Interview with Borghild Hillestad, Genetics Manager at Benchmark Genetics Norway
In the first of a series of Benchmark interviews with women leading the way in aquaculture, Genetics Manager Borghild Hillestad tells us how a fluke chance led her to a career in Animal Science, what advice she would give to young people starting out in the industry and why sting rays are her favourite aquatic animals.
How long have you worked for Benchmark?
I was hired by Benchmark Genetics Norway (formerly SalmoBreed) before I finished my PhD in 2014.
Tell us about your current role
I work as Genetics Manager, overseeing and coordinating breeding work in order to develop a sustainable and fast-growing salmon population. My role is extremely varied and fast-paced and involves coordinating the overall breeding work. It also involves negotiating contracts and agreements for service providers, overseeing inbreeding challenges, budgeting and planning. I work closely with Iceland and Chile to make sure we are aligned and support each other. R&D and innovation projects is a big part of my work, and very important to develop our salmon population and our products, and it includes anything from project leading, to writing a proposal, to budgeting, to data collection and analysis, to scientific writing. It’s great that I still get to be a scientist!
What do you enjoy the most about your role?
I enjoy the variety and range of tasks. Also, Benchmark is a very innovative company, always one step ahead of the curve and I really enjoy being involved in developing new projects, raising our standards and seeing the projects through to completion.
What made you decide to study breeding and genetics?
After high school I had two interests – one was music (I played the saxophone, oboe and piano) and the other was animals (I grew up on a farm). So, my childhood ambition was to either be a musician or a vet. I started a music degree in South Carolina, however, I realized that rehearsing for six hours a day was very lonely. I was also not keen on the idea of teaching and I knew that if I wanted to work as a performer it would be a lot of late evenings and weekends and I would have a poor work/life balance, so I decided to change paths. I then enrolled on a degree in musical instrument repair at a private college. It was a four-year degree, building and repairing woodwind instruments. I’d completed three years of the course and only had the final year to complete when, to cut a long story short, government funding for the school was withdrawn and the school was closed down. Unfortunately, this meant that I never got to finish my degree. I decided to move back home and work on the family farm and it was shortly after this that I began a degree in Animal Science. I realised after my first year that I found animal breeding really interesting and I completed my bachelor thesis doing a population study of the Shetland Sheepdogs of Norway. After this I completed a masters in breeding and genetics, where my thesis focused on genetic components for slaughter and quality traits from CT scanned Duroc pigs, followed by a PhD on genomic inbreeding in cattle.
What made you decide to pursue a career in aquaculture?
While I was studying for my PhD, I was approached by the Genetics Manager in SalmoBreed at that time, Håvard Bakke, who is now the Business Development Director at Benchmark Genetics Norway. He was looking to hire someone with intention of taking over from him in a Genetics Manager role, as he was planning to retire. I was hired, and we even got to keep Håvard in the company, which was quite a bonus! Today, I can thank Håvard for getting me in to the aquaculture industry. I have never regretted accepting that opportunity! I didn’t know anything about fish when I first started in the role. Our general manager at the time, Jan-Emil, even had to show me how to put on a safety vest!
What would a typical day be like for you?
I don’t think there really is any typical day. It’s a real spread of many different things, from working on projects, responding to emails, reporting, getting in touch with people and making sure everything is running smoothly. Just small things that contribute to a wider whole. Although I occasionally spend some time travelling and meeting customers, this is not a normal day and I spend long hours in front of the computer. On the days where I have home office if I don’t work out I do maybe 1500 steps a day. I definitely need to run and work out a lot in my spare time, which I also do!
Tell us about the team you work with
I mostly work with the Genetics core team. It’s a group that consists of highly competent, educated people who have both strong opinions and very critical minds. It’s important to them that whatever they deliver it is of high quality and high significance. I’m frequently amazed by how much they know. They are a really nice bunch. I also work with the former SalmoBreed team which consists of health, sales, marketing, accounting and production colleagues. They are very sweet, friendly and positive people. Who are very rewarding to work with. They are good listeners and come up with good ideas. I think they are great at seeing what the market needs.
What do you think are the most important issues facing the aquaculture industry?
From a salmon perspective – pathogens and parasites in the sea is concerning. It’s important to make sure that fish grow quickly and don’t stay long in the sea before being harvested. We need to make sure they are robust and disease resistant. Lice are a huge problem, but other pathogens and parasites also cause issues. Essentially that is much of my main work, to make sure fish grow quickly and are strong and resistant to disease and parasites.
What advice would you give to anyone just starting out in their career in aquaculture?
Work hard, be open minded and to listen to people with experience. When we are younger we have a tendency to think we know it all, but in my experience when you finish your education it’s really only the start of your learning journey. Listen to experienced people, they really do have good advice to give, so try and learn from them.
Specifically, for women starting their careers in aquaculture I would say, be strong and believe in yourselves. Aquaculture is a rather male dominated industry, especially in upper management. Have faith in yourself and don’t allow yourself to be treated differently because you are a woman.
If you are a superhero in aquaculture what would you do?
I would be a superhero who makes the sea clean.
What’s your favourite aquatic animal? And why?
I think rays (Devil rays and Sting rays) are really beautiful to look at. Dolphins are also beautiful creatures. I find how they manage to communicate really fascinating.
What would you have on your desert island discs playlist?
I often listen to classical music or soundtracks from movies. I like calm and relaxing instrumental music as it gives balance to a stressful working day. If you are on a desert island you’d probably already be pretty relaxed though!