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Women in Science – podcast with Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges

June 2019

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

Bree-Ann Lightfoot and Dr. Lisa Hodges work together at the Dartmouth Laboratory where they perform species identification testing of fish and fish products to confirm that companies are accurately labelling their products.

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]

Dr. Catherine Brisson, Director, Ottawa Animal Health Laboratory

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