R&D by the Sea: New Brunswick’s Aquatic Biosciences Sector
The Huntsman Marine Science Centre in St. Andrews, New Brunswick was established in 1969 by a consortium of universities, government departments, and private sector interests. A non-profit organization, the Huntsman was designed as a destination for researchers, students, and the public. Its educational offerings have engaged over 35,000 students ranging from the elementary-aged to university graduate level. It has also welcomed over 700,000 people through its aquarium facility, educating both tourists and locals about Atlantic Canada’s marine-based economy.
Dr. Duane Barker serves as the New Brunswick Innovation Research Chair in Aquatic Biosciences. Dr. Barker brings over 25 years of extensive fish health research and development work to the Huntsman, where he completed his post-doctoral fellowship 15 years ago. He now works with local industry to apply his expertise in aquatic parasites and pathogens.
“I like solving puzzles. One of our biggest puzzles right now is climate change, and how it could affect things like aquatic bacteria and parasites.” notes Barker. “More importantly, what impact will that have on our fisheries?”
Opportunities NB (ONB) spoke with Dr. Barker to learn more about the Huntsman, the Research Chair Initiative, and returning to Atlantic Canada.
ONB: Can you give us a breakdown of exactly what happens at the Huntsman?
Barker: In our modern incarnation we have three main components.
Our education component offers experiential field programs for students in grades 8 through 12, as well as field courses for university students. We also have summer courses including an introduction to marine biology and an ‘All Things Marine’ course. There are also new offerings like the Lobster Academy, a great opportunity for people to learn about lobster biology.
The second component is research. In the past there were a lot of independent projects here. There has been a shift towards contract research, and we’re now reaching out to industry for projects. That began with the formation of a broodstock program centered on salmon breeding. It’s now in its fourth year and we have a geneticist here, Dr. Amber Garber, who has managed to map out the best traits for growing salmon. She’s answering important questions like ‘do salmon grow better in salt water or fresh water?’ or ‘Are they resistant to certain parasites or not?’
[Dr. Garber was recognized by the NBIF with an R3 Award.]
This client-based research is the Huntsman’s focus now and we have seen increased interest from industry over the past few years. We were so full last summer we had to turn people away. We have eight buildings here dedicated to research and still had to wait list people.
Finally, we have the Fundy Discovery Aquarium. It’s a new aquarium established in 2011 thanks largely to donors. The Aquarium is New Brunswick’s top tourist attraction not owned by the provincial government; we had record numbers come through last year.
ONB: There are international pharmaceutical companies doing research work at Huntsman. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Barker: There are indeed some huge names in that space now doing work with us. We have this tremendous foreign direct investment happening over the last couple of years from that sector.
Say a European pharma company wants to develop a new treatment for sea life. There are regulations for that in Europe (and different regulations in the US and Canada) that involve safety testing. Or, what would happen if a particular product was exposed to say, lobster? These are the types of questions we’re helping to answer.
Huntsman has been engaged in this type of testing for multiple international clients. They come here to perform rigorous testing, and results are sent to the Veterinary Drugs Directorate (VDD) in Canada and the Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) in the U.S.
ONB: You are part of the Huntsman via the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation’s (NBIF) Research Chair Initiative. Tell us about that program.
Barker: Investing in these chair positions is a progressive approach to research and innovation by the Province of New Brunswick and they should be commended. This past year six chair positions were awarded; with each chair receiving a million dollars over a five-year period. That funding covers research expenses, hiring of students, research equipment, and the Chair’s salary. It allows experienced researchers to come to this province and interact with industry. That’s the primary goal, getting more academics interacting with industry to promote innovation and work towards commercialization. My goal is to promote our business and this new contract research initiative, and to dig in to working with the industry.
It’s great on a professional and personal level. I’m from Atlantic Canada, so it’s good to be back. I like working with industry and have always preferred applied research.
ONB: Let’s talk about that move back east. Where are you from originally?
Barker: I come from a small town in Newfoundland. When I was growing up our town thrived on three industries: forestry, fishing, and mining. Today, all three of those industries there have largely crashed. I came to see the importance of natural resources on rural communities, and really appreciate their value.
Aquaculture is very important to rural New Brunswick, and my research is directed at all of the aquatic sciences — freshwater ecology, marine systems, ecosystems, climate change, etc. I am excited about the opportunities that exist in New Brunswick.
ONB: What do you see as benefits of operating in New Brunswick?
Barker: On a personal level, it’s the people. It’s nothing against the West at all, but being from the East Coast I guess I just find New Brunswickers so nice, and so hard working, especially people from the rural coastal areas. That hard work and diligence can get you through a lot.
In terms of geography New Brunswick is ideally situated, particularly the Huntsman. We’re in the heart of the aquaculture sector, and have easy access to other research institutes like the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Biological Station next door, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) in Fredericton and Saint John, and the NB Research and Productivity Council (RPC) in Fredericton. We’re also not far from P.E.I. and the Atlantic Veterinary College. We’re really an Atlantic Canadian hub for this type of research.
The largest tides in the world are here in the Bay of Fundy, and there are a lot of innovative projects that could spring from that.
ONB: There is certainly potential for marine-related entrepreneurship to thrive in this region.
Barker: Absolutely. We already have several small companies doing research and testing here on new products. We’re doing the groundwork research here for two companies in particular; both ideas are based on natural products, not chemical. This leads us towards more green technologies; using extracts from plants to combat pathogens for example, very innovative research. These small businesses go through us because they don’t have their own facilities. So yes, there’s already real entrepreneurial activity going on here.
There is such diversity here with salmon, trout, lobster, sea urchins, and the wealth of different organisms we have in the Aquarium; there is so much to work with. We also do freshwater research as well as oil and gas-related research. We have a project involving toxicity testing on cod, herring, lobster, and shrimp, particularly on ocean larva that could be exposed to oil spills. We also recently got financing for toxicity testing on salmon eggs. We will look at hypothetical situations where they could be exposed to oil from a pipeline problem. I’m excited about all of it.
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