Prof Sarah Culloty: From oyster ecosystems to STEM students

8 Nov 2023

Prof Sarah Culloty. Image: Cathal Noonan

While her new role sees her leading more than 6,000 staff and students in UCC, Prof Sarah Culloty’s passion for marine life is clear when she discusses her research.

In 2021, Prof Sarah Culloty made history by becoming the first woman head of college in STEM at University College Cork (UCC).

This means she’s the academic and administrative lead for more than 6,000 staff and students, ensuring they have the correct suite of programmes at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

“My role is to ensure that we have a vibrant research environment that will attract the best academic staff and researchers into the college, which will in turn inform the academic programmes we deliver,” Culloty told

“We are focused on finding sustainable solutions for the many societal challenges we face and we want our graduates to be solution-focused problem-solvers who have developed the critical skills required to be informed decision-makers.”

Culloty has had a strong career in STEM already, with a particular passion for ecology, zoology and immunology. Having previously headed up UCC’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences (BEES).

“Very early on at university, I realised my interest in the natural environment was focused on animals in complex environments, and how those interactions with the environment influenced their health and impacts of any diseases they encountered,” she said.

“I really enjoyed the subjects focused on physiology, immunology and pathology at an undergraduate level which led to me choosing the PhD that I did.”

‘Many shellfish can be ecosystem engineers – making the marine habitat more favourable for other organisms to thrive’

Culloty’s PhD focused on a novel disease that had occurred in oyster populations in Ireland. “It was the first opportunity to study a disease in shellfish that had been spread via anthropogenic influences that had spread throughout Europe and to Ireland, but was very much modulated by the environment the animal found itself in. That allowed me to focus on the relationship between the disease-causing organism and the host and understand more about the pathogen and its life cycle.”

This then formed the basis of her research career, where she focused on marine aquatic animal health – particularly impacting aquaculture and fisheries. Specifically, she looks at some of the drivers of survival and mortality within the marine environment, with a particular focus on environmental conditions.

“Working with the aquaculture industry on many of our projects, the fundamental question is often why this population of shellfish is declining, why do we see different productivity in different regions and, if a disease is introduced, how will that impact on the shellfish and potentially the wider ecosystem,” she said.

“To understand and answer these questions, we need to be able to assess the health of the animal and determine the impact of any pathogens on that health, but also how the environment is impacting on the relationship between the animal and the disease-inducing organism.”

More recently, changes in the marine environment are happening due to the climate crisis, which will have an impact on aquaculture productivity and Culloty explained why research specifically in the area of shellfish is so vital amid these changes.

“Many shellfish can be ecosystem engineers – making the marine habitat more favourable for other organisms to thrive, so they are fundamental to a healthy marine ecosystem,” she said. “The application of the research ranges from the very fundamental – providing advice on the best husbandry techniques for growing shellfish, to developing novel diagnostic methods and informing international best practice in diagnostic screening and control of animal movements.”

The changing research landscape

Throughout her career, Culloty said she has seen funding for research improve, but added that there should still be more funding when it comes to fundamental research and multidisciplinary projects that go beyond STEM.

“I truly believe that a multidisciplinary-based approach is needed to tackle some of our critical challenges. The research landscape has not come as far as I might have hoped. If I was looking into the future as an early-career researcher, I believe we do not spend enough as a country on research and yet this is essential to the current and future wellbeing of the country.”

She also noted that the ongoing challenges in PhD recruitment and the precarious nature of research careers makes it a further challenge for researchers to stay in the industry. Thinking back on her own career challenges, she also said there wasn’t enough structured advice and mentorship.

“I feel sometimes it took me longer than necessary to get to my destination! I believe good mentoring and support is critical for early-career staff – and at all stages of our careers. We are getting better at that but there is plenty more to do.”

Future trends in research

As a member of UCC’s senior leadership team, Culloty plays a key role in the university’s strategy, ‘Securing our Future’, which focuses on several key trends including sustainability, quantum and photonics, future pharmaceuticals, food, microbiome and health, and AI and data analytics.

“As the first university in the world to be awarded a green flag, there is an all-of-university approach to sustainability, and we have three pillars that are cross university – our research, our programs and our practice,” said Culloty.

“These areas will facilitate an environment where we can develop sustainable solutions for how we live as a society, how we provide infrastructure, housing, energy, food and medicines for a growing global population while addressing the challenges of climate change etc. I am optimistic though, particularly when I see the calibre of staff and students who come to UCC, attracted by our focus on sustainability and looking to how we can provide a brighter future for all.”

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Jenny Darmody is the editor of Silicon Republic