Scotland), Dr. Dong Ha (SSRU, Thailand), Sven M. Bergmann  (FLI, Germany) Win Surachetpong (Kasetsart University, Bangkok, Thailand), which will be integral to my voyage into the aquaculture sector.

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?

Even if inequalities have not affected me in person, luckily, I would say they exist in our society in India, but are much better when compared to a decade ago. Nowadays more women are heading on with enthusiasm and hold leadership positions in many different sectors. Funding bodies are now actively encouraging women into science by offering fellowship programmes, minor to major entrepreneurship and training programmes to provide continuing career development to women who may otherwise not have such opportunities. Relatively new to this field, I feel fortunate for the support and encouragement I have obtained throughout my career. I appreciate the valuable support I have received from IVVN, for their Post-doctoral Research fellowship with MRI in the UK and the India government agencies which have supported my training and career development.

What is your proudest aquaculture-related achievement to date?

The Women Scientist Fellowship from the Department of Health Research, India gave me a good second entry to my scientific career after having my family and introduced me to the world of the marine environment. The MASTS-PECRE Grant allowed me to strengthen my knowledge on fish health management to improve the sustainablity of the aquaculture industry. I consider the IVVN International Postdoctoral fellowship, as an honour and a real inspiration as it focuses on the empowerment of women in veterinary science. I felt honoured and humbled for the  appreciations I received when I received the IVVN Post doctoral Research fellowship, from the Office of the Prime Minister of India, the Vice-President of India, Mr. Pratap Chandra Sarangi (Miniter of Fisheries, Govt. of India) Mrs. J. Mercikkutty Amma and Mr. Saji Cherian (Former and Current Minister of Fisheries, Govt. of Kerala), Dr. J. Jena (Deputy Director General (Fisheries, ICAR)), and Dr. B. Madhusoodhana Kurup (Founding Vice Chancellor, KUFOS).

What advice would you give to someone (man or woman) looking to start a career in the aquaculture sector, or progress their existing career?

Go ahead with no fears and prejudices, but with a positive attitude! Communicate with people from farmers to leading scientists and entrepreneurs in the sector, listen to them, learn and enjoy what you do.

What do you think will be the key drivers/areas for innovation for Scottish aquaculture in the next decade?

Aquaculture is important and highly relevant as the major food producing industry worldwide. Improving fish health management with advanced diagnostic tools and introducing appropriate strategies for sustainable, long-term food production and economic growth is important for Atlantic salmon farming in Scotland, tilapia farming in India and the global aquaculture sector generally.

Find out more about Sreeja's project