Interview with Victoria Valdenegro

Victoria Valdenegro is a veterinarian from Chile, who completed her Master and PhD at the University of Tasmania, the latter focused on AGD and gill health. She held a postdoc in nutrition at DTU and is a Scientist in the Global Health group at BioMar. Her scientific expertise is within gill health and immunology.

Briefly describe your aquaculture career

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a Veterinarian working with small animals. So, I studied Veterinary Medicine at the University of Chile, in Santiago, but whilst going through the undergrad courses, I started gaining interest in aquaculture – which is a very big industry in Chile - and ended up conducting my last research-year of the degree in a project involving P. salmonis infection in Coho salmon. My research supervisor, Dr Pedro Smith, guided me to find a suitable place to continue my studies, and that is how I chose the University of Tasmania in Australia, and Dr Barbara Nowak as my supervisor. Firstly, I completed a Master’s degree in diseases of bluefin tuna, which involved working really closely with the industry in South Australia.  In the following years, I got offered a very interesting PhD project in Atlantic salmon, working in immunology and development of a vaccine against N. perurans, the causative agent of AGD. After finishing, the opportunity arose to work as a Post-Doctoral researcher at DTU Aqua in Hirsthals, Denmark, in a project utilising alternative protein sources for feeding rainbow trout. This project was in association with BioMar DK, and during that time the Scientist position which I hold now became available at BioMar, and I quickly grabbed the opportunity to join the RD Health team in Trondheim, Norway.

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

I found the changes that the industry as a whole is going through very stimulating. The quest for sustainability is one that is very close to me. Seeing how feed producers, fish farmers, and consumers are all pulling towards a more sustainable aquaculture is very inspirational. Aquaculture species are very efficient at transforming feed into edible products; hence we have an advantage over other production species.  But we have the opportunity as researchers and producers to improve this even more. Reducing the consumption of marine raw materials, the search for alternative protein sources, sourcing of these products from sustainable origins, decrease in the use of antibiotics, improvement of fish welfare in order to reduce mortalities and waste of resources are all steps towards improving our industry that are currently being used and are reducing the impact that we have on the planet.

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

I believe networking is absolutely essential in a researcher’s career. During my PhD, the University and in particular my supervisor, were not only really encouraging about building a network among our peers but also with many international researchers, during conferences, workshops, etc. That has stayed with me through the years. I think once you have met people and have built a relationship with them it is far easier to establish contact for whatever it is that you or they need: opportunities to start projects together, collaborations, help with some analyses. And it also helps you keep up to date with their research if you follow them closely on social media.

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?

In general, I have not felt discrimination on a day to day basis whilst being in academia or the private sector. But it is always an interesting feeling when you go to the field: visiting farms or experimental facilities to sample or present your work, especially where there are mainly male staff on site.   It is the perception of being seen as “a girl” who will not be able to get her hands dirty, handle the fish, will complain about the weather etc. I have always ended up having great experiences, but it is the first approach that is usually a bit challenging. I think the best way to deal with it is to be professional and demonstrate that you have the knowledge, experience and capabilities to carry out the tasks at hand.

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

Looking back there are quite a few moments during my career where I accomplished things that I thought I never could have done. Working in a private company now, and developing functional diets has meant that some of my proudest moments are when dietary concepts which I have helped develop have been put into test and worked both in trials and in the field with our customers. Seeing that these feeds help improve survival, robustness and general welfare of the fish makes me very proud. I think the best moments are when you receive direct feedback from a trial with a customer and they can see the difference that the product makes with their fish, and you know this is something that you designed; its great!

Where do you think the focus of the industry should be in the next decade?

As I mentioned earlier, moving towards a more sustainable industry should be a priority focus. This should involve stakeholders at all levels of the production chain. We need to improve our carbon footprint even more and try to reach a circular economy. As just a few examples, we need to try to reuse our waste products, use transport methods that use renewable energy like solar boats and use high quality by-products for fish feeds which come from human food industry. Aquaculture has the opportunity to be a strong industry to feed the future world in a very sustainable way. 

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