Researchers Under the Microscope

IMG_6009-1.jpg

Dr. Odette Laneuville          Dr. Emily Standen

 

Director of Biomedical Sciences program and Associate Professor Assistant Professor

Dr. Odette Laneuville is an Associate Professor and Director of the Biomedical Sciences program at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on the molecular mechanisms underlying the pathophysiology of joint contractures with the goal of restoring normal range of motion of joints. She also studies fat changes in the bone marrow before, and after exposure to microgravity in collaboration with NASA. Dr. Laneuville is currently looking for motivated graduate students to join her lab, and can be contacted at olaneuvi@uOttawa.ca.

Dr. Emily Standen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Ottawa. Her research focuses on evolutionary and comparative biomechanics and understanding the anatomical, physiological and functional flexibility of vertebrate muscles and bones. Dr. Standen is currently looking for motivated graduate students to join her lab, and can be contacted at estanden@uottawa.ca.

OSURJ: Could you tell us about where you are originally from? Where you did your undergraduate/graduate degrees, and how you came to uOttawa to teach?

ES: I started my undergraduate degree at the University of King’s College in Halifax and did all of my science courses at Dalhousie and then I actually got itchy feet. Before I finished at Dal, I arranged to do my final honors thesis at the University of Victoria. I wanted to do more fishy things on the west coast. Then I worked for the government doing research in the field.

OL: You did!?

ES: Yeah! Chasing salmon around in rivers and looking at spawning mortalities etc. And then I realized that after 3 years, you need more education to do really fun things. And so I went back and did a masters at UBC looking at salmon bioenergetics and how they migrate up rivers. During one of my field seasons, we used underwater cameras to look at salmon migrating through different hydraulic conditions; I used to whitewater paddle so I wanted to know how the heck these fish were swimming so easily upriver when I was working so hard in my boat. It was so obvious that the fish had a huge advantage and I wanted to know exactly how they were doing it so I went around the world asking different people how to solve this problem - mathematicians, physicists - and everyone pointed me to George Lauder who became my PhD supervisor. So I went into his lab and did my PhD to look at how fish used their fins during swimming, and that was at Harvard. That led to a postdoc at McGill and then faculty here.

OL: And then you met me!

ES: And then I met you! It’s been downhill ever since [laughs]

OL: I was born in the eastern townships in the southern part of Quebec. I lived in a little town called Cowansville. Very small population. So I grew up there and then my parents sent me to private school because I was a hyper kid. Before I got there, I had an accident and broke my elbow and I had surgery after surgery. I was put in a bed for 2 months and was immobile. And finally I got out of this bed after 2 months and developed a contracture where I couldn’t stretch my elbow. My little town had no physiotherapist. Fortunately my mother was a nurse. I was puzzled as to why because I didn’t move for 2 months, I lost the mobility of my elbow. Then after high school I went to CÉGEP and played a lot in the gymnasium. I was good at all sports. I thought I would become a skier. But I didn’t get on any team anywhere. But I tried! Very hard! I believed in myself! And then I decided to go to university where I took medical biology. Interesting because now I am the director of the biomedical science program. So I did my 3 years at Trois-Rivieres. I met my husband there! He was studying biophysics. We graduated and we went to Montreal where I got my Masters in Neuroscience. Then I went to UofT where I did my PhD in the department of pharmacology. I was interested in joint disease and pain. After 2 and a half years I graduated. That was a sprint. Don’t ever do that. You have no life [laughs]. So then we decided to continue on into the US in Michigan where I did my postdoctoral training. I spent 3 years there. I did it in biochemistry and molecular biology which I teach now, so there’s a use for some stuff that I did way back then. At the very last day of my postdoctoral training, I became a mother. I stayed down there another 6 months while my husband was finishing his PhD. And then came up to Canada and took a position here at UofO and never left. So I tell students don’t ask me what the private sector offers because I never left the university!

OSURJ: Are there any new projects that you are both working on?

ES: Odette is crazy.

OL: And it’s contagious.

ES: We have this collaboration. I work on comparative biomechanics. I’m very interested in how fish move around in water and on land. At a crucial point in vertebrate evolution fish decided to hop up onto land and I want to know how something that had fins was able to walk effectively enough to survive those first few forays onto land. And so my research is on evolutionary plasticity - how do you do new things with the stuff you’ve got. Odette on the other hand is trying to figure out how to fix shoulders so that when people have reconstructive surgery after they’ve torn their rotator cuff, they recover full function. Current surgical techniques are not always effective, most people don’t recover their motion and surgeries fail. At Honours Poster Day we were chatting about how interesting the muscle tendon and skin interaction is in fishes. It is different from mammals (and humans) and Odette got very excited about that.

OL: Exactly! So I’ve been working with a group of clinicians, in particular with a guy who practices as a physiatrist. So physical rehab medicine. And he is also interested in mobility. Guy Trudel is his name. And he cares for those patients at the rehab centre but also he’s a scientist researcher. One of the problems he’s interested in is rotator cuff tear. And he explained to me that one of the problems was to reattach this torn tendon to the bone. A tendon is soft, bone is hard. Even if they put an anchor or suture, 50% of the time it tears. So we need to come up with a better glue. So, I looked at Emily’s work and said “Oh my god those fish are walking on fins, they have shoulders”. And Emily published an amazing paper in Nature showing that the fish when put on land to walk had changes in its shoulders.

ES: Yeah, their bones changed in a way that suggested they were better supported.

OL: I was fascinated! I said “Oh my god, she is going to tell me how we change what we do in the clinic which only has limited success”. So we zoomed in to this interface which is at the end of the muscle - the tendon -and the hard tissue which is the bone. This interface is called enthesis. It’s structured in a very interesting way and Emily is starting to wonder where is the force going, how it is transferring. So for me, it is opening a new way to look at my structure other than microscopy or biological structures to reinforce. So I am really amazed and I have to think outside of the box here because those people working for years on repairing rotator cuff tears are not stupid. They’re very smart and yet they have not figured it out. So let’s think outside the box.

So I think I’ve met my match (with Emily).

ES: In crazy, maybe. [laughs]

OL: So we look at the structure at the cellular level and Emily pulls me out to the larger scale and says “Look at it this way” and adds to my understanding as to why this structure is so amazing and so efficient at transferring force. The movement of the shoulder is very elaborate - it’s involved in adduction, abduction, rotation etc. And so all this is permitted by a complex structure that allows for force transfer. So that’s what we chat about.

ES: She [Odette] is pulling me down to the cellular level where we’re trying to understand how different tissue types interact with each other and I keep pulling her back out to the big picture to what are the other ways you can attach at a tissue site to help with the force transfer.

OL: And one of the fascinating features about this enthesis, where the tendon attaches, the bone cortex is the thinnest of the humeral bone. It should be the opposite. And the tendon attachment site should be made of thick bone cortex. So in my mind it made no sense. Perhaps this has to be because it allows for more efficient transfer of force between those 2 different tissues. So this particular organization is not just about cells but about the extracellular matrix and not only a transfer of the force but also important for the tendon attachment.

ES: And the maintenance of the structure. If you get a lot of pressure at one spot, tissue gets damaged and so it needs to be repaired.

OL: So the enthesis is an amazing structure in the body to me. And we and my colleagues have really contributed amazing knowledge to this problem but I think now what I’m realizing in talking with Emily is that “Hey, the answer is in the fish”

ES: I don’t know if the answer is totally in the fish but it’s definitely going to be found through looking around at how other animals may solve similar problems.

OL: Yes! I think the collaboration for me is also more to help me think. Because I can read, think, and exchange with my peers with little change in my thinking over time which is a bit boring. [Laughs] But with Emily I think differently. And I love that.

ES: And the learning too! I find that if you’re thrown in conversation with somebody who's an expert in something else, there are so many things that you learn that may not be applicable to your research in general but impact your thinking process and understanding what other options are out there. It’s super valuable.

IMG_6034-1.jpg
IMG_5994-1.jpg

OSURJ: Have you been able to come up with any strategies with combining your research?

OL: Well that’s top secret!
ES: If we tell you we’d have to kill you! [laughs] There are no solutions at this point. Lots of cool ideas though, and there's a lot of “maybes”. And so this is the fun part of science. You guys have been told, I’m sure, that science is 90% failure where you try something because it looks like a cool idea and then it doesn't work out. But failures give you ideas on what else to try. And so I think right now we have more ideas to try than solutions, for sure.

OL: We can go on and play like this for years and I will never be bored. But at the end of the day we have to accomplish something, and rightfully so!

ES: And hopefully help people with shoulder issues.

OL: So for me, the best way is to bring in a student in. A student that will knock on my door and say “Hey, this is what we got, next step is...” and we discuss. I think for me it keeps me disciplined about productivity and accomplishing something. And it is through a student that we co-supervise. Amazing student. Because she tolerates both of us [laughs]. She’s very strong, and brilliant.

ES: She’s good, yes. She did her honours with us and now she’s going to stick around for her masters.

OL: So that’s how we’ll move from ideas to doing something. So I think what you ask is very important. We must remain productive and must move forward. We are also in an academic environment so training of students to me is my most important function. Research is fascinating but the most rewarding task is teaching.

ES: And getting students to become independent researchers.

ES: And sort of the way Odette has explained how our relationship is beneficial to each other, students are the same. Because they come in without a whole bag of expertise which means they do not have any sort of experiential encumbrances. So they’re not confined with “But this is the way we’ve always done it”. They come in saying “What are we doing”? And that’s amazing because the questions they ask makes you question “Oh wait what ARE we doing?” or  “Oh no, maybe it’s not that clear”. And that’s why young bright students are wonderful at making research actually- 

OL: move

ES: -in positive directions because they’re not confined.

OL: And I think what’s particularly important for students in the biomedical science program is that many of them are aspiring at entering medical school and becoming physicians. And I tell them well this is great. But remember always that there’s a need for plan B. And I tell them you know those medical discoveries are going to come from the basic sciences. If you can explain the basic science of rotator cuff tear, then I think you can now identify targets and strategies. So the biological basis of every disease, if people go back to this, then I guess it will become a nice strategy to develop new treatments to help people. There’s a lot to be discovered in terms of new treatments we need. And so I try to bring to attention that “Look, I work with a person who is interested in walking fish!” And at first you would say-

ES: What’s that got to do with medicine?

OL: And I said “To me, it has been an amazing journey to change my thinking, and I hope it inspires them to not change their plan A but for plan B even if in your medical training you on clinical problems, you still have a 3 month block of research and students still need to be knowledgeable about current research”. 

ES: If you think about it too, being a physician - every patient is a research project. [laughs]. They come in and say “I have a problem with my head”. Well what do you do? The scientific method; start asking questions. Did you hit your head? It’s science. And so having a basic foundation in scientific reasoning and thinking and problem solving is useful. Whether you want to be a doctor or not! I could never be a doctor. There are too many sick people [laughs]. I like being around healthy people.

OSURJ: Can you describe an embarrassing or funny moment as a grad student or undergrad in lab/research? Try and pick from one of the many.

OL: Yes I do remember one vividly. I was between my 2nd and 3rd year of my undergraduate degree and I worked in the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) as a summer student. I was asked to assist the Vet who was doing her PhD. Her project was on ANP - Atrial Natriuretic Peptide. Back then, they were studying the effects of it on blood pressure. And her model was the pig. So nobody wanted to do surgery on pigs but me. So I said sure I can go. So we’re in the OR and she had to put sensors in the carotids of those animals. I was clamping the carotids of a 300lb pig in a small room. She was delicately putting in a pump. The phone rang and, without thinking, I dropped everything to pick up and answer the phone. I turned around and the room was red. The vet’s white blouse was red. Blood showered everywhere.

ES: [Laughs] were you in serious trouble?

OL: Yes! I was responsible for cleaning that room. Took 5 hours.

My supervisor was at her desk and she said “So, what are we going to do with you? No vet school I hope!” And then the next week we had a lab meeting. She showed a picture of herself covered in blood and said “This is what she’s been doing. Does anyone want to take her?” I did a lot better after that.

ES: That’s a good story!

OL: She’s now a professor at McGill, and every time I have a chance to stop by her office she still has that picture. She says “I cannot believe you became a professor. You should have been a receptionist!”

ES: Well, you were very good at the phone! [Laughs] That was a very good embarrassing story.

OL: Wait until we work together.

ES: The most embarrassing moment that I can remember occurred during my PhD. It was one of the first experiments I ran all by myself. And I was working on trout and swimming them in swim tunnel which is like a treadmill for fish. The fish swims between two grates against the flow of water. Trout are very skittish and so sometimes the fish need a little bit of time just to settle down in the flow tunnel before they’ll behave how you want them to behave. So I put this fish in later in the afternoon and it was just too hyper, so, against regular protocol, I left it in the flow tunnel to relax overnight. When I returned in the morning there was no fish in the tank, there was no fish on the floor, it had vanished! It was then that I realized that somehow the fish had scooched through the containment grate and was swimming inside the flow tunnel well out of reach. I worked early in the morning and I thought I could solve this issue before anyone came in. I pulled the upstream containment grate and turned the flow tunnel on full blast thinking I would wash the fish back into the proper position in the tank. No luck, the fish was a professional surfer and was riding a small hydraulic standing wave that had formed at the bottom of the tank. The irony was that tiny trout was doing exactly what all of the fish I had seen in the river did, effortlessly swimming in a ridiculously strong current.  On the river the fish laughed at me as I paddled my butt off against the current and here in the lab this little fish was laughing at me as I tried to overpower it with flow that it effortlessly swam against. I battled this fish for a while that morning until I heard someone enter the lab, hoping it wasn’t my supervisor I snuck out the door to find the senior grad student who also happens to be an amazing angler. So I confess to Jimmy “I’ve got a problem”. I showed him the incredible surfing trout, we laughed for a while and then we got down to business trying to get the fish out.  Draining the tank was not an option, it took too long, our supervisor George might come in before that could solve the problem and it would end with a dead trout stuck at the bottom of the tunnel anyway.  Jimmy came up with the amazing idea of fishing the trout out. We put a worm on a hook, threaded it down into the tunnel, hooked the darn thing and fished it out. That was one of the most embarrassing moments, although pretty fun too.

OSURJ: Did George ever find out?

ES: I don’t think so, but if you write about it he might [laughs]. He probably would have thought it was funny though.

OSURJ: You met kind of by coincidence and your research fields are so different that one might not even think that they could be connected. Do you think it would be good for the university to have some kind of initiative where they connect researchers from different fields to see if more collaborations like this could happen?
OL: I think so, but I think for this to be efficient and going over long term period of time, there has to be chemistry in terms of individuals. To me, at this point in my career, I have so much on my plate. Another project or collaboration will be beneficial if the chemistry is there and it’s a deal otherwise it’s not going to last. So whether or not the university administration should be involved, I think what they could do is perhaps create some opportunities for this to happen.

ES: Opportunities to meet each other rather than try to get people together. Just have people talk. One of the things they could do is have more in-house presentations by the professors that are here that we all attend. We’re all so busy that we don’t necessarily attend our colleague’s presentations. But when we do it works really well. For instance, I had a group of international researchers here last week at a workshop and I got Tuan Bui to come give us a 15 minute presentation on his research because he’s in neuro and the guys I’m working with are bio-roboticists interested in control algorithms. Tuan came and gave a talk - and I’m close colleagues with Tuan and I know what he does, but I didn’t know how cool some of his results were. So one 15 minute presentation to my group from Japan and Switzerland has made both of us realize that we should be working together more because we’re doing really complimentary stuff.

OL: I think one way it could work is if we have students. Because like the one Emily and I are co-supervising, she forces us to get together every week. She’s the one that calls the weekly objectives. And she brings problems. So to me, if it’s built around students with students at the centre, it will work. Between us you needs someone that’s going to constantly nag you on it because students are on deadlines. They have to complete their degree, they have to fulfill the requirements for their degrees, they have all kinds of courses with specific requirements and they will chase you because they’re going to get to the end point. And us, yes we have deadlines but not as rigid or in the short-term as students do.

ES: The UROP program is good. Those sorts of things that give students the opportunities to say “I’m going to get this money and come and work with you”, it makes it easy for us to say okay yes we can do that. So those initiatives and incentives are good. Joint honours projects are good too.

OSURJ: Are you currently looking for any students in your labs?

ES: I am looking for the rare student who is either an engineer who is a really good coder with a lot of interest in biology, or a biologist that has quite a bit of experience in biomechanics, physics and engineering. These are hard people to find.

OL: These people don’t exist!

ES: They exist after I train them and then they go away! [laughs]

OL: If a graduate student knocks on the door with a specific project or an interest in what I do and particularly on this project Emily and I want to get going, I would probably say yes. But for Honours right now, I have enough and I wouldn’t do a good job of supervision if I was to accept more.

ES: Yes, my comments go for graduate students as well. I am over-extended with honours students next year. My problem is I always say yes!

OL: After many years and supervisions, the most important quality in honours students, would be someone who can write. Someone who can read a paper or text and extract the essence and put it in his or her own writing and its complete, succinct and in good english. I think to me that’s the most important quality. So when I interview them, I ask them, “Tell me if you’ve been involved with another project”. And if the explanation is short and direct and complete, I say “Well this person can extract, identify the essence and convey it”. To me, that’s by far the most important thing. More important than marks. Marks are important of course because research is demanding, so individuals who are hardworking are probably going to be the most productive students. But someone who can express themselves well is the #1 criteria.

ES: In life probably.

OSURJ: It’s what we try to foster!

ES: If you can communicate well you’ll go places.

OSURJ: Yeah it’s definitely a hard skill to develop if you don’t take the courses that have those assignments or you don’t seek out those opportunities.

ES: And those opportunities are tiring! It’s hard to write!

OL: It’s on top of your regular workload and courses. I write everyday. I read everyday. So I’m sure I’m not natural at it. It’s like going to the gym. I have to pump up my muscles. Otherwise I lose it. If I don't do it every occasion I have, I lose it.

ES: I think it’s key. I don’t think you have to be the smartest cookie in the box. You just need to be able to communicate effectively and then you’re ahead of the game.

OSURJ: If you won the lottery, what would you do? Let’s say, 100 million dollars.

OL: Canadian or American? [Laughs]

ES: I would take like 5 million of it and set up a trust so that all my bills are paid for the rest of my life. And the 95, then I would set up a foundation and I would organize the foundation according to rules that I think would work. The most frustrating thing about watching administrations deal with money is that there are unnecessary costs and large overheads that are lost out of grants. So I would try to set it up to fund my lab - my lab doesn’t need much money to run at all. If you invest a certain amount of principal, you get a huge amount annually. You could take $5 million, invest it, and then have $40-50 thousand a year to fund your grad students. It’s all about endowments. If you have an endowed fund, you have money for the rest of your life without going into the principal. That’s what I would do. And then I would do whatever science I wanted.

OL: See I’m not that good at budgeting, saving for the future.

ES: So you would give it to me, and I would make it last forever! [laughs].

OL: The first thing I would buy is a catamaran. 18ft.

ES: And you would start collecting mudskippers.

OL: And I would go back to what I was doing as a CÉGEP student. [A catamaran] with a nice trampoline, and I would sail to Florida and back. So that would be my first purchase.

ES: I’m really boring and responsible.

OL: I know! Get a life Emily! My second thing would be… But $100 million wouldn’t be enough. I’m going to make it $500 million. I would build a building similar to the STEM idea, but I would build it for basic science. Next to it would be a residence for grad students. Honours students can hang out on the first floor. And, a Second Cup. On the upper floor would be one apartment for ten students, and those ten students would each have a room, and share a kitchen and living room. They are forced to live together, but they also have some privacy. And they would not be studying in the same program. Engineer, poetry, philosophy, biologist, physicist… And in the beginning of the year I am going to promise to sponsor them again, if they come up with a great solution to a society problem. If you win, next year your rent is going down, but if you don’t win, the rent goes up! So, forced to work together at solving society problems, and you can go to the lab next door with the birds, fish… And, the last floor of that science building would be my mudskipper room.

ES: She really likes mudskippers.

OL: Of all kinds! The Japanese ones, the ones with the eyes that pop out. And then I would have world experts coming to take care of my mudskippers.

ES: Okay I’m jumping in on your $500 million. So if we have this new building, you need to really fall on the sociologists to help you design that building, so that there are a ton of communal spaces. Because where ideas grow and really flourish is when people can interact with each other in silly ways, that’s how we got together.

OL: Yes, around a meal, cooking in the same kitchen, watching a hockey game or whatever.

ES: Transfer that, though, to the lab as well, so that labs engage and interact with each other. And your labs have beer!

OL: Yes, so that’s what I would do. Way above your $100 million. I’m very simple, it’s not complicated, no saving, building interest…

ES: Oh yeah, well you have to take the last $100 million of that five to fund the place. So that if someone says, I want to bring these guys to a fun conference, you can say, oh, here’s some money.

OL: I will name my husband in charge of the trust, because he will do what she explained in terms of investment and sustainability, so he would be good. But the rest I would say goes towards my catamaran, and my mudskippers. But I need to share, I need to interact with students and see them talking among themselves without professors getting in the way. [Mudskippers] walk on their front fins, and they’ve got loaded shoulders. I need to get my hands on one, I retire in 15 years, and that is my career goal for the next 15 years. I’m not making this up, I’m obsessed with mudskippers.

ES: I don’t have any mudskippers in my lab, and every day she asks me, “How are the mudskippers?”

OSURJ: Do you have any advice for people who would like to pursue research as a career?

ES: I would say, don’t worry about what other people are thinking, do what interests you. I see a lot of people deciding what they’re going to do because of what other people like, or where the funding is. Don’t worry so much about that, because research is a lot of long, hard slogging, and if you don’t love what you’re doing, it makes it really hard. But if you love what you’re doing, every day you go home, and even if you fail, it was a super fun day. This week for example, I got to build a setup, I put the cameras all in the right spot, the animal did nothing right, but it’s a really good day because everything else was working. I liked lego when I was a kid, and my job is a little bit like playing with lego everyday.

OL: My advice would be very simple: fix what’s broken. If you can’t write, learn it. Gym every day with your pencil, and learn to write. If you can’t express yourself, fix it. Practice with your friends, your roommate, and fix it. Don’t just whine and complain. Fix it, and move on. Then something good will happen. Also, a second piece of advice: human network - not Facebook network. The most important tool in my office is my phone. If I grab the phone and talk to someone, “Hey it’s Odette, calling NASA,” “Oh Odette, sure!” I’m putting a project together now that looks at studies from Germany and Slovenia, researchers in France, and I’ve called them all by phone. I could have used email, particularly with the time changes, so we got to talk over the phone. They were very enthusiastic about jumping in with me.

ES: A verbal conversation is much faster than email, because in three sentences, you can redirect which path you need to go based on the other person’s knowledge. Whereas in an email, it takes six or seven emails to go back and forth, and there are delays when people don’t check their email.

OL: So to me, that’s the most important, efficient way. So when I call and I say, “It’s Odette”, I’m not the only Odette in the world but they know who I am. “Of course, Odette, we remember you!” They are brilliant, they make me think outside the box, I love those people. Keep those connections strong, the network you build while you are here in the university and beyond.

ES: And along that line, don’t be shy. Don’t think that your question is stupid, because nine times out of ten, if you have that question, so do a lot of other people in the room, and the person you are asking may not have thought about it for a really long time, if ever. So, stupid questions are good. I just finished two weeks of really stupid questions, because all of my colleagues are biorobotic engineers. I don’t know anything about that, so I had some crazy questions, for example I asked them how the signal works in a force transducer. How do you get a signal out of a piece of metal? “Oh,” they say, “That’s taking me back.” And they explain it, and then as they explain it, it solves problems that we are having in other areas, because “Hey, you know what, that would work for this.” So you may have asked a really basic fundamental question that maybe you think you should know the answer to already, but it never hurts to have people go back to first principles and review.

OSURJ: Dr. Laneuville, could you tell us about your research with NASA?

OL: What we do is, the research program is called the biological basis of immobility. Essentially, we are studying deconditioning which happens to people who are bedridden, who might be in the hospital. They are stuck in bed for weeks, and then when they recover from their initial disease or injury or other, then they can’t resume their activity because of extreme weakness. They are sent to a rehab centre, and then they are slowly reconditioned. That is a long process, it is tedious. So the contribution of immobility to the deconditioning is hard to isolate in patients. For this, we use a bed rest study, where we put healthy people in bed, and then they become deconditioned after two months. This allows us to study how the immobility contributes to deconditioning. And likewise with NASA, we are interested in this because essentially, astronauts come back after 6 months or so of exposure to microgravity on board of the International Space Station, they come back and they are deconditioned. Although less so now, because they do ~2 hours of exercise per day, but they have other health issues and that is part of deconditioning. Deconditioning is a complex response of the body to a lack of mechanical stimulation, gravity, and so that is my role in this project.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Researchers Under the Microscope

kerr.png

Dr. Jeremy Kerr

University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation Biology

Dr. Jeremy Kerr is a full professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa, as well as the holder of the University Research Chair in Macroecology and Conservation, and is the President of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution. His research focuses on the investigation of biodiversity decline due to climate change, the development of strategies to fight for biological conservation, and the analysis of vector borne disease risk. He is also very active in the domain of science-policy at the national and international levels. Dr. Kerr is currently looking for motivated honours students to join his lab, and welcomes your application to jkerr@uottawa.ca.

OSURJ:  How did you come to start your career as a researcher and a professor?

JK: I began as an honours student, maybe even in 2nd or 3rd year. I became increasingly passionate about academic work around discovering solutions to environmental challenges, particularly around the conservation of biological diversity, and pursued that hard at the honours level. That work ended up turning out pretty well, and we published it in a journal, which was great. But that was a gateway drug for me for continuing with research at the graduate and post-doctorate levels. All of that just got more and more zeroed in on particular research questions, but also on the broader mission of trying to make a difference with problems that seemed to be much more solvable to me than society recognized. That has been a theme in my research as well, that a lot of these challenges are pretty achievable in terms of fixing problems. Aspects of climate change impacts on biological diversity, for example, a very motivating problem for me and we have been working on aspects of it for a long time.

OSURJ: Where did you do your undergraduate degree?

JK: Here! I did my undergrad right here, in this faculty, in this very building in fact [Gendron] which is totally weird. I went away for grad school to York University in Toronto and to Oxford for my post-doc, and was offered a faculty position in 2002 here. That was an opportunity to come back here, or I had an alternative to go back to Toronto, which I didn’t want to do, having lived in the two places. I grew up here at a high school level.

OSURJ: Did you consider any other professions, or was it always research and teaching for you?

JK: It was always research for me, and teaching is central to that mission as well. I don’t think of them as being particularly distinct, it’s all part of the job. But that’s always been the thing that I wanted to do at a professional level, I wasn’t thinking about other careers. I think it may have occurred to me for a brief 10 minutes in high school that med school was a possibility, but I am not passionate about the practice of medicine, whereas I am passionate about parts of my research that deals with epidemiological challenges, as an ecologist I have something to say. So there are aspects of medical research that I find fascinating, but the practice of medicine is just not something I care about, whereas my research program I care about a great deal. I thought it was important to do something I cared about, and I had a chance to do it, so that was nice.

OSURJ: Are there any words of wisdom that have stuck with you from a mentor during your undergraduate or graduate studies?

JK: I don’t know if I was taught this at an undergraduate level or if it diffused into my brain at a later stage, but the idea of doing academic research, the practice of academic research is really hard. And failure is much more common than success on a day-to-day basis. So people who are doing undergraduate research are going to experience challenges all the time. And I think something that would be really helpful for people beginning their research careers to understand, is that that’s normal. That’s what the practice of research looks like. On a day-to-day basis, it’s just obstacles, stuff that’s holding you back. But as you go forward, those failures, you begin to get over some of those challenges. And then there are other challenges waiting for you. Moments of success are interspersed among these long periods of difficulty. And it’s those moments of success that become the milestones that define discovery, not the moments of failure. A bit of persistence is really necessary to get past those moments of challenges or of difficulty to get to those moments of success. That’s something that I would recommend to people beginning their careers as researchers, to really see past those obstacles directly in front of them, things that are hard to do or achieve, to where you want to get to. Understand that many people have been in that boat, and persistence and hard work will usually get you where you want to go, with a little bit of help from good mentors if you can find them.

OSURJ: Could you describe a funny or embarrassing moment you had as an undergraduate or graduate student?

JK: One embarrassing thing I did as a graduate student, it was just appalling. It was the first time I’d ever had field assistants, I had two field assistants who were coming out into fields with me, I was doing butterfly research. We were going out into these habitats, it was really hot, and I was trying to show how intrepid I was to charge out and get all these butterflies. It’ll be great, watch me! And I ended up wading through this sea of poison ivy to get to this habitat, and I got absolutely creamed, it was brutal. The most amazing rashes on my legs, I was wearing shorts at the time which made it even worse. It was the first time I had poison ivy, the second time I had been exposed I suspect. It was so horrible, I can hardly describe how awful it was. As embarrassing moments go, that was memorable. Not what you want to be demonstrating to your field assistants. Three days later, I went back to work, and it was really disgusting. It took a month to go away. It just turns out that I am really, really susceptible to poison ivy. The other people were totally fine.

OSURJ: Do you still do fieldwork after that experience?

JK: Oh yeah, these days I worry less about poison ivy because I have a very, very good radar for it. These days I worry more about ticks. You have to watch out for stuff that you didn’t have to watch out for 15-20 years ago. Otherwise, lions. I do work in East Africa, too. I haven’t been in the last couple of years, since 2015. We do research on malaria there, but this requires us to go into areas that have lions. This is a partnership with some local peoples and researchers.

OSURJ: What is your favorite aspect of being a researcher? Is there anything that you dislike?

JK: It’s a tie, depending on the day of the week that you ask me this, it might be the one thing or the other. I’ll just give you both. One of them is, we get to define the problems that we work on to a substantial degree. This means that if I’m really passionate about one aspect of research, I can push that, I can go for that, I can challenge myself to be better at that. I am able to define the characteristics of what I do on a day-to-day basis, which is a really nice thing to be able to do. But going back to the reason I got into all this in the first place, it’s because I’m motivated and passionate about aspects of environmental challenge. So, another aspect that I particularly like about this job is the fact that in my work I get to make a difference with things. It’s not just work where I am being self-indulgent, it’s work where there is a broader contribution to society, to making things better in tangible ways, I really like that too. So for me, it’s either one or the other, the self-definition as a researcher and the capacity to contribute to solving problems. [Is there anything you dislike?] The pressure. It’s a high-pressure job, so you are what you make yourself become, being a professional researcher. We are professional discoverers. You have to be making discoveries and publishing peer-reviewed literature all the time. Professors are pulled in many directions at once all the time, which creates ongoing a lot of pressure. It means that on a day-to-day basis, being a professor in a science faculty, which is very output-oriented, we don’t disappear to our cottage for months at a stretch. We have to be intense all year-round, and we have to be because this job is very demanding and requires excellence at all levels all the time. And that’s stressful, if you have other things going on in life that occupy your time too, sometimes that juggling job is hard to do. But then, that self-definition thing takes the edge off because you’re doing what you love and that helps.

OSURJ: Are there any new methodologies or discoveries in your field that you are excited about?

JK: I’ll give you two. One is that we are increasingly good at understanding the distribution of wildlife on Earth. When I started my career, we were not very well-informed about where species and populations were found. We’ve collected huge amounts of data along with many other researchers around the world, and put those data sets together, and they’ve given us a much better picture of the distribution of life on Earth. This means that we can begin to analyze and investigate problems that have to do with the causes and origins of the distribution of life on Earth. That’s a pretty exciting scientific thing to be able to do. Another thing that I find very interesting, that is a very remarkable capacity that’s new, is remote sensing. Not only do we know where species are found now, in a way we didn’t 20 years ago, for instance, we now have the capacity to measure the environment anywhere in the world, at almost any time. And we can do so in an ongoing way. So when there’s an environmental change somewhere, we can see that almost in real time. This lets us detect the potential for impacts of environmental change to the distribution of life on Earth, and that’s a remarkable power. For researchers, this is something that gives us a lot of insight and potential for discovery, but also the capacity to make a difference with problems, and I like that capacity. These are things [my research] uses on almost a daily basis.

OSURJ: How do you spend your free time? Do you have any other passions outside of research?

JK: I do a lot of athletic stuff. I run around a lot, I do some downhill skiing, although the weather this year has been a bit uneven. I’m really kind of intense athletically. And I have kids, so I spend a lot of time hanging out with my kids and doing fun stuff with them, which I think is the most important thing I could be doing with my not-working time. They are 12 and 14, and they still seem to like having me around, which is great. That could change at any time, and I am aware of that, so I want to try to make sure I have as many of those moments with them as I can before they don’t want to see me anymore.

OSURJ: Are you looking for new students in your lab?

JK: We’re always looking for really good honours students, people who are going to be passionate about their work and who are self-starters. This is super important, for researchers, honours projects are part of our mission in the teaching sense, so we want to try to be as generous with our time as we can be. Honours students can accomplish a lot – they produce peer-reviewed papers, they make discoveries that can appear in really good journals. And that’s really important for them to understand. People who are self-starters can accomplish a lot. Even if it’s a really difficult field, and the work kind of doesn’t achieve orbit, doesn’t really get to where you want it to go, that process can be excellent. People who are really passionate about their work take out of that experience something really valuable. We are always looking for people who will have those characteristic, and potentially will be interested in graduate work as well or in continuing in the summer. So I would definitely be interested in hearing from honour’s students who are passionate about aspects of the work that we do, and who are going to be self-starters in terms of really not requiring me to constantly remind them to please participate in their own project, but for them to be constantly coming back to the lab to say, what can we do next, what’s next, how can we push this further? And we love to see that kind of thing.

OSURJ: Is there a message that you would like to leave us off with?

JK: Become good writers. Writing is excellent and important as a skill, it’s something that people underestimate, often scientists don’t think of writing as a critical skill. And I hope that people, by the time they get to 4th year, at least, have begun to realize that is very much not true. Writing is one of the most vital skills that anybody is going to learn, doing any kind of university degree. And you just kind of basically can’t be a functioning scientist if you can’t write in an effective way to communicate a discovery, the context of discovery, the meaning of discovery, the importance of discovery, the passion of discovery. These skills are indispensable. So I would suggest to people who may have become very good at aspects of technical science that they need to be very good at communicating science, and not just in a written way but in a spoken way, and in other ways. There are a lot of cool things going on with science communication. It is worth taking the time to be aware of those issues and developments, and become good at some of them, especially writing. It’s the one you can’t do without. Writing becomes a special thing they do at the end of the month, then you sit down and you expect that you’re going to write really well. But if you haven’t been writing for six months, it’s like you haven’t been running for six months. You’re not going to run a 10K race, and expect to either survive it or run it fast, if you haven’t been training. Treat writing like training. Do a little bit every day, take 15 minutes and write a paragraph that’s coherent and catchy that has a good topic sentence. These are skills that people can practice at home but it’s like anything else, if you don’t do it, you’re not going to be very good at it when you sit down to do it. Practice is essential. Train for it like you actually were doing something that was hard. They treat writing like it’s the thing they do at the end of the train, like it’s the least serious part of the job. But it’s the only part of the job that anybody hears about or knows about, and it will define whether the discovery is successful. Even if you made a good discovery, if the writing is terrible, no one’s ever going to hear about it. The discovery may as well not have happened. You should practice writing, if not every day, then at least very regularly. This is a common view among well-known authors, in their advice to authors – look, if you want to be a writer, write a lot!