Professor Andrea Alfaro: Aquanaut, Mussel Lady and inspiring teacher

19 May, 2015
Professor Andrea Alfaro: Aquanaut, Mussel Lady and inspiring teacher
AUT Vice-Chancellor Derek McCormack and Professor Andrea Alfaro at her professorial address.

“My life has been one adventure after another and most of them have to do with the sea,” Professor Andrea Alfaro told the audience at her inaugural professorial address on Friday. She went on to regale her experiences of living under the sea, encountering purple sea urchins, winning the nickname ‘the mussel lady’, and carrying out vital aquaculture research.

AUT University Professor in Marine Ecology and Aquaculture Andrea Alfaro’s love for the sea began as a child with family visits to the beach and the Disney film 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.

Many years later, Professor Alfaro lived out her favourite film in real life when her research presented an opportunity to live in an underwater habitat for a week, off a coral reef in Florida.

“It was amazing to wake up to fish swimming all around you, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It felt like the roles were reversed – I was the fish in an aquarium instead.”

Professor Alfaro arrived in New Zealand from the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences in 1998, and was introduced to the green-lipped mussel. The Kiwi classic has since become the focus of her research.

“I was fascinated because I had never seen a mussel with a green shell. And I was really surprised to learn that there was very little research on this species of mussels – especially given that it’s one of the country’s largest seafood exports.”

Professor Alfaro works closely with the mussel industry, investigating sustainable methods of mussel aquaculture – with a particular focus on how mussels reproduce and the complex interactions between the organism and its environment.

“With our fisheries unable to sustain the growth in seafood demand, aquaculture products are immensely important and we are working to support the long-term supply of a number of popular species such as mussels, clams, abalone and geoducks.”

Professor Alfaro’s aquaculture work has also inspired many of her students to undertake significant research into other parts of New Zealand’s seafood industry. During her professorial address, she proudly showed off many pictures and videos of her students’ research.

“When I was younger, I was involved in a programme, ‘Expanding Your Horizons’ that aimed to inspire girls to study science. That programme cemented my decision to be a scientist, researcher and teacher, so that I can share my love of the sea.”

“I am incredibly proud of all my students. It is a privilege to mentor young scientists who are transforming New Zealand’s seafood industry.”