In 2021, the Marine Institute is profiling our people, sharing their study and career paths, the work they do at the Marine Institute and the important contribution their work delivers.
Team Leader, Shellfish Safety – Microbiology
What is your current role at the Marine Institute and what's involved in your daily work?
I lead the Shellfish Microbiology Team where our main purpose is monitoring bacteria and viruses in bivalve shellfish, especially mussels and oysters. Shellfish are filter feeders, accumulating their food but also microbiological pathogens that may be present in the surrounding waters. This is important for food safety. Our focus is the detection of human pathogens in shellfish that may cause illness when consumed. My role is busy but diverse, responding to the changing environment and the developments in the area - no two years in my job have ever been the same. My daily work involves interaction with the Shellfish Microbiology Team which consists of an excellent and dedicated group of people who are a pleasure to work with. We work together in managing our testing programme, troubleshooting technical challenges, maintaining our laboratory quality standards and developing our research priorities. I also manage the Irish National Reference Laboratory (NRL) responsibilities E. coli, indicator bacteria for faecal contamination, in shellfish and foodborne viruses in shellfish. This work involves frequent interaction with many different external agencies, including the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Bord Iascaigh Mhara and the Environmental Protection Authority providing scientific advice in the classification shellfish production areas, managing food safety risks and environmental contamination. Having the opportunity to work with all the different stakeholders including shellfish farmers is a highlight for me. This interaction keeps us grounded in the roots of why we do what we do.
What did you study and why?
My career started in what was known as the Galway Regional Technical College, better known today as Galway Mayo Institute of Technology and later completing an honours degree in Toxicology in Athlone Institute of Technology. Toxicology appealed to me because I have always been interested in relationship between human and environmental health challenges. The technical colleges gave me a great foundation in technical skills and applied biology which was a good starting point to my PhD in Biochemistry at NUI Galway. My PhD was based on developing alternative immunological based assays for marine biotoxins – essentially antigen tests but for chemical compounds rather than viruses. After my PhD I remained in NUI Galway where I advanced my skills in the area of molecular based diagnostics. Here I developed PCR based methods for harmful phytoplankton, which are another food safety issue from shellfish. From there I joined the Marine Institute in 2005 establishing PCR diagnostics for human pathogenic viruses in shellfish. The Shellfish Microbiology Team had just been established in the Institute the previous year and it proved to be a fantastic learning and development experience. I became Team Leader of our group in 2018.
What are you interests and passions?
I have always had a passion for creative arts – music, drama, art. I enjoyed a successful stint with the Marine Institute choir winning workplace choir of year in 2015 which was great craic. More recently I have been combining my love of nature with painting and somehow I keep being drawn to the sea as inspiration.
What is the best thing about working in the Marine Institute? What do you enjoy most about your job?
The applied nature of our work and knowing that what we do provides important information on the microbiological contamination of shellfish to many different stakeholders in the collective effort of ensuring safe food is placed on the market.
What is something you think everyone should know about the ocean?
We are all aware of how the ocean and humankind are inextricably interconnected but increasingly the health of the ocean is tied to human health concerns - a healthy ocean provides safe food.