Women of Distinction


Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Lana Shaya, PhD candidate in WilsonToxLab, Drs. Rosa da Silva, Joanna Wilson, Juliet Daniel, and Robin Cameron at WOD Hamilton Awards

Last night, Hamilton held the 2015 YWCA Women of Distinction Awards and I won in the Sciences, Trades and Technology category.  It was totally overwhelming and I feel so grateful to be chosen among some really awesome and inspiring women researchers.  On top of that, the award category was sponsored by McMaster University and so I was presented with my award by Dr. Allison Sekuler, the AVP and Dean of Grad Studies, and a professor in Psychology, Neurosciences and Behaviour, where I am an Associate Member. It was so nice to receive this award from a female researcher that I greatly admire.

I didn’t do a long list of thank you’s in my speech, deciding instead to talk about the lack of recognition of women in STEM fields. The news this week that two leading female researchers resigned from the selection committee for the Hall of Fame at the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology was foremost in my mind.  Two years running and not a single female nominee?  Just ponder that a moment.  The researchers in question have made suggestions for how the process can be changed to encourage female nominees but changes do not appear to have been made.  Indeed, Dr. Judy Illes has been quoted in the CBC as saying “To have zero women two years in a row signifies a failure on our part to really reach out as needed.”  I thank her for these words, for she is correct, we need to urge institutions to be inclusive.   I find it troubling that the museum seems to think that the root cause is too few women in STEM.  I disagree with this idea and firmly believe that if there are women in STEM, there are excellent women to be recognized.

I would like to thank my nominator and colleague, Dr. Robin Cameron, and those that submitted support letters for my nomination.  I appreciate that you spent time nominating me!  Above is a picture of me, with just a few of the amazing women in Biology who shared such a special evening with me!

Science in service of public policy

I had the unusual experience of appearing as an intervenor at a public hearing.  This week many from the Whitefish Project were in Kincardine for a re-licencing hearing for a nuclear generating station.  I always hoped that the data we produced would be useful for setting public policy and could be applied to environmental assessments but this was the first time where our research has been directly relevant and timely to a regulatory decision process and required direct involvement in that process.  Clearly, it is one small piece of the enormous amount of information and data being considered by the Commissioners in this decision, but it is still there.  I think it is important that science informs public policy decisions and was happy to take part.  Participation has surely taught me many things, but foremost is the importance of developing the ability to communicate science to diverse stakeholders.

Science communication is a difficult and challenging thing.  We have technical expertise and are used to speaking to others with a similar knowledge base.  That means that when we speak to each other, scientists use their own language, a high technical language that is difficult for non-scientists to comprehend.  So what happens if you want others to use your data?  Learning to explain your data to people with different technical backgrounds really isn’t enough.  We need to learn how to communicate what we know and what we don’t know in clear and simple language and I can tell you this is not easy.

I will be reflecting on both the written submission, our oral presentation to the commission, and how we answered questions from the commissioners for some time.  I believe that as a researcher, I have much to learn about how to effectively communicate my research to those beyond my discipline and that practice and reflection about what worked and what didn’t is likely the only way to really improve.

Lake Huron Fishing

I’m not sure that November and December on Lake Huron can be considered a good time to go fishing but that is when we head out for whitefish.  This past weekend, weather conditions were finally good enough for gill netting but good conditions they weren’t.  With the boat rocking and rolling, we were able to collect only a few ripe male and females to provide 50 000 embryos for the year’s experiments.  While this may seem like a lot, last year we  had 2 great days on the water giving us 250 000 embryos for the project.   Still, I am rather relieved we got anything at all this year.  With very consistent high winds and high waves, we really haven’t had safe conditions to fish and I was fearing there would be no Lake Whitefish this year.

Sadly, there were no round whitefish collected this year in Lake Huron and we have hit the end of good weather and spawning season for that species.  Our last hope for round whitefish are from Lake Ontario, where spawning continues much later.  Here is hoping that their run has just started and that weather conditions on the lake are as good as can be expected as late fall/early winter allows.

In the meantime, here are a few photos of us and our fish!


John Eme and our favourite fish, the Lake Whitefish.

John Eme and our favourite fish, the Lake Whitefish.


Summer researcher Shayen Sreetharan

Shayen worked as a summer researcher in the Wilson Tox Lab but also volunteered last year as an undergraduate researcher.  He continues in the Wilson Tox Lab as a thesis student this year.  I think you can tell that we like having Shayen around.  In his own words, Shayen describes his summer and ongoing thesis IMG_7417 DSC07356dresearch:

“I am entering my fourth year in the Honours Biology (Physiology Specialization) program and will be completing my undergraduate thesis in the lab. I have worked with Lake Whitefish, understanding the development and embryology of this species as well as studying the effects of environmental stressors from industrial processes on developmental physiology. I am also interested in understanding the effects of ionizing radiation and exposure of morpholine, a chemical present in effluents, on Great Lake fish species. I will be using a fish cell line to study effects at a cellular level as well as lake whitefish embryos for whole organism effects. My end points of interest include survival and growth, embryo morphology, the occurrence of apoptosis and chromosome damage.

Outside of the lab I am actively involved in various extra-curricular clubs on campus and volunteer commitments.”

Eugene Choi, Master of the Trout

While I tweeted this on the day of the grand event, I have yet to blog about the most recent graduate from the Wilson Tox Lab, Eugene Choi.  Eugene successfully defended his MSc degree at the end of September.

His research was focused on rainbow trout and the effects of acetaminophen, a common pain reliever that is used extensively by humans and released into surface waters through waste water effluent.  All drugs we consume leave our body through urine and feces; they are flushed down the toilet and join our waste water stream.  For fish living downstream of treatment plants, this means they are often exposed to low levels of complex drug mixtures containing our most commonly used drugs.

Prior work in the lab by Mike Galus had shown that acetaminophen causes histological changes in the kidneys of zebrafish and Eugene determined that similar effects were seen in trout.  Eugene discovered this during his undergraduate thesis and stayed in the Wilson Tox Lab to determine if the impacted organs in trout functioned properly.

Eugene’s research is a great mix of physiology and histology.  He has examined impacts of acetaminophen on liver, gill and kidney and his research demonstrates that organ function is impaired in fish with acetaminophen exposures.  Fish take up less oxygen in through their gills when swimming and gills show swelling in the filaments and lamellae, increasing the diffusion distance for oxygen.  Exposed fish are losing important ions, glucose and protein in their urine and this is coupled with cellular changes in the kidney tubules.  Important data for us when we consider the environmental effects of pharmaceuticals in our surface waters.

Congratulations Eugene!