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Women in Science – podcast with Dr. Susan Nadin-Davis

June 2019

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

As a research scientist, Susan develops tests for bacteria and viruses. Her work in the Ottawa Laboratory (Fallowfield) helps reduce the impact of diseases, such as rabies, in animal populations and limits the chance of them spreading to people.

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]

Women in Science – Dr. Susan Nadin-Davis

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