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After Aceh was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, its economy had to be rebuilt to meet the demand for food and to provide jobs. Marine biologist Sidrotun Naim, 32, the “shrimp doctor” to her Acehnese colleagues, is playing a pivotal role in this rebuilding, and in the future health of Indonesian shrimp farms.
Sidrotun arrived in Aceh’s Pidie district in 2006, after she graduated in marine biology from the University of Queensland in Australia. Working as part of a tsunami rehabilitation program through the World Wildlife Fund, Sidrotun was asked to consult on a shrimp breeding project.
“They said, ‘You’re clever and still young, you must study the shrimp and help us,’ ” Sidrotun said. And so she dedicated herself to shrimp, and helping the people of Pidie and Aceh get back on their feet.
Sidrotun is from a large Javanese family and excelled at school, picking up a number of prestigious scholarships as she furthered her studies. She is thought to be one of the first crustacean pathologists in a country that is one of the biggest shrimp producers in the world.
Shrimp farming is a high-risk business, with shrimp being highly prone to a handful of illnesses, the most dangerous of which is white spot syndrome, a viral infection that can wipe out an entire broodstock (a term in aquaculture that refers to a group of mature individuals used for breeding purposes) in three days.
Although Indonesia is among the biggest shrimp exporters in the world, along with China, Thailand and Vietnam, the country still does very little scientific research to support local shrimp farmers. Plenty of studies have been carried out on fish and crabs, Sidrotun said, but not shrimp.
“The shrimp industry began in the ’80s when people stopped catching shrimp and began breeding them,” she said. “But shrimp are prone to illness because of the density of the broodstock.”
In 2009, Sidrotun won a Fulbright scholarship to the University of Arizona in Tucson, a reference laboratory for studying illnesses in shrimp, where she is now completing her master’s thesis on the effects of adding tilapia (a type of fish) to shrimp broodstock.
After 16 weeks of research in Arizona, Sidrotun found that tilapia can help the health of the stock. In a regular broodstock, shrimp typically live at the bottom of the pond.
Sidrotun’s experiment involved breeding tilapia above the broodstock by putting them in a large fish net. This improved the quality of the water, as the fish seemed to consume the bacteria before it could filter down to the bottom of the pond and attack the shrimp.
“[Adding tilapia] also adds economic value for our farmers, because they can breed fish, algae and shrimp all in one broodstock,” Sidrotun said.
But the exact reasons behind the results are inconclusive, and she hopes to investigate the results further.
Last week, Sidrotun won a fellowship worth $40,000 from For Women in Science, a collaboration between Unesco and the L’Oreal Foundation in Paris. Sidrotun said she planned to use the fellowship, which was awarded by a jury led by Nobel winners, to fund her postdoctoral studies at Harvard’s medical school, where she is a visiting scholar.
The seventh of 11 children, Sidrotun said her family usually ate rice and tempeh when she was growing up, and rarely indulged in seafood. Her father, Abidullah, was a high school teacher, and is now retired with his wife, Siti Muslichah.
Despite a humble upbringing, half of Sidrotun’s siblings went to school overseas through scholarships, including her third brother, who is now pursuing his studies in management at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.
Sidrotun has a 6-year-old son, and is married to Dedi Priadi, who studies psychology at the University of Arizona.
Upon completion of her dissertation and graduation, Sidrotun intends to study IMNV, one of the most threatening shrimp viruses found in Brazil and Indonesia. The virus first appeared in Indonesia in 2006, and has since caused harvest failures costing millions of dollars, she said.
“Last year, our farmers suffered a loss of $150 million to $200 million because of this virus,” she said.
Upon graduating from the University of Arizona, Sidrotun intends to study how IMNV and shrimp interact. A large number of shrimp survive the virus, and she hopes to discover what allows some shrimp to survive while others die. It is a scientific long-shot, but every major breakthrough begins with a single step.
“To be able to design a system to minimize the risk, we have to understand the virus first,” she said. “I hope in 5 to 10 years, our native shrimp can be more stable, so that traditional farmers can have a more solid bargaining position.”
The fishing industry has not been kind to shrimp farmers, Sidrotun said. The industry will often help farmers start their stocks, she said, but then make them shoulder all the costs for failed harvests.
“It should be the part of the company’s risk and not just farmers, because some crucial things, like disease, are out of their control,” she said.
It might seem like a scientist dedicated to producing healthy shrimp stock would harbor a certain disdain for disease, but Sidrotun speaks about viruses with respect.
“Viruses have been on earth much longer than bacteria and humans have, so we have to understand them,” she said. “Through evolution, humans have become smaller and smaller, but what we don’t know is if viruses have become stronger.”
What we do know, she said, is that unlike plants and animals, which are all built on unchanging DNA, viruses can mutate and adapt very quickly, which is why they are so difficult to study.
The cure for HIV, for example, continues to elude scientists despite years of research and billions of dollars in funding. But IMNV is more complicated because it is a double-strand, where HIV is a single-strand.
Sidrotun is passionate about improving the understanding of — and someday finding a cure for — IMNV. She is currently working with Max Nibert at Harvard, who discovered the 3D structure of the virus.
Sidrotun also hopes her research will be useful for scientists invested in study of the rotavirus, which kills about 500,000 children every year worldwide.
She said, “A virus may seem like a minor thing because to us it’s invisible, but it can destroy months of efforts by our local farmers in days, so yes, it’s important.”