Women in Science

Audio interviews with CFIA's women in science

Dr. Catherine Brisson

Dr. Catherine Brisson – Podcast

Dr. Catherine Brisson – Audio Transcript

Good day to our listeners. Today we are joined by Catherine Brisson, Director of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s Ottawa Animal Health Laboratory. In addition to being a director, Catherine is a veterinarian and she specializes in animal diseases. Hello, Catherine.


In which field did you study and what is your role with the CFIA?

As you said earlier, I am a veterinarian. I graduated from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Montreal and I also completed an MBA—a Master of Business Administration—and an MHA, which is a Master of Health Administration,  both at the University of Ottawa. My role at present is director of the Ottawa Health Laboratory. So my role is to ensure that the managers of the various laboratory units have the resources necessary to do their job. If that is not the case, because resources by definition have a certain limit, I help them establish priorities and determine what work should be put off until later.

In your capacity as laboratory director, which areas of animal health does your team support?

Our laboratory conducts tests to detect reportable diseases in Canada. For example, rabies, tuberculosis and brucellosis.

Tests are also carried out for diseases required by the countries that import our animals. For example, a country may decide to import cattle but require they be tested for certain diseases that we do not have in Canada, such as brucellosis, but also diseases that are present in the country, such as paratuberculosis, which is a disease that leads to a decline in production.

Tests are also performed on animals that are imported into Canada for diseases that are not found in Canada. An example is glanders in horses. The purpose of these tests is to ensure that the animals entering Canada do not contaminate our animals.

The laboratory also conducts research on these diseases to ensure that we are always able to use the best methods to detect the diseases.

The laboratory has seven researchers, four professionals and several technicians directly involved in research. Moreover, in addition to our research and diagnostic services, our professionals provide scientific advice and work with national and international partners in animal welfare.

That is very interesting, especially as it affects Canadians as well as other countries. Your laboratory specializes in the study of bovine tuberculosis. Could you tell us about this? What is it?

Our laboratory is a national reference laboratory for tuberculosis in Canada. All samples submitted for testing bovine tuberculosis in Canada are sent to our laboratory. Bovine tuberculosis is a disease that is so rare in Canada that we are considered exempt. It is a chronic bacterial disease that is found in cattle. The disease can also be present in other species of mammals, such as humans or domestic animals.

Why is your laboratory's work so important? What effect does it have on the lives of Canadians?

In Canada, the Agency has implemented a tuberculosis testing system. Tuberculosis is a chronic disease that can remain dormant for years without the animal showing any symptoms. The testing system allows for detection at an early stage--in other words, before the animal shows signs of weight loss, weakness and cough. Being internationally recognized as a country that has a good testing system for a disease like tuberculosis makes it possible to continue exporting animals and animal products, which contributes greatly to our economy. But as part of the tuberculosis testing system, the samples are sent to the laboratory where we conduct a series of tests to confirm that tuberculosis is not present.

So, this work is very, very important. Could you explain a little more how your work is important for bovine tuberculosis investigations?

During a tuberculosis investigation, specifically or in general, the Ottawa Animal Health Laboratory is directly involved in all screening and confirmatory testing. We have experts in serology who are responsible for performing tests on blood specimens. Here, the pathology experts examine the tissue samples received from the slaughterhouses under a microscope to detect lesions or bacteria that could be compatible with tuberculosis. We also have microbiology experts. They are responsible for growing bacteria that cause tuberculosis, and we have molecular biology experts who focus on bacterial identification and can even identify the strain of the bacteria. In some cases, we work with other Agency laboratories. For example, one of the tests requires that the sample be subject to a preparatory phase as soon as possible after it is collected. We therefore work to implement this preparatory phase at a laboratory located near the sample collection site.

So, this work requires scientific expertise in a number of fields.

That's right.

Your laboratory has a great deal of expertise and is recognized around the world.

Yes, we have a very good reputation for our tuberculosis laboratory services. But we are also recognized internationally by the World Organisation for Animal Health as a reference laboratory for rabies, chronic wasting disease and scrapie. We are also recognized as a collaborating centre for rabies.

Thank you. Where can we get more information on animal health and how to keep Canada safe?

I suggest that Canadians interested in the safety of Canada consult the Agency's website at inspection.gc.ca to learn more about the Agency and tuberculosis in particular. They can also consult other Government of Canada websites such as Health Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada, and the Canada Border Services Agency. There are also some very good scientific journals related to animal health in both English and French. Libraries and the Internet are very good sources of scientific information adapted to the age and knowledge of readers.

And coming back to you for a bit, what inspired you to pursue a career as a scientist?

In school, my favourite subjects were always related to science, be it mathematics, physics or chemistry. I didn't really like social sciences, French or history.

Do you have any advice for young women and girls to encourage them to study science?

I would have some advice for anyone interested in a future in a science-related field. If the person likes science and wants to work in a science-related field, I would advise them to volunteer in the field that interests them. For example, I owned a veterinary hospital for 13 years and, during those 13 years, we had young volunteers who were interested in veterinary medicine. One in particular came to help us every Saturday. She was 14 years old and she came for at least a year. When she turned 17, it was time for her to choose a career. She decided to pursue psychology and not veterinary medicine.

I would also advise this person to do their best in their studies at all times. The field of science is competitive and the selection criteria are at times high in certain professions or technical fields at the academic level. Think of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, respiratory therapists and radiologists. They are all areas of study that are very, very, very competitive at CEGEP or university.

I would also advise them to follow their dreams because there are several ways to achieve one's goals. For example, if you want to become a veterinarian and your academic results are not good enough, you can go into animal health technology, animal therapy or other fields related to veterinary medicine.

Thank you so much. That is good advice for choosing a career. Is there a particular female scientist who has influenced you?

Yes, very much so. I became a veterinarian thanks to my mother. She is a nurse, and when I was 14 years old I did not like biology at all, and my grades were poor. So, as a Christmas gift, my mother gave me a medical dictionary and made me read it with her every evening. This really brought up my grades in biology. It helped me like biology, and it truly is thanks to her that I was accepted in veterinary medicine because, without her, I would not have continued towards a field in biology.

That is inspiring. I, too, liked looking at my mother's medical books. She was a nurse as well. It is always interesting. Do you have a favourite scientific fun fact? It can be anything, whether it is related to your field of expertise or not.

Well, when I was newly graduated--and when I say newly graduated, it had been maybe a month since I had graduated as a veterinarian--I met an emergency physician at the local hospital where I worked. He compared me to a pediatrician, and I found that surprising when I met him. I was surprised but, when you think about it, there are many similarities between veterinarians and pediatricians because our patients do not talk, pet owners are like the parents of sick children, they are worried about the illness, about their babies. So I thought it was interesting. I was surprised at the time, but then I found it interesting and, in the end, I agreed with that emergency physician.

I would not have thought of making that comparison either. But it is interesting.


Thank you so much, Catherine, for talking to us today about your work and bovine tuberculosis and other animal diseases. As you say, it is very important to identify bovine tuberculosis to prevent its transmission, protect herds and keep our markets open. And I hope that your story and career advice will in turn inspire others. Thank you again.

Follow your dreams because there are several ways to achieve one's goals. For example, if you want to become a veterinarian and your academic results are not good enough, you can go into animal health technology, animal therapy or other fields related to veterinary medicine.

Dr. Catherine Brisson
Director, Ottawa Animal Health Laboratory

Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges

Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges – Podcast

Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges – Audio Transcript

Today we are fortunate to have two guests to talk about their work with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Please welcome Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Lisa Hodges, who join us from the Dartmouth Laboratory in Nova Scotia, where they support CFIA's Food Safety programs. Thank you for speaking with us today about your work and about science.

Bree: No problem, thanks for having us.

Can you tell us a bit about Dartmouth Laboratory and your roles? For example, what kind of work do you perform there?

Bree: We work, as you said, at the CFIA Dartmouth Lab, and that's one of the CFIA's food safety laboratories across the country. I (Bree-Ann) am the manager of the Microbiology Section. The main role of the section I run and other CFIA food micro labs is to test food products for the presence of food-borne pathogens. This supports CFIA's Food Safety Program. We also develop, validate and implement methods for this testing. In Dartmouth, we also are responsible for species identification testing of fish and fish products. This is to verify that they meet the labeling requirements and that they're not mislabeled, which would be considered food fraud. This testing is unique to our lab at Dartmouth because we're the only ones in the CFIA that conduct this.

Lisa, I understand that you're the microbiology specialist at the lab.

Lisa: Yes. I'm one of the microbiology researchers here at the lab. The main focus of my research is on the development of novel methods to better detect and more rapidly detect bacterial food pathogens such as E. coli, Listeria and Campylobacter. Some of this research is also aimed at understanding the biology of these organisms, which will allow us to develop better mitigation strategies and help with identifying a possible source of an outbreak.

Bree: I also wanted to mention that Lisa is the microbiology specialist who implemented our current fish species identification method at the lab a few years ago.

Can you tell me what is fish species identification?

Lisa: At the CFIA, fish speciation is done using DNA bar coding to support both routine testing and investigations into fraudulent mislabeling. What we do is we use a short region of a fish's DNA that, when we sequence it, generates what we refer to as a bar code. This bar code we happen to sample is then able to be compared to a database of bar codes from known species of fish. If we find a match in the database, the sample is considered to have come from that species of fish. We use this identification to confirm that companies are accurately labeling the type of fish they are importing or exporting. The advantage to this type of method, just using a short region (compared to the entire genome) is that because it's very short it's much quicker and cheaper to test this way.

The tests in the lab typically target high-value fish such as tuna, red snapper and halibut.

What are some examples of how the testing conducted at the Dartmouth Laboratory can impact the everyday lives of Canadians?

Lisa: For fish species, for example, it helps us monitor the authenticity of fish products that Canadians are buying. We not only ensure that Canadians are not paying for a substitute product, but it's also important from the perspective of somebody with a food sensitivity so they can feel more confident about what they're actually eating.

Bree: Results from our food pathogen testing in the microbiology lab can also trigger investigations, and we would do testing that can help lead to food product recalls. The monitoring that we carry out can help Canadians have confidence in the safety of the food they consume. The work done at the CFIA, including our lab, allows for us to always be ready to help out with investigations if there happens to be food-borne illness outbreaks within the country.

That's definitely a lot of responsibility. It's very interesting when you think about the number of recalls that we often have. From that point of view, what would you say is an example of a significant success that has occurred with your lab?

Bree: It's hard to identify one success with the lab. One of the reasons for this is because the bacteria that we deal with are always evolving far faster than animals or plants. They are capable of adapting to new environments, developing resistance to controlled measures such as disinfectants, salts or antibiotics, or suddenly developing the ability to cause illness. We strive as both an individual lab as well as Agency to continuously expand our capabilities to test for these food-borne pathogens, not only faster and more accurately, but to also be ready to adopt new approaches when these bacteria evolve.

An example of one of the successes would be when we implemented the DNA-based methods that we use within the lab now. Not just our DNA bar coding one that was mentioned for fish species, but also whole gene sequencing of bacteria when culture is isolated from a food product and also for our daily testing. We look at more DNA-based methods for screening so that we can have faster results as the technology advances and it allows for the shorter turn-around times [when testing] bacteria such as e-coli, salmonella and listeria.

I would have to say that's a lot of responsibility that you have at the lab when you think about it's obviously people's food and the food system in Canada that you're dealing with. What inspired you to pursue science and what would you say to young women to encourage them to pursue science?

Bree: For me, I loved science my whole life. Since junior high I've been fascinated with science in all realms--the chemistry, the human body, the biology of all living organisms – which led me into my field of study, which was food science. I've always been intrigued how organisms, like I mentioned in the last answer, have evolved and they continue to adapt. It honestly still amazes me now that all these advances have happened in the microbiology identification and the methodology has advanced to be able to determine now the whole genome sequence of our isolates here at the lab. We can use this information to help understand the bacteria. That's the main reason I was inspired to go into science.

My advice to young women would be if you enjoy science then make sure you pursue it. Don't let anything stand in your way. There are so many fields to study and to get involved in. If you're like me, you'll find one that you really enjoy and it'll continue to amaze you throughout our career.

How about for you? What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Lisa: I always liked biology, especially anatomy. I was interested in medicine. But when I started my Bachelor's [degree], I also found that microbiology was so interesting. There's this whole world we can't see and yet it has so much impact on our daily lives. When I began to pursue graduate studies, I knew I wanted to work with bacteria, answering some of those many unknowns about these organisms. With food microbiology, answering these could also have a direct impact on the people around me. My advice for going into science would be don't be too afraid or too set on a path in your life, to try different subjects. It's such a big field that you might be surprised what turns out to interest you the most.

I understand that there's something a little bit interesting about your lab when it comes to women in science.

Bree: Every day at the lab here we're surrounded by many women in science that have done lots of different things. We have chemistry, we have microbiology. We've got people in the testing lab. We have people in research. We have people in the director position and the manager position. There's a lot of women in science that we work with every day and they all contribute something different and have different backgrounds and work together to make the CFIA run.

I find that very inspiring as somebody who may have been a little bit fearful of science when I was younger. Now that I hear you speak about it and I see all these women moving into these different roles, I think it shows that there is a lot of opportunity for women and girls as they move forward and hopefully they don't shy away from the sciences as some of us may have done in the past.

What is a favourite scientific fact that you find interesting that you think would be something that others would find interesting, too?

Bree: One of my favourite fun facts, and again if you're not a microbiologist you may not find it fun, but Clostridium perfringens is a bacteria that can cause food-borne illness and I discovered long ago that it has one of the fastest known reproduction times of any organism. It can start new cell budding, or reproduction, every ten minutes. That just fascinates me all the time thinking how fast that can grow and replicate.

That sounds like it's hard to keep up with.

-Bree: Yeah, it's amazing that you can have clostridium perfringens everywhere but, yeah, you don't want it in your food.

How about you? Is there something that you would like to share as one of your favourite scientific facts?

Lisa: Mitochondria are organelles in animal cells that generate the energy used to power the cells. It's actually thought that these were bacteria that were taken up by microorganisms millions of years ago that didn't actually die. They actually became part of the cell.

Isn't that fascinating to think that our cells actually existed maybe millions and millions of years ago almost similar to the way they are today.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to both of you for joining me today and for having this discussion about what you do at the Dartmouth Lab and about microbiology, of course, and to say thank you for keeping our food safe.

Bree: No problem. It was good to talk to you today.

[End of recording]

My advice for going into science would be – don't be too afraid or too set on a path in your life. Try different subjects. It's such a big field that you might be surprised what turns out to interest you the most.

Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges
Microbiology Scientists, Dartmouth Laboratory

Dr. Mireille Marcotte

Mireille Marcotte – Podcast

Dr. Mireille Marcotte – Audio Transcript

Today we are joined by Dr. Mireille Marcotte, who works at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in the field of plant protection. But, Mireille does not just study plants. She also keeps track of the bugs and the pathways that can affect us all.

Thank you Mireille for speaking with us today.

You're welcome.

I know that you're an entomologist but is that your only area of study?

I studied in biology.

What is your current role at the CFIA?

I'm the National Manager of the Plant Health Surveillance Unit in Science Branch.

As the scientist who is responsible for the national surveillance activities related to invasive species in Canada, what currently are the biggest threats to Canada's plants and crops?

I would say that the biggest threat for us today is the Asian longhorned beetle. It's an insect native to Asia that attacks mainly maple trees but also many other species, including birch, willow and poplar. If that pest was to get established in Canada, the consequences would be enormous for our economy and our environment.

Another big threat is the spotted lantern fly. Also native to Asia, it has been recognized as a potential threat to the grape, fruit trees and forest industries in Canada. It was first detected in North America in Pennsylvania in September 2014, and since then its range has expanded to near the Canadian border.

That's a little bit scary. What are things Canadians can do to prevent or limit the effects of these types of invasive species?

Well, buying and burning firewood locally is probably the best thing Canadians can do to prevent the spread of invasive species. The movement of firewood poses a significant risk to the Canadian economy and environment. The movement of untreated firewood from or to the campground or cottage can spread invasive species and diseases that are hidden under the bark and that we do not see. Yes, this wood will eventually be burned but, in the meantime, insects can emerge from the firewood and then settle in the surrounding trees, some bringing with them diseases. Few people are aware, but the forest industry is already regulated with respect to the movement of logs to prevent the spread of forest pests. Everyone must do their part.

Canadians should also inquire about import requirements for plants and plant products, including wood souvenirs. It's very important these products be reported to Canada Customs so that the Border Services Officers can ensure that souvenirs do not pose a risk to our environment.

I would assume that this is something that Canadians really need to stay up-to-date on. Where can they go to get more information about invasive species and how to spot them?

Well, the CFIA website contains numerous fact sheets on invasive alien species. The Plant Pest Surveillance page for example provides many tools to help recognize the signs and symptoms associated with invasive species. The various provincial invasive species councils are also good sources of information.

What would you say then, in your opinion, what is an example of something the CFIA has done to minimize and eradicate an invasive species?

There are different things. One example is in 2003 the Asian longhorned beetle was detected in a small area of Toronto, Ontario. It took 10 years of efforts for the CFIA and its partners to eradicate this infestation. Unfortunately, in 2013 a new infestation was detected in another area of Toronto near the international airport. Once again, eradication measures have been taken and if everything continues as planned, the CFIA should be able to declare Canada free of this pest in about one year.

In the early 2000s, it was recognized that plant pests such as the Asian longhorned beetle often move by the displacement of wood packing materials used to support goods in containers or to prevent them from moving during transportation. For this reason, the International Standards for Phytosanitary Measures #15, the standard that governs the treatment of wood packaging materials used in international trade, was put in place in 2006. This standard requires that wood packaging materials be treated to kill any insect that may be hidden in the wood. The CFIA played a key role in the development and implementation of this international standard.

What I really appreciate, and especially I really notice that in your explanation of that last response, is you really have a passion for what it is that you do. What inspired you to study entomology?

Well, today's scientists have catalogued about 1.5 million species of organisms on the planet, with insects making up about two-thirds of this bounty. Although the world is often very small, it is simply fascinating to me.

I'm going to assume that this is something that you have studied for many years and even as a young woman. What would you say to other young women and girls to encourage them to study science?

Trust yourself and pursue your studies in the area that interests you. If you like discovering new things, exploring new topics, understanding how things work, science is definitely for you. Career opportunities in science are very numerous and varied.

I have heard many really interesting facts and information. What is a favourite science fact that you have that you think would be interesting for other people to know?

Did you know that mosquitoes bite more often when there is a full moon? Scientists haven't determined the reason yet, but studies show that mosquitoes are more active during the full moon. In fact, they can bite up to 500% more. So, something to think about when you plan your next camping trip.

I guess I better go out and get some extra bug spray. Thank you for speaking with us today about your work and about invasive species.

For more information about invasive species in Canada, please visit the CFIA website. And for more information about Mireille and her work, check out her science profile in the Open Government portal.

[End of recording]

To date, scientists have catalogued about 1.5 million species of organisms on the planet, with insects making up about two-thirds of this bounty. This whole world of often very small creatures is simply fascinating to me.

Dr. Mireille Marcotte
National Manager, Plant Health Surveillance

Dr. Susan Nadin-Davis

Susan Nadin-Davis – Podcast

Dr. Susan Nadin-Davis – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Susan Nadin-Davis, a research scientist at the CFIA's Ottawa laboratory. Thank you for joining us today to talk to us about your role at the CFIA and tell us more about your passion for science.

It's a pleasure to talk to you today.

Susan, I have had the opportunity of reviewing your resume and your biography, and you are obviously a very accomplished scientist. Can you tell us more about your role as a research scientist at the CFIA?

Yes, of course. As a research scientist in animal health, my primary role is to develop new improved tests for bacteria and viruses, which are of significance to the Canadian livestock industry.

Much of my work involves sequencing of genes or even whole genomes of various bacteria; this might include salmonella, campylobacter, brucella, and a number of other bacteria, as well as a number of viruses. With that sequence information I can develop methods which are based on a technique, which in the scientific field we know as polymerase chain reaction or PCR. This allows you to amplify specific portions of a genome very selectively so that it is very easy to detect.

One of the diseases that I have worked on for many years is rabies. As part of my work here I've developed a very comprehensive database of the different variances of this virus that are harboured by these different wildlife species. This information tells us the source of infection in a domestic animal, so that's very important for sort of tracking the source of rabies outbreaks.

I think it's probably safe to say that most Canadians are aware of rabies, so no doubt we know that the work that you do with regards to rabies is definitely something that would be very valuable and helpful to Canadians, but do you have a sense of other ways that your work helps Canadians?

Well many of the organisms that I work with are zoonotic, which means that they can infect both animals and humans. By improving our testing capability for a number of animal diseases, such as salmonella, rabies, and so on, this not only helps to reduce the impact of these diseases in our animal populations but it also limits the chance of them spreading to people.

When did you know you wanted to work in science?

Well, I think probably from a fairly early age. I grew up in a seaside town in North Wales and living right by the sea I naturally developed a love of the sea and its creatures pretty early on. As a young girl, I would go down to the beach and dig for crabs or look for interesting creatures in tidal rock pools. Also, I always enjoyed science at school, especially biology. I think I was lucky in that I had a great high school biology teacher who really encouraged me to seek a career in the biological sciences. I think it was in large part due to her that I decided to seek entrance to Cambridge University where my career in science really started.

Do you feel that biology, was the only option of study for you or did you consider other options as science study?

Well, I think biology has always been my main scientific love. I mean, I studied obviously all the sciences at school: chemistry, physics, math, biology, and so on. In fact, when I first started my bachelor's degree at Cambridge University in the first year, I studied all of the main science topics. In subsequent years, that is when one then starts to specialise more and more in areas of particular interest. As my undergraduate studies progressed, I found myself drawn more and more into subjects such as physiology, pharmacology, and in particular biochemistry. That subsequently led to studies above the masters and the doctoral level in biochemistry at Canadian universities.

I really get a sense, when I speak to you, about your passion for science.. What do you love about science?

I think the thing that really keeps me engaged is how our understanding of the biological world is constantly developing, improving, and changing. Over the course of evolution so many organisms have evolved to fit a specific ecological niche and we're really only just learning about the very intricate relationships that exist within the many different habitats.

In my own field too, I always wonder how such simple things like viruses, which can have just a handful of genes, are able to cause such devastating diseases, such as rabies in their hosts, and what mechanisms at the molecular level are responsible for this. I think it's an exciting time to be in the biological sciences at the moment, just because our technologies are evolving so quickly. Right now, there's been a hugely improved DNA sequencing capability. As a scientist, I'm constantly learning new methods and techniques. I find that science is never boring. You're always being challenged with new and different things.

We know that you started a passion for science when you were a child, living in Wales, and that you've had the opportunity of investigating different species and in different environments. What would you say is the coolest scientific fact that you know?

I think I would say, this would be the fact that, you know, all organisms on earth despite their huge diversity they all follow the central dogma of molecular biology. Basically, that states that genetic information is stored in the form of DNA, that is then converted to a related molecule, which we call RNA. That in turn directs the synthesis of proteins, which are responsible for forming and/or creating the components of all the cells and tissues of the body. All organisms use at least part of this information transfer process and this concept I think is a very strong indicator that all life on earth is evolved from the same general source. However, some organisms do simplify this process a little.

What type of scientific breakthrough are you hoping to see over the next 5 years

I really do hope for a breakthrough in renewable energy technology that will allow us to move away from the use of fossil fuels, sooner rather than later. Climate change is no longer a theory but certainly an established fact and human activity is certainly a main driving factor in that change. It's having a huge negative impact on so many plant and animal species around the world.

But even closer to home, the warming trend in Canada's north is having a huge impact and sometimes in unexpected and surprising ways. For example, we know that that red foxes are displacing arctic foxes in many northern areas, as the habitable red fox range moves more and more northward. Arctic foxes continue to harbour rabies, but we know that the red fox is also a permissive host for the same virus. So many of us working in the area of rabies wonder if this demographic change in fox populations will increase the chances of the disease spreading southwards just because of the greater range of the red fox throughout much of North America.

Obviously, were very fortunate to be in a time where those are recognizing the challenges of global warming and trying to find some new solutions to addressing it, as you say. That being said, you know, we have to look to the future and our hopes for the future. What would you tell young girls and young women to encourage them to choose science and help make a difference?

I would say, first and foremost don't be intimidated by science. I think everyone needs to avoid stereotypes and each one of us should be allowed to follow his or her dream and to do what we want to do. In fact, I find that when given the chance girls are often as good as or sometimes even better than boys in their ability to understand scientific theory and put scientific expiration into practice.

I think it's worth mentioning that last summer I attended the American Society for Biology meeting, which is an annual event where the most up-to-date science on the study of viruses is presented, and it was very noticeable that many of the keynote talks were given by women. One talk in particular that really impressed me was given by a lady, Dr. Agbandje-McKenna, who described her life story. It was quite fascinating. She grew up in a poor family in a small Nigerian village but through hard work and study she's now a successful scientist, as the Director of the Centre for Structural Biology at the University of Florida. I think her experience demonstrates that if you are prepared to work hard and persevere, really anything is possible.

Well, I think that you're probably a very good example of that as well. I would like to thank you very much for joining us today and for sharing your career information and the reasons that you love science. I think anyone will agree that you definitely have a real passion for science. Hopefully your words will have an opportunity to influence young girls to want to pursue the sciences as well.

Well thank you very much for the opportunity to talk today. I really do hope that my few words of wisdom encourage young girls to get involved in science.

Thank you.

Thank you.

[End of recording]

Don't be intimidated by science. I think everyone needs to avoid stereotypes and each one of us should be allowed to follow his or her dream and to do what we want to do.

Dr. Susan Nadin-Davis
Research Scientist, Ottawa Laboratory

Dr. Ruojing Wang

Ruojing Wang – Podcast

Dr. Ruojing Wang – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Ruojing Wang, the head of the National Seed Herbarium at the CFIA Saskatoon Laboratory in Saskatchewan.

Ruojing, thank you for joining us today to talk about your role at the CFIA, and to tell us more about your passion for science.


Can you tell us more about your role at the CFIA?

Okay, so, I'm Ruojing. I've worked at the CFIA for over 10 years. My role at the CFIA is the head of National Seed Herbarium. My role, specifically, is to first initiate and lead some research activities related to lab testing, and to also validate those methods for the laboratory private sector, which also does diagnostic testing using standard methods. The other part of my role is to develop some training materials for the national collection for safe specimens that are accessed by private labs, either for training or for diagnostic testing. The third role is to represent the CFIA at the National Seed Testing Association or International Seed Testing Association or on any other technical committees to develop either protocols or methods or to standardize some methods.

Obviously you have a lot of responsibilities, specifically with regards to seed testing. Can you tell us something about how your work with seeds helps Canadians?

We actually use the seed – any seed that comes to the lab – to do identity verification oridentification. CFIA regulations include the Seeds Act and the Plant Protection Act. Those acts try to prevent weed seed spreading, so that is the first purpose of identifying seeds. If any commodity comes to the lab either as a seed or as a grain…sometimes we get seed or other agricultural materials. If they contain seeds, we need to identify them to determine whether it is a weed seed first. Second, we have to identify whether they are regulated weed seeds. If they are regulated weed seeds, then the CFIA can take some kind of action depending on what kind of weed seed they are. Sometimes, we also detect weed seeds from imports, whether they are new species to the Canadian environment or whether they are new to that commodity. This information can be used for CFIA plant health, policies, and regulation reference.

What would be an example of a weed seed?

We have, for example, jointed goatgrass. These weeds are very, what we call, noxious or invasive. It can be a big problem when we plant a crop kind, if it contains jointed goatgrass. Yearly, this weed seed has a similar size and appearance to wheat. When wheat is sold that contains the weed – as seeds or grain – when it goes through the cleaning or harvesting process, the weeds cannot be totally removed from the wheat because they have a similar size. Sometimes they end up in a commodity. So, in the lab, we have to find whether this lot or this commodity contains jointed goatgrass. If it does, under regulations, it should be rejected for planting or even transport.

We know what weeds are but it's not always clear for the layperson, such as myself, what a weed seed might be.

Yes, I think, for the public, they generally see weeds in a field. We are the first line to detect the weed seed's potential for spreading to a field. We detect them at an early stage, as early as a seed.

What field of science did you study? Was it always the same field?

Biology has always been my passion, and very early on I did some…I like studying life, especially plants. I see plants as so diverse and so interesting. As a kid, you see the bees always flying around the plants, the birds around plants. My studies were always around plants. My initial field of study was horticulture. I did vegetable crop breeding and also did some seed protection – those kind of studies. Eventually, I decided to do further study. I went to the University of Saskatchewan. I did my PhD in plant ecology. I feel that plant ecology studies really broadened my knowledge and gave me a better understanding of plants, how they interact with each other and also interact with their surroundings. My studies have always centred on plants.

I know that you've done a great deal of studies. You've published a great deal, but I also know that you studied elsewhere, not just in Saskatchewan. What do you love about science from all of your experience? What would you say that you love about science?

It has a very big impact on human life. I think science has made our life better and made us understand our environment better. Also, it's not biased, in general. Science always provides some factual evidence when we make our decisions. At the CFIA, we say we are a science-based regulatory agency. We use science to inform us, to make better decisions.

I think that that's why science is so powerful and makes human beings powerful. Without science, we couldn't go into space. Without science, we couldn't have today's interaction, like long distance. I remember when I first went overseas from China to Japan; at that time I could probably only make one phone call a month or a week because it was expensive. But nowadays, in just minutes, seconds, you can send pictures. You can talk. You can live-stream all your activities to your home using digital technology.

You brought up a lot of really good points about the opportunities that science brings us, and, again, you've had an opportunity to study different areas of science. What would you say is the coolest scientific fact that you know?

I just feel science is cool in so many ways. But what springs to mind…just watching the news yesterday, I saw that Amazon has opened a new store without cashiers, without checkout lines. You can get whatever, then you just take it away and a computer will record everything. I think digital technology and computer science are fascinating. They've really changed our life, like how people interact, how information is shared and how, for example, we will be self-driving. We may be a few years from having self-driving cars. This kind of recent science fact is based on digital technology. I think it's just fascinating how it has changed every aspect of our lives.

You talk about your passion for science and how it affects human life and has a positive impact on human life. Again, you speak to your studies in biology and your passion for plants and, of course, horticulture. You also refer to the opportunity brought to us because of computer science. What or who is a scientist or science that inspires you, and why?

When I was very young, I read a story about Marie Curie. She was a female scientist who discovered radium, and she died from the long-term effects of working with radiation. But I was inspired by her because, first of all, that was in the 1920s – very early. Women could do such outstanding scientific work at a time when most women were not on an equal social footing with men, and she did the same outstanding work as men. She received the Nobel Prize twice. Also, her dedication was inspirational. She dedicated her whole life to science. Despite having some life challenges, she kept doing what she was passionate about. Her bravery, her persistence, and her dedication to science are real inspirations to many young girls.

Science is happening every day and, as you say, Marie Curie, obviously, she was very successful and she's very famous. What would you tell young girls and young women to encourage them to choose science, as you have?

I would say, you should follow your passion and your interests. If something interests you, it doesn't matter; you shouldn't be limiting yourself because you're a woman or you have different challenges or you think "that is too big for me." When you have lots of challenges, that means you have lots of opportunities for you to rise above those challenges.

We're moving really quickly with science, and we're seeing a lot more women, such as yourself, participating in science. In fact, 54% of scientists here at the CFIA are women. What scientific breakthrough do you hope for in the next five years?

I really hope, in the next five years, that artificial intelligence and digital technology in general will make our seed testing faster and more accurate. We can take our training and our resource accessibility much further using digital technology. Also, digital technology can help with remote diagnosis, so I hope this technology can be used. We not only can improve our laboratory testing, but we can also use the technology to safeguard our borders, help our inspectors, and help our private testing labs provide more timely live diagnosis using digital technology.

I would like to thank you very much for joining me today to talk about your experience and your passion for science.

Thank you very much for the opportunity to talk about science.


[End of Recording]

When you have lots of challenges, you have lots of opportunities to rise above those challenges.

Dr. Ruojing Wang
Head of the National Seed Herbarium, Saskatoon Laboratory

Dr. Hana Weingartl

Hana Weingartl – Podcast

Dr. Hana Weingartl – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Hana Weingartl, Head of the Special Pathogens Unit at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg. Hana, thank you for joining us today to talk about your role at the CFIA and why you love the field of science.

Can you tell us more about your role as the Head of Pathogens at the National Centre?

I think the role is described quite nicely in the title. I'm the Head of the Special Pathogens Unit at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. We work on diseases which could be transmitted from animals – especially livestock – to humans, and for which there is no cure or vaccine for humans. So, my role is to lead the Unit and to develop the program for the Unit and also to conduct research and development with diagnostic essays for those diseases, such as the Nipah virus disease or the Ebola virus disease.

Those are very important viruses to combat, certainly. So, with such important work being done, can you tell us something about the work that you do that helps the lives of Canadians?

Okay. So, in our lab, which is a biosafety lab, we work with quite dangerous viruses such as Ebola and Nipah. What we are trying to achieve is to develop diagnostic methods to detect them as soon as possible in case there is an incursion or intentional introduction of those viruses into Canada. We work at the veterinary level because our colleagues at the Public Health Agency of Canada have diagnostic capability and, actually, they also very often perform diagnostic testing for those diseases in humans. So, we focus on the veterinary aspects, and the work is more in terms of prevention. In case there is an outbreak, we are also working on developing veterinary vaccines because those would stop the transmission of the virus from livestock to humans. We, for example, know that the Nipah virus can be transmitted very efficiently from pigs to humans. So, our role is to be able to detect, immediately or very soon, the virus in the swine, and then prevent transmission to humans. So, it is a little bit on the preventive side, and maybe not so visible, but we definitely maintain a state of readiness.

So, when did you know you wanted to work in science?

I think I discovered it in Grade 6. We had a fantastic math professor. At that time, I was attending an experimental school that lasted for only about one year. She was teaching at the university but volunteered to also teach kids in this special school. She was very inspirational. Since then, I kind of thought, "Science, yes, it looks good. It's interesting."

So, did you know what kind of science you wanted to study, what field you pursued, starting out, obviously, with a love of math?

Yeah, I liked math, and then I also liked physics, but in the end, I moved more towards biology because at the very end, I wanted to know the origin of life, to see how that works. You know, viruses are very interesting because on one side they are not alive, and then, on the other, they are alive. So, this was, for me, very intriguing. Then, also, during my studies, I did general biology studies at Charles University in Prague. We had lots of courses which were actually on the border of physics and biology. We had biophysics. We had to study biophysical chemistry. We had mathematical modeling of biological systems. But I started more with mathematics and physics and then slowly moved to biology and then to virology.

So, what would you say that would be your love of science? What do you love most about science?

Well, I like solving mysteries and puzzles, and I think with science, every day there is something new. You get to ask questions and then look for the answers, or you get the pieces of a puzzle and then you put them together. So, it's more that you are always challenged, and what you do is always interesting. It's actually a very nice way to work.

What is the coolest scientific fact that you know? What is something that… you know, anything, whether it's something that you studied previously or even something that you're studying now?

Well, actually, what I like more than the facts is the theories and the hypotheses. For me, the coolest one, it's not in my field. Not so long ago, there was a publication that wrote about how it looks like there is a bump into our universe because there was another universe which bumped into our universe. These types of things, I really enjoy them. I think they are really cool.

So, obviously you've had a great career, an opportunity to study many different facets of science and, of course, mathematics and physics. So, who is a scientist that inspires you, and why?

I think since I was a kid, I have always admired Marie Skłodowska Curie. She was pioneering research in radioactivity, and she discovered, together with her husband, two radioactive elements. She was just a powerhouse. She was the first woman to get the Nobel Prize. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and she's still the only one who got them. One is in physics, and one is in chemistry. What I found really nice about her is that, during the First World War, she assembled a small, mobile X-Ray laboratory, and then she was one of the first women to get a driving license to drive it around from one hospital to another to help injured soldiers who were returning from the front. She did it with her daughter, so I think she was just, you know, an amazing woman.

You know, having so many people like that, like Marie Curie – because I've read about her myself and, of course, I watched the movie – it's intimidating, right? It's intimidating, but it's also inspiring to think we can and should do more. What scientific breakthrough do you hope for in the next five years? I know that you're also a teacher. So, you probably get to see a lot of opportunities.

So, I will be retiring this year. So, actually, what I am hoping for is for my two students to successfully graduate, and then I have, right now, three postdoctoral fellows. Actually, all five of them have very interesting findings. So, I am hoping to publish whatever they achieved and hopefully it will be in the high-profile journals because I think that what they have discovered is quite exciting.

So, you are a teacher. You've had a long career. You are on the verge of retirement. You've studied different facets of science, and obviously you have a lot to share, a lot to provide. So, what would you tell girls and young women today to encourage them to choose science?

Well, I think I would probably tell them that they can have a very interesting life. It's quite exciting to work in science, and if they like science, they should follow up and not let anyone tell them that they are not up to it because they are girls or young women. That's all.

Well, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your sharing your love of science with us and we wish you so much luck with the next set of adventures that you have in your life. Retirement?

[laughs] Well, thank you very much. It was pleasure to talk to you.

Thank you.

[End of recording]

We work on the development of veterinary vaccines because these are what would stop the transmission of a virus from livestock to humans. It may not be visible, but we definitely maintain a state of readiness.

Dr. Hana Weingartl
Head of Special Pathogens Unit, Winnipeg Laboratory

Dr. Émilie Larocque

Émilie Larocque – Podcast

Dr. Émilie Larocque – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Émilie Larocque, a Virologist at Saint-Hyacinthe Laboratory. Émilie, thank you for joining us today to talk about your role at the CFIA and why you love the field of science.

Can you tell us more about your role as a Virologist at the CFIA?

Yes, my role is mainly to research activities in the field of Food Safety. Most of us know that foodborne illnesses can be caused by bacteria and parasites but they can also be caused by viruses. Viruses are actually responsible for most of these illnesses. Concretely my work consists in developing methods for the detection and identification of these viruses, in particular noroviruses and Hepatitis A virus in food samples. Food samples can be anything from lettuce, herbs, fresh fruits, frozen fruits or anything like that, and our ultimate goal is to enhance [CFIA's Food Virology Diagnostic Lab] capacity and support public health agencies during foodborne outbreak investigations.

That sounds quite, quite significant. When did you know you wanted to work in Science?

Well, I remember when I was little – maybe when I was 6 or 7 years old – when people would ask me the big question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I would answer "a Marine Biologist." I always loved biology class growing up and I had good grades in my science classes. I'm not a Marine Biologist today, but I do have a Bachelor's in Biology.

So you have a Bachelor's in Biology, you wanted to be a Marine Biologist and today you're a Virologist. Was there any other field in Science that you studied?

Actually, yes. During my Bachelor's I did a specialization in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology and then I went on into graduate school and I did a basic research in molecular virology, more specifically Human Retroviruses.

So, you study obviously a lot when it comes to humans and to food viruses. What do you love about science?

I'd have to say that I love the entire scientific method, starting from asking a big or small question to reviewing everything that's out there on the subject, formulating my own hypothesis and then coming up with an experimental design to test that hypothesis. And obviously follow up and do the experiments and analyze the data to finally give an explanation. I also love the fact that the process leads to new knowledge and this is what makes science so thrilling.

With all things that you studied and obviously your love of science, what would you say is the coolest fact you know?

I think that the coolest fact that I know is that retroviruses integrated the genome of primates over 25 million years ago and now about 8% of the human genome contains these ancestral retrovirus sequences. So although these sequences are actually inactive some can actually still produce proteins and be beneficial for us.

When I hear you, I totally realise how much you love science and how much it's always been a part of who you are and what you've studied. What would you tell girls and young women today to encourage them to choose science as well?

Well, I think I would tell them to most importantly just to "stay true to yourself." If you're passionate about science and if that's what makes you happy and makes you proud then you should just go for it and nothing should stop you!

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us Émilie. We're very happy that you joined us today.

It was my pleasure.

Thank you.

Thank you.

[End of recording]

I love the fact that the process leads to new knowledge, which is what makes science so thrilling.

Dr. Émilie Larocque
Virologist, Saint-Hyacinthe Laboratory

Anna-Mary Schmidt

Anna-Mary Schmidt – Podcast

Anna-Mary Schmidt – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Anna-Mary Schmidt, the head of Grapevine Diagnostics at the CFIA Sidney laboratory, Centre for Plant Health in Sidney, BC. Thank you for joining us today to talk about your role at the CFIA and to tell us more about your passion for science.

Oh, my pleasure.

Anna-Mary, can you tell us more about your role as head of Grapevine Diagnostics at the CFIA?

Sure, my primary role is to manage the virus testing and virus elimination programs for both grapevine and small fruit. By "small fruit" I mean berries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, etcetera. I also provide scientific advice to CFIA Plant Health, other government departments, foreign governments, and international plant health organizations as required. I manage and/or collaborate on research and tech development projects related to our grapevine and small fruit programs.

You clearly have a lot of responsibilities. How do you feel that your work helps Canadians?

Well, a primary function of this Sidney lab is to provide a safe introduction of foreign plant material into Canada and prevent the introduction of unwanted pests and pathogens. These introduced pests and pathogens have the ability to significantly harm the Canadian economy, damage the environment, and really threaten national food security in certain aspects. My role is to manage the testing of particular imported commodities and to ultimately determine the health status or the phytosanitary status of these plants before deciding whether they can be released or not.

Have you been challenged by a particular pest? Is there one that comes to mind?

Well, viruses are tricky. We primarily focus on virus and virus-like diseases at the Sidney lab. The reason that we focus on these viruses so much is because once they infect a host plant, that plant is infected for life. You can't just treat a plant when it has a virus, like you might be able to treat mildew or a fungal infection. Once a plant is infected with this virus in an orchard or a vineyard, the only thing you can do is remove that infected plant. There are ways to eliminate virus in plants in single instances in a controlled setting but not if the virus is planted out in a field or a vineyard or orchard. Viruses on the whole are very challenging.

Now, you say that your work is specific to grapevines and fruits, and obviously in the BC economy that would be very significant. What was it that made you want to work in science?

Well, it didn't really happen suddenly. When I was young I had multiple interests. At one point – and for a long time when I was younger – I wanted to be a detective, which is amusing in light of eventually studying science, as both require investigating the unknown and piecing together a puzzle. Mostly when I was younger, I loved being outdoors and was very inspired by nature. I think nature really informs us so much about science and beauty and creativity and spirituality. I really got hooked on that beauty and creativity aspect. I ended up falling in love with photography at a very young age and received my first 35 mm camera on my 14th birthday. Of course, this was well before the digital age. So, I learned how to develop film and make prints and just loved it. Before studying science, I went to art school and I received a diploma in photographic arts. Although this was a really great time of my life, I eventually realized that I needed to go back to school given my enthusiasm for nature and my keen interest in science, it was an easy decision to choose a biological science.

Did you feel that, as an art student, it was a fairly easy transition to go into the sciences?

Well, not initially, but the first couple years of studying sciences, you know, it seems to be a lot of just basic concepts and memorization and that sort of thing. But when you get into third and fourth year, you're really learning the nitty gritty of it all, and that's where I saw that science was really a very creative process.

Now, having done this for a few years and studying so many different types of science, what do you think is the coolest scientific fact you know?

Well, I remember being in second-year microbiology class and I just experienced this amazing revelation when we were learning that viruses are in a grey area between living and non-living. They can't replicate on their own: They need a host cell to do so, and they do so by essentially hijacking the host cell's replication machinery. Then, they can go on and profoundly affect the behaviour of their host. I still find this incredibly fascinating.

Would you say, as a scientist, that's something that inspires you? Or what do you feel does inspire you as a scientist? Or who do you feel inspires you as a scientist?

Well, yeah, definitely the fact that science isn't entirely black and white really excites me. In terms of who excites me, as a scientist, or who has inspired me, I'd have to say that Rosalind Franklin is an inspiration in many ways. Of course, many of us know her as a chemist and accomplished X-ray crystallographer who made significant contributions to the discovery of the DNA double helix structure. Unfortunately, she didn't share the Nobel Prize for this discovery with her colleagues, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins. I think we all know the names Watson and Crick, but unfortunately Rosalind Franklin is lesser known. She's inspiring because she struggled being a female scientist in a man's world, but she really persevered. I think that shows when you read about… those that weren't intimidated by her saw a woman who was extremely intelligent and witty, very sporty and worldly as well. She loved to travel and learn about other cultures. She had a very, very inquisitive mind. She eventually went on to use crystallography to study the structure of plant viruses, which I think is pretty cool, given my work field right now.

What scientific breakthrough do you hope for in the next five years?

Well, I would love to see better therapeutic treatments for cancer and ultimately a cure. You know, I think that this is something that almost every single one of us has been touched by. I have to say I would just really love to see progress in this field.

Having had the opportunity of the career that you've had and the academic pursuits that you've had and, of course, your interest in scientists such as Rosalind Franklin, what would you tell girls and young women to encourage them to choose science?

I would say, "Do what you love and believe in your abilities and try not to be intimidated or afraid." I'm sure that girls have what it takes, and I think it's really important that everyone, not just young women, educate themselves as to what scientists actually do. If you can, join a program where you shadow scientists. If you love physics or mechanical engineering or entomology – insects – then try to shadow someone in that field and really get a sense of what they do. I think this can be very enlightening for young people. I also think I would recommend not to feel the need to have a single interest, and to understand that different disciplines can work really well together. If you start on one track and you realize it's not quite what you wanted, don't be afraid to try something new, and take your time in choosing the career you want to pursue. Allow yourself to understand how the world works better before you make big decisions like this.

I agree, it would be nice to see more girls pursue everything that they want to pursue.

Exactly, and why not?

And why not? Well, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time and sharing your story with us.

Oh, you're very welcome. I'm glad I could share it.

Thank you.

Thank you.

[End of recording]

When I was younger I wanted to be a detective, which is amusing in light of eventually studying science, as both require investigating the unknown and piecing together a puzzle.

Anna-Mary Schmidt
Head of Grapevine Diagnostics, Sidney Laboratory
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