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Dr Tim Bean on oyster health

Preventing disease in species that have been around since the time of dinosaurs, and why at Roslin the world is your oyster

Tim Bean by the shore in town

Dr Tim Bean is a Career Track Fellow at the Roslin Institute, where he researches how to optimise the health and output of oyster farms, focusing on how to prevent and reduce the impact of disease. In this interview he talks with MSc Science Communication student Katie Smith about his work and optimism for the aquaculture industry.

What was your first job?

During my undergraduate degree in biology in Nottingham, I did a summer internship between second and third year. I spent three months studying a disease in oil seed rape. During this process I discovered molecular biology and got really interested in it.

I moved straight from my undergraduate to a PhD in plant pathology at Rothamsted Research in south-east England, where I continued to use the same techniques whilst working on fungicide resistance in a disease of wheat. That work was clearly very different from what I do now.  

My first job came after that, working for the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) in southern England. I moved there to use the techniques I had learned in my PhD, but on a completely different subject area– studying the effect of contaminants on aquatic species.

Why did you decide to become a scientist and what drew you to this particular field of research?

I remember always wanting to be a scientist. I have always been incredibly interested in the way things work.

In terms of how I found this field, I guess it was when I started working at CEFAS and made the move into the world of marine biology. I had to learn a lot very quickly about marine species and I often worked offshore on research vessels, going on two- to three-week research cruises – they were called cruises, but were not like cruises!

I spent a lot of time working with mussels and oysters and really fell in love with these species. They appear very simple but have been around since the time of dinosaurs and do a whole load of exciting stuff. I am also a huge foodie, so getting access to amazing seafood whilst offshore, as well as being able to work on species I find fascinating was great – I found myself in a really happy place.

Why did you decide to work at the Roslin Institute?

I was at Cefas for 11 years and in the final five years of that job I was involved in lots of collaborations with the aquaculture group at the Roslin Institute. There was a natural fit there in terms of the skills and research goals that I had with those of Roslin. I managed to eventually move to Roslin which allowed me to home in on some more of the fundamental aspects of the biology.

At Cefas, everything you do has to revolve around the main goal of providing evidence for policymakers. So sometimes you might find yourself down an alleyway of exciting research, but you would have to stop because the policy side of that had run out, and you would need to move onto the next question. Whereas somewhere like Roslin, the world is your oyster!

What do you like the most about working at the Institute?

Something which has been really nice about moving to Scotland is being able to become a part of the Scottish aquaculture community. It’s great to have been accepted into the shellfish farming community and many of the farmers have provided samples and opportunities to help answer their questions and problems. For example, we are currently working with Scottish farmers to get to the bottom of disease outbreaks.

Another really positive part about being at Roslin has been that farmers come directly to us to ask questions about why something is happening and how they can mitigate against it, so it feels like we are having a really positive impact on the industry.

Could you tell me about a real-world application of your work?

All the work we do has an applied end. The most important aspect of my work is to reduce and prevent the impact of disease on oyster aquaculture in the UK and globally. Aquaculture is responsible for more than 10 per cent of global animal protein consumption and the biggest impact on this industry is disease. Any insight into how to prevent or reduce these diseases can go a long way to increase sustainability and efficiency of protein production.

What are the challenges you experience as a scientist?

It has been very tricky moving to a completely new organisation. Coming from somewhere with fairly rigid guidelines like a government lab, to a very open relaxed organisation such as Roslin, where you have to get on and do everything yourself, has been challenging!

I have had to learn from scratch how the systems at Roslin work and we have had to build our own oyster aquarium, where we are now able to grow and spawn oysters and produce larvae to study. Some things which might be simple in a lab based next to the sea are rather tricky in a lab 10 miles inland!

How do you overcome such difficult challenges?

We have been able to get through these problems through collaborating with experts I have met and worked with over the past 10 years. Links to the shellfish industry have also been crucial and they have really helped us with provision of animals which we can grow and study.

Do you communicate with non-scientists about your research and, if so, how?

Communication is integral to all our work. The shellfish aquaculture industry in the UK is small. They meet regularly both in Scotland, at the annual conference of the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers, and in England, at the annual conference of the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, where all shellfish growers come together and discuss what’s going on in the shellfish world.

We also have links to industry through those networks. The best links come from when you have shared projects with people from other organisations. You find that in an applied subject like aquaculture, those relationships and links to industry are the most important aspect of making a success of any of your applied projects.

Do you think the importance of science communication has been increasing?

Social media is definitely creating an easy route to communicate directly with the public. Although easier to access, it does not necessarily make it easier to get the message across in the right way, so I think clear communication is more important than it ever has been.

Do you have any advice for students who want to go into this field of research or are starting a career as a scientist?

My advice is to work on something you love. If you really enjoy the area you are working in, then any level of success is exciting and great. Keep going!

What would you be doing if you hadn’t become a scientist?

If I had a choice now, I would love to move to the west coast to grow oysters, brew beer and sell it to tourists driving the North Coast 500 scenic route!

Related links

Genome explains differences in wild and farmed salmon

Gene-editing tool to speed disease studies in fish

Roslin aquaculture research