Feb 10, 2021 | Team Cooke | Return to News

It’s the International Day of Women and Girls in Science and we are celebrating some of the outstanding women researchers who are so critical to our company.


Melissa Thrift joined Omega Protein in August of 2009. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Animal and Poultry Sciences from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Her first position was an office laboratory assistant working with refined oils at the Health and Science Center. She soon moved from this position to Quality Scientist responsible for production testing to ensure product integrity. In this role she helped manage the laboratory by tracking samples and results, writing procedures, and training new employees and interns.

Melissa has been in her current position as Quality Systems and Compliance Coordinator for about a year and works to help the company meet today’s regulatory quality standards.

Her attention to detail makes her an excellent asset in a field where consumer satisfaction and safety are the primary objectives. She is currently working to standardize internal quality audits and procedures throughout the company’s three fish processing plants. She also manages the internal laboratory cross check series, customer questions, and assists with regulatory and customer audits.

When she is not at work, Melissa enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons. Melissa enjoys the outdoors and has been fishing and hunting since she was a young girl. She has officiated volleyball for the Virginia High School League for eight years, supports her church, and volunteers with her son’s local Little League baseball team.

Shelby Olsen, Director of Environmental Affairs, joined Omega Protein in October of 2017. Shelby earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from Iowa State University and has more than 25 years of experience in environmental affairs and project management. 

Her current responsibilities include leading the environmental affairs efforts of Omega Protein as well as representing the company with regulatory agencies and various associations such as the Virginia Manufacturers Association, where she serves on the Water/Wastewater Regulation Sub-Committee. 

A mother of three, she has also made time to participate in local community organizations throughout her career and is currently a member of Louisiana Women Leaders, a network of statewide organizations who educate, engage, empower and equip African American Women.

Shelby’s expertise and experience has been invaluable to a number of multi-functional teams on which she has participated, and in her relatively short time with Omega Protein, has been instrumental in implementing new Environmental, Health and Safety processes such as Waste Management Auditing, Risk Assessment and Management of Change.

Shelby is known for her persistence and insistence on doing the right things the right way and we are very proud to have her as one of the leaders of the Environmental, Health and Safety Team at Omega Protein.



In Spain, our Grupo Culmarex fish health and welfare team is comprised of eight women, all involved in fish biology and veterinary medicine.

With four fish vets and four highly-qualified biologists in its ranks, the team is not only connected to the challenging operational aspects of the day-to-day fish farming activities at sea, but also displa

ys and uses an array of technical skills that require intensive education and advanced training.

Fish physiology and immunology, parasitology, histopathology, and microbiology are part of their daily routine.

From these sophisticated biological and laboratory skills to statistical analyses of epidemiological data or innovation in fish health and welfare and with a network and support of universities or biotech companies, our team sees an ocean of opportunity for women to thrive in this field.


In New Brunswick, our fish health team of veterinarians, fish health technicians and lab technicians is led by Dr. Leighanne Hawkins who was recently honoured by her industry peers at the Atlantic Canada Fish Farmers Association’s annual Science, Research and Technology Forum where she earned an award recognizing her 25 years of contribution to the art of veterinary medicine.

Alanna Rozee is much newer to our industry. She joined Cooke in October 2018 as the Fishtalk Coordinator and oversees the software that tracks fish inventory. Drawing on her education in biology and experience in IT, Alanna’s work has helped advance Cooke’s reporting capabilities, and she is responsible for data evaluation and analysis, and providing training and software support to employees across the region.


On UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science we caught up with three Cooke colleagues at the top of their game in science-based careers in aquaculture.


“I’ve always loved fish,” says Ola. “My Dad tells a story about me as a five or six-year-old demanding a goldfish and screaming the place down until I got one. Now he tells everyone that he is the reason for me working in fish health.”

As a Fish Health Manager at Cooke Aquaculture Scotland, a typical week sees Ola visiting different seawater and freshwater farms to ensure the health and welfare of our fish.

“Our core business is about producing the best farm-raised Scottish salmon, we take great care in looking after our fish, from the day-to-day husbandry provided by the freshwater and seawater teams, to the strategic health, welfare and nutrition plans that we devise to make sure that our fish thrive in their freshwater and marine environments.

“My role is very varied – there’sthe hands-on fish inspections, but I also spend a lot of time speaking to the site teams, coordinating veterinary health and welfare plans, and take part in numerous projects all geared to improve the health and welfare of fish.”

Ola graduated from Glasgow University in 2010 with a degree in Marine and Freshwater Biology.

“I applied to do a degree in virology but in first and second year it covered a wide range of general life sciences’ subjects. In third year I decided that I wanted to switch to the marine and freshwater biology degree and completed modules in marine and freshwater ecology, aquatic environments, aquaculture, and animal behaviour, welfare and physiology. I was really lucky to get to go on fields trips to places like Egypt, as well as sites closer to home like Loch Lomond and the Marine Biological Station on Cumbrae.

“After I graduated I was working part time and got the opportunity to do some work experience at Cooke Aquaculture Scotland, and applied and gotthe fish health co-ordinator role. I was in the right place at the right time.”

With eight years’ experience under her belt, Ola was promoted to the role of fish health manager in 2018. During this time she saw the company and the aquaculture sector grow significantly.

“I am quite lucky that I endedup in a job related to my degree as it wasn’t particularly specialised. Over the course of my career the size and scope of my role has grown which has kept things fresh and interesting but also challenging for me.

“Aquaculture is a male-dominated industry and often I am the only woman in a meeting, but I don’t remember ever feeling that this is an issue.

“It is a welcoming industry and one with really good and varied career prospects – not just on the farms, there are so many technical and health support roles.

“Women are playing an increasingly important part in the sector, especially in the science of salmon farming, and I’d encourage more women to come and work in aquaculture.”


“I’ve never come up against anything that made me feel that because I am a woman I can’t do something” says Rhona Robertson, a Lab Co-ordinator in the fish health team at Cooke Aquaculture Scotland.

“I loved biology at school and wanted to work in a lab and do research. My former biology teacher – Mrs Maisie – probably did more than most to nurture an interest in science and encourage me to pursue a science-based career.

“It was either science or music, and science won (just!).

“At university the majority of people studying my course were female, and in my previous role supervisors and managers were all female. Maybe I’m lucky I’ve never had to overcome the barriers that some women do.”

After graduating with a degree in Biological Sciences from Glasgow Caledonian University Rhona worked for several years gaining skills and experience working for a contract research company in Stirling.

After moving to Argyll she was recruited by Cooke Aquaculture Scotland in April 2014, initially working at Furnace Hatchery and Smolt unit came up doing daily water quality testing and then gradually moving towards fish health and in-house diagnostics.

Rhona spends most days in the lab-based, running routine lab tests to make sure our salmon are healthy. A couple of days a week she will complete site visits to check the health status of the fish. She supports Cooke’s involvement in several collaborative projects with universities which involves work on a weekly basis.

“I love that the role I am in allows me to work in the laboratory as well as getting out and about to visit our fish farms – it’s the best of both worlds. Getting to work with industry and academic colleagues on innovative research projects is another added bonus.

“Aquaculture is an extremely diverse industry and any science degree would stand you in good stead for a good career in the sector.

“My role is very hands-on and my best piece of advice to girls or young women thinking about a career in science would be to take a course that is applied – that way, when you leave university you’ll have the hands on practical skills that employers are looking for, and means you can apply for a much wider range of jobs.”


“Salmon farming is such an integral part of the community where  I live in Orkney, it is easy to talk about in this kind of environment. Yet, in other areas of Scotland and the UK, there is so much about food production that people separate themselves from so it is harder to appreciate where food is coming from and how it is produced.”

“When I was at school science was sitting on wooden benches with Bunsen burners and singed eyebrows” admits Naomi Dempsey, Environmental Analyst for Cooke Aquaculture Scotland.

Naomi’s career path into science wasn’t an obvious one. She completed an undergraduate degree and then went on to do a PhD in archaeology at Aberdeen University. But during this time at university she found she spend increasing amounts of time focusing on applying scientific techniques and analysis to her research.

“As I got older I developed more of an appreciation for science in action – how it could be used to explain things rather than just the theory. My postgraduate degree included lots of elements of geophysics, soil microbiology, carbon dating and macrofauna analysis which are all relevant to understanding past human activity. These research techniques really developed a strong interest in the science side of archaeology and what it contributes to our understanding of history.”

After leaving university she worked on environmental impact and risk assessments, using many of the skills and experiences she had gained at university, before joining Cooke Aquaculture Scotland in 2014.

Her role is hugely important to the quality of fish produced at Cooke’s seawater salmon farms in the coastal waters of Orkney and Shetland, taking samples to monitor the health of the seabed and the marine environment, and using hydrographic and water chemical data to understand their effect on how fish are reared and the environment they are farmed in.

“It’s really important about how we can use science now to produce responsibly-sourced salmon. This is core to how we do business as a salmon producer, and it contributes to the UN’s sustainable development goals, especially goal 14 on conserving and finding sustainable uses for the seas and oceans.

“I love my job. I’ve not had a conventional science career, but my advice to girls thinking about a job in science would be to take every opportunity that you can and bolster whatever you’re doing academically with real workplace experience or volunteering as it will help you to demonstrate the skills you need to get a head start in your career.”