YOUNG scientists need to communicate their research to a wider audience, a PhD conference in Stirling heard yesterday.
Students were given a platform to do just that at the Institute of Aquaculture (IoA), showcasing the results of several years’ study in front of their teachers, peers, and industry guests.
‘You should know how to say your PhD in one phrase in case you’re stuck in the lift with the head of the department,’ said the broadcaster Vivienne Parry, the host for the day. Then, hopefully, they will say, ‘that’s interesting, please tell me more’.
Some 37 students either gave talks or displayed posters at the event, on subjects ranging from hatchery practices in the Nigerian aquaculture industry and emerging bacterial disease in Nile tilapia, to the development of triploid Atlantic salmon and the effects of temperature and diets on rearing ballan wrasse.
Disease outbreaks in cleaner fish and autogenous vaccine development, the role of hyper-parasites in complex gill disease, and the dietary requirements of African catfish were just some of the other issues discussed by the students.
Professor Sandra Adams (pictured), one of three keynote speakers, emphasised to the postgraduate community the importance of being able to explain their work to people who were not specialists.
The IoA is proud of its large and international body of research students, currently numbered at 75, and says their ‘enthusiasm and energy are among the most stimulating aspects of academic life’.
These ‘researchers in training’ are provided with an excellent framework at the university to apply their science, with many funded, at least in part, by the industry, and yesterday they were offered advice on where their efforts could lead them.
Professor Adams, head of the Aquatic Vaccine Unit at the IoA, talked about the benefits of a career in academia, pointing out that it’s not all about working in a lab. One of the highlights of her job, she said, was travelling.
‘Take opportunities when they crop up….and network and be visible,’ she said.
She attributed her rise in academia to being in ‘the right place at the right time’, when salmon farming was just taking off in Scotland in the 1980s and there were bacterial disease problems.
‘There was an urgent need for fish vaccines to prevent disease and reduce the use of antibiotics.’
After studying biochemistry in Glasgow, completing her PhD in London (working on human cancer), and then developing antibodies at the North East Wales Institute in Clwyd, she arrived in Stirling.
She was attracted to aquaculture because she could apply her knowledge and help the industry, but could also do fundamental science too – and travel.
Her advice to students wishing to follow the academic path was to get experience in other areas because the jump from post-doctoral research to full-time lecturer was a big one, and researchers may have to work on three to four post-doc projects before promotion. Go out of the sector and come back in again, if necessary, she said.
‘Success doesn’t find you, you have to go out and get it.’
Living proof of this maxim was Dr Iain Berrill, technical manager of the SSPO (Scottish Salmon Producers Organisation), who said he did his MSc in Plymouth because he couldn’t get on to the very popular course in Stirling.
‘But Stirling came to its senses and I was able to come back and do my PhD here,’ he said, although things didn’t always go smoothly.
Part funded by Marine Harvest, he was looking into the precocious maturation of salmon parr, but in 50 per cent of his experiments the fish failed to mature and by the time he had finished his research, the industry had solved the problem itself.
Undertaking an industrial PhD taught him valuable lessons, though, he said. One was that the industry moves very quickly to solve its problems, and another is that your brilliant piece of work might not be very useful in the end.
The message to students was not to be constrained by the subject of their doctoral research – and that academic qualifications are only part of what is needed.
Berrill said he drifted into a post-doctoral career but wanted his work to have an impact in the fast paced aquaculture industry.
‘I didn’t know the sector as well as I thought I did,’ he said. ‘If I’d opened my eyes I could have got into it sooner.’
He stressed the importance of working up through the ranks, admitted he took a pay cut to go from academia to his first industry job, and said the industry really needs to get people from academic backgrounds on to farms to teach them about fish farming.
His contemporaries from Stirling have moved into a variety of exciting roles – from academia, to the head of a pharmaceutical company, the CEO of a Tasmanian salmon company, and the communications manager of Oxfam.
‘So be flexible, keep your mind open to opportunities and to your own skills…and never stop learning.’
Heather Jones, CEO of the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre, gave the PhD students further careers advice: ‘Don’t be afraid to use the connections you’ve made, ask for help (‘phone a friend’) – and make yourself useful by thinking about things from others’ point of view.’
Key questions recruiters might ask include: what’s your motivation, how reliable are you, can you work with others, how much do you understand what the job you are applying for requires, and can you see things from the employer’s point of view.