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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
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-
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.