10 March 2021

Dr Zoe Doubleday is an ARC Future Fellow working on a unique method to trace the origins of seafood, protecting Australia’s high value seafood industry and providing confidence for consumers.

Based at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute, Dr Doubleday measures the chemical composition of tiny bones from the ears of fish and cephalopods (octopus, squid) and from seashells. The precise levels of certain chemicals are controlled by the ocean in which the bone or shell was formed, and so can reveal to us where in the world the animal was living.

As the world’s hunger for seafood increases, and fisheries are reaching maximum capacity, the risk of seafood fraud is also increasing, with high costs to seafood stocks and to the integrity of the global seafood trade.

In the embedded video, Dr Doubleday speaks about her research project and the challenges that the industry faces with illegally-sourced seafood.

I’m a marine ecologist and one of my specialties is looking at chemical fingerprints in the bones and shells of marine animals, and we do that as ecologists to find where they come from and how they're moving around and how the environment is changing around the animal and how that affects them.

I took those skills in ecology and geochemistry and translated it to the field of seafood provenance … which is just knowing were seafood comes from. 

Seafood is actually the most traded commodity in the world, exceeding even things like coffee wheat and sugar, and that makes it particularly vulnerable to fraud. So the seafood you buy from a shop might not actually be what it says it is.

And then if [there are] these practices like that, it can undermine consumer confidence in the brand and product, like we saw with the honey crisis when people found out that honey … [being sold as Australian was actually adulterated] … and it affected the local producers here.

I work particularly on the shells and bones of animals because the chemicals, the trace elements and the isotopes, so many of them are locked in within the structures in a very predictable and reliable way. For instance, abalone form highly valuable fisheries across southern Australia. We like these because the shells are made out of a calcium carbonate mineral.

And like most seafood species, most animals, seafood have these calcium carbonate structures. I work a lot on octopus and even octopus have calcium carbonate bones just behind the eyes and we use those as well.

One nice thing about this particular mineral is that certain isotopes and trace elements lock into that calcium carbonate in a predictable way.

So the key theory in my fellowship that I want to test is whether you're an abalone or an octopus or a sea urchin living in the same body of water, even though such hugely different animals on the tree of life that you, in theory, have the same fingerprinting or shell or your bones.

If we can find those universal markers … then we can use those tools to track where animals come from. This has applications for provenance if they're commercially harvested and also we can find out a lot about the biology and ecology.

Another aspect of the fellowship is to build maps of ocean chemistry, which we might call iso-scapes. So it's just a surface map of where we predict high and low values of isotopes … we can do that with oxygen isotopes because they're quite well studied in terms [of] we know how they relate to salinity, water temperature and latitude in quite a predictable way.

Our preliminary results are showing that oxygen isotopes are great, but the spatial resolution is quite coarse.

So the focus of my scholarship was particularly Southeast Asia and Australia, because 70 percent of our seafood actually in Australia is Asian, which might surprise a lot of people. And that's where there is a huge amount of trade. And then we also sell a lot of our high-value fisheries like rock lobster and abalone and those sorts of things to the Asian markets.

Those scales are easy because you’ve got tropical waters and more cold climate waters. But what we're looking at is a bit more on a national scale… so samples between (Australian) states and … we are getting differences with oxygen isotopes, but it has its limitations so now we’re looking at potentially other … rare earth and other trace elements. Then we can build iso-scapes of the different isotopes to get it high resolution, both on latitude and longitude.

Dr Doubleday is also part of a growing effort to overturn a culture of scientific communication that excludes students, the general public, and even scientists themselves. In this video Dr Doubleday talks about how the origins of this work are found in her own career pathway, and what an unexpectedly strong and positive reception it has received from both scientists and non-scientists.

So when I was a kid, you know, I grew up in the in the bush. I like nature. So I decided to study ecology. But one of my other loves was writing.

I wanted to be a novelist and I was choosing one over the other. So when I went into science, I felt much probably more comfortable with words than I did with numbers. And it was I was probably a bit different in that way because people, you know, people don't think you have to be so good at English, than you have to be good at maths, getting into having a career in science.

And it's, you know, it's less of the creative disciplines and the more quantitative disciplines.

But I found that as scientists, the reality is we do spend 80 per cent of our lives writing. And the more senior you get, the more you write as well. And it's just, you know, it's not taught that much is a valuable skill [compared with] quantitative skills – even though they're absolutely critical.

So I and as I was writing more and more, was getting frustrated with the style of scientific writing and it was just if you wrote in a slightly different way, particularly if you sent a paper out to review, you just got the comments back that it's inappropriate. And I'm like, why is it inappropriate? Because I've written a sentence that's much more approachable and easy for the brain to comprehend and understand. And there’s this sort of conflation that if you write in approachable and slightly different way, that it's not objective. As scientists we want to be objective and accurate and – with my colleague who was working, [Professor] Sean Connell —[we were asking] ‘Can you write in an approachable way and not compromise your objectivity?’

So that's when I went on this sort of …what seemed like a rabbit hole at the time, but it was an enjoyable one, and it's had much bigger impact and momentum than I thought would ever have. Writing these papers and feeling that there are so many other scientists and students feeling the same way.

So I've done lots of training, training students and staff how to write in a more approachable way – how we are trained to write in a certain way and it's very hard to go outside that box, particularly when we do, we get, you know, ‘no, no, no, that's not correct’.

And I'd have students come up to me and I'd say, ‘I never thought I was meant for a career in science because – one, I'd read the papers that I'm trying to learn to read and I find them tough going, I can’t understand them, and [–two] it's not me, I feel like I'm more of a creative person and maybe I don't want to do this...’ – and that's a great tragedy because we need all these different diverse thinkers in science and it's actually a very creative profession.

I thought, the way we are training people to write needs to be updated and it needs to evolve with the times. Gone are the days where we write a paper and it's just read by five people in your sub-sub-subdiscipline, you know, [now] it's all about, you know, telling your science to the community, people in other sectors, government, corporate sector, and also much more interdisciplinary research. I mean, often you are scared off as a scientist, if you read a paper in a different field and you can't get past the title and – you're busy and you're stressed and you put it down for another day because you can't get past the title, because it might be full of 10 acronyms and you don't even know what the acronyms are.

Dr Doubleday is also a Superstar of STEM, one of a group of 60 extraordinary women who are smashing society’s gender assumptions about scientists and increasing the public visibility of women in STEM. Created by Science and Technology Australia, the program focuses on the development of science communication skills as well as encourages young girls and women to study and stay in STEM. In this video Dr Doubleday talks about the program interfaces with her own work, and with her ARC Future Fellowship, which was awarded in 2019.

“What’s it like being a Superstar of STEM?”

There are two aspects -

It's again, it's that sort of recognition that science communication is important and the work that you do in that field is important.

Being part of the program, you know, they encourage you more and more to get out there and be visible and part of that is to be a visible role model, to get a critical mass of women in the media.

As we know in my field, in biological sciences there are plenty of women, when they're coming through, as students and early career researchers, but they more or less disappear completely after that. 

And so it's about building that mass and those visible faces, those confident faces and just being part of that movement… it's got backing from the institutions that is sort of coming top-down as well, that you've sort of got that momentum, both of communication, which I'm very passionate about, but also getting more women out there in the limelight. 

So on one hand, we're doing training or training in media, and it's also that building networks with other women, learning what they're about.

I sort of feel this confidence in the air that things will change. 

You know, I've seen when I was a student, most of my class were women and all my lecturers were male. And then even now when I was lecturing, it was still the same, you know, all the lecturers were men. Likewise if you were in some sort of research leaders meeting, usually you were the only one in the room, or there were two or three [women in the room]. And so you do feel that frustration from time to time. 

But being part of this [Superstars of STEM] … things are changing, and changing in a positive way, because of that diversity… bringing in people who think in different ways, because we're solving some pretty big problems. That's when we're going to see some bigger outputs from science.

Getting the stability and the support of the Future Fellowship from the ARC, the change is just enormous. 

The key thing, it gives you independence so you can build your own research and lead your own group. But what that does is it means you now have the capacity to support the next generation because you have the stability. You've gone from surviving, like month by month, to having the stability and the support and then the name of the fellowship, which helps, that then enables you to work and support the next generation. And I've found almost that more satisfying than doing the research itself, now I have that opportunity to do that. And most of the people I work with are women and early career women, so that's something that I really enjoy.

Without the fellowship that just wouldn't have been possible.

Image: Zoe Doubleday. Credit: Ben McPherson.