When PBS comes calling

Getting interviewed by journalists has to be one of the most uncomfortable things for a scientist to experience.  You want to be accurate, clear, concise.  You want to share important information in a way that is accessible to everyone.  The problem is that we are used to talking in terms that make things less clear – we don’t talk in black and white but in grey.  We speak in very technical language to other people who are used to speaking likewise, not with people who need plain speak.  Communicating our ideas becomes problematic when things aren’t yes or no.  With practice, I hope to get better at this.

Recently, I was approached by  a science journalist at PBS’ Nova Next about being interviewed for an article about human drugs in the environment.  As this is something we focus on in the Wilson lab, I agreed and sent some of our recent publications.  As always, I asked for a copy prior to print and as always, I didn’t get one.  Weirdly, I found out this was published by a colleague emailing to ask, “Did you really say that?”  which is not a good sign.  In the end, there are a few misquotes but much of the article is correct and interesting.  So what is wrong?

1. Human drugs are in the environment because we take drugs, not because we dispose of drugs incorrectly.  Yes, you shouldn’t flush unused medication down the toilet but we excrete the drugs, or a metabolite of the drug, from our body (i.e. pee them out).  This is the major contributor to drugs in the environment.

2. Acetaminophen, but not all drugs, are well removed by conventional wastewater treatment.  Acetaminophen, and some other drugs, are removed at rates up to 95-98% BUT other drugs, like some antidepressants and mood stabilizers, pass through wastewater treatment plants untouched.  This is a major point because we don’t yet have the solutions to water treatment.

So with these corrections in mind, feel free to follow the link to an article that quotes me profusely….


Seminar at the U of R

I recently visited the University of Regina to give a seminar in the department of Biology. I have two collaborators in the department, Drs. Chris Somers and Richard Manzon. They are two important collaborators on our whitefish research, studying the effects of multiple stressors (temperature, chemicals, and radiation) on developing whitefish. My seminar was not on whitefish research though, but on our pharmaceutical research. My talk, Pharmaceuticals in Water: The Health Implications for our Fish, was gratifyingly well attended and followed by a social event that was a lot of fun.

While I was there, we had an extended whitefish research meeting, followed by some discussion with Dr. Somers’ lab. Dr. Somers happens to have a lab full of women and he asked me to talk about my experiences as a female professor. Its a strange thing to be viewed as a possible mentor for women in science; not because I lack opinions on the topic, but more because it comes from a view that I am successful at it. For most women in science, including me, I think that it is sometimes difficult to see your own success. Indeed, I was asked where my confidence came from and my first thought was “Am I confident?”. So my advice for younger women researchers came down to a few key things.

1. Be aware of your own difficulties to describe your strengths objectively. Indeed, if you aren’t uncomfortable with what you’ve said (in a cover letter, grant etc) about your expertise, you’ve probably undersold yourself significantly.

2. Try not to listen to the negative because there will always be negative. This is best done by surrounding yourself with supporters and asking their opinion first.

3. Pay attention to how people are introduced and if they don’t offer the same level of formality to you, correct it. If everyone else is called Dr. so-and so; your title should be used too.

4. Don’t assume that women are any better at being unbiased. Everyone needs to look for the potential for gender or racial bias; both in themselves and in the processes they take part in. That way, we can be part of the solution.

I’m not sure if this is all I would talk about should I be asked this again. Certainly, its something I’ve been thinking about a lot since. Its the first time a male colleague has ever asked me this and I’m grateful to it isn’t just the women thinking about these things.

Society of Toxicology Meeting

Derek Alsop, a PDF in my lab, and Joanna Wilson recently travelled to Phoenix, AZ to attend the Society of Toxicology meeting on March 23 – 27th. Phoenix was sunny and very warm, with mid day temperatures around 27C. This was rather glorious after such a cold, cold winter in Hamilton. On March 24th, Joanna presented a poster entitled “High-throghput screening to identify substrates of zebrafish cytochrome P450 1A”. The poster was one of many with high-throughput screening approaches to identify function; an exciting and emerging way to determine function of proteins and discover pharmacological compounds (substrates, inhibitors, ligands) or natural products that interact with proteins of interest. The afternoon poster session had a steady stream of people to chat with about our research and there was a lot of interest in whether our screen had identified natural products that were metabolized by zebrafish CYP1A.

Derek presented a poster March 25th entitled “Pharmaceutical, metal, and ammonia mixtures: widespread additive toxicity in zebrafish”. Derek’s poster was well attended in a session focused on chemical mixtures, an important area of toxicology that is understudied because of the challenge in performing mixture experiments. Derek’s study used acute toxicity testing in larvae zebrafish to examine interactions between pharmaceutical mixtures with a similar mechanism of action and mixtures between pharmaceuticals and either metals or ammonia; both of which are common aquatic contaminants.

The meeting was very large, approximately 6500 people attended and clearly most were working in mammalian toxicology. The large number of researchers working in fish, particularly zebrafish, highlights the acceptance of zebrafish as a strong model organism for understanding basic biology and human health. Next year, this conference will be in San Diego, continuing the sunny location for another year.

Lana Shaya and Chris De Jong, Masters of Science

This fall, two graduate students in the Wilson lab have defended their thesis projects and graduated with an M.Sc. Degree. The most recent, Lana Shaya, defended her thesis today. Both students are focused on cytochrome P450 enzymes but their approaches, techniques, and species of interest are quite different.

Lana’s research has focused on two important model fish species, zebrafish and medaka. Both are small fish used in toxicology studies. They have similar and important advantages as model fish species: a short generation time, asynchronous and continuous breeding, large clutch sizes, clear embryos that allow direct observation of their development, short development, and a completed genome. Lana has studied the expression of cytochrome P450 family 3 (CYP3) genes in both species. The CYP3 genes in fish are diverse. Compared to mammals, there are many novel genes and the function of these genes is not known. CYP3 genes in mammals are very important for drug and contaminant metabolism and we presume they have a similar function in fish. Lana examined the expression of multiple CYP3 genes from a variety of organs in each species. Most interestingly, her research highlights relatively high expression of some of these genes in olfactory rosettes, an organ in the fish nose that is important for odorant sensing. Her work also clearly shows significant differences in expression patterns of CYP3 genes between males and females.

Contrary to Lana, whose research is at the bench doing molecular biology, Chris’ uses computers to do all of his research. Chris used bioinformatics tools to examine the CYP genes in the polychaete worm, Capitella telata. Chris annotated all of the CYP genes in the genome of this species and in the process has found 24 novel CYP families. Chris completed phylogenetic analyses of the Capitella CYP genes to aid in naming the genes and to understand their evolution. Capitella telata is a very interesting species for the study of CYP genes. First, these worms are found in high density in highly contaminated marine sediments including areas impacted by oil spills. Research has shown that they can metabolize polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), common contaminants from oil and combustion processes. This function is typically mediated by CYPs in other species. Indeed, studies have shown two CYP genes with elevated expression with PAH exposure. Second, these worms produce the steroid hormone estradiol. CYP genes are very important for the production of steroid hormones, including estradiol, in vertebrates. Chris’ research has raised some important functional hypotheses for the CYPs found in the worm genome.


I am currently in Tokyo on day 2 of a 3 day workshop on sustainable water quality hosted by my funding agency, NSERC, and Japan’s JST. The workshop has involve approximately 20-25 people and we have used this opportunity to identify major issues facing both countries in Water quality.

As an aquatic ecosystems health person, I spoke of our work about pharmaceuticals and personal care products. The discussions have been fruitful and we now have a list of priority funding areas for the April call.

The jet lag has been severe, and the schedule very full, but they feel like it is important for the two counties.