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.
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.