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Women in Science – podcast with Anna-Mary Schmidt

June 2019

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

Anna-Mary started out as a photographer, but her desire to discover nature led her to become a scientist at the Sidney Laboratory who works to keep Canada's grapevines and fruit safe.

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]

Women in science - Anna-Mary Schmidt

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