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Learning from others


January 26, 2024  by  Bree Rody


To hear our full interview with Heather, visit agwomen.ca

Saskatchewan-based Heather Wilson is a research scientist and program leader in the vaccine formulation and delivery group at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, or VIDO. She’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Saskatchewan in the department of veterinary microbiology and the school of public health. She’s described as a dedicated supervisor and mentor, having previously mentored or currently mentoring four post-doctoral fellows, four master’s students, eight PhD students, three technicians, four project students and a half-dozen summer students.

Wilson and agriculture editor Bree Rody discuss her views on leadership and mentorship, gaining the confidence to navigate tough processes such as grant-writing and networking and why it’s important to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What led you from your education to this very specific focus and career path?

I got all my post-high school education at the University of Saskatchewan. I got my undergrad in biochemistry, which I found very interesting. Gene expression changes became very popular when I was finished – people were looking at gene expression changes after vaccination. So, then I moved to do my post-doctoral work at what was back then called the Veterinary Infectious Disease Organization, which is now the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, or VIDO. It’s on the same campus, but that was the switch from biochemistry to immunology. I did some work looking at the neonate to the mom. I was originally looking at cattle, but they’re a bit selfish because they’ll only have one calf. So I started looking at pigs, because there will be 14 to 20 piglets, so there’s lots of room to do some different groups while keeping the genetics very similar. From there, it moved onto learning more about the pig industry and the nuances there. I didn’t grow up with cattle, I grew up with horses – I didn’t really know too much about farming, but then I married a farmer. He’s got a mixed grain and black angus cattle farm. After I moved into the pig and learned more about the industry, I started to understand that there’s different nuances and different husbandry practices, and if you really pay attention, you can adapt what we’re doing for vaccine development so that it’s amenable to the current husbandry practices. That’s where we got into administering the vaccine, during the time of breeding, into the uterus. You’ve already rounded up the pigs, it’s something that’s happening all the time at regular intervals, which happen to be good intervals for vaccines. As long as we ensure the pig producers that we’re not negatively affecting sperm production or fertility, which we’re not, it’s a really interesting route for the industry.

With recent global concerns about ASFV or HPAI, do you feel like there’s more curiosity from outside your industry to learn more about vaccination strategies?

Yes, but also, the low-hanging fruit has been grabbed. We’ve tried what we’ve tried, and we’re still making very good vaccines and good progress. But there are still some diseases out there that we’ve been trying to tackle for 100 years. It’s better to maybe learn some of the basic biology of the viruses or the bacteria and learn more about layering on, instead of just making a vaccine against the target, which is usually a protein, the protein has usually got sugar groups on it, so the different molecules are going to impact how you target that antigen. So we’re trying to learn more and integrate all that together. But [for example], porcine epidemic diarrhea virus swept through the country in North America a couple years ago. It didn’t make it into Saskatchewan, fortunately, but VIDO made a vaccine for that and was supplying it to Manitoba and, I believe, Alberta. We managed to keep it out of Saskatchewan with lots of work by the pig industry to understand transport and spread. We had to make a quick vaccine, and we managed. African Swine Fever is coming. Hopefully we can keep it out, but if it gets into the wild boar population, it’s going to be difficult to eradicate it. So, if you can’t actually handle the animals, can we get it out into the wild in a feed product? There are lots of things to think about when it comes to developing vaccines.

It seems like mentorship is a really big part of what you do. As you’ve mentored, have you observed any shift in the gender balance? Is it split? Are things changing

If you look at the classrooms – I do a little bit of teaching, but it’s not a part of the job – in the veterinary field, the classrooms have changed from basically male-dominated to fairly female-dominated now. Once you get into the graduate level, you also start seeing more people coming from all over the worlds, overseas, looking to do their master’s or their post-doctoral work. Most people’s labs are probably split fairly evenly, with certainly a very diverse workforce in terms of where people and their families are from. I think it’s great. You learn more about different farming practice, what producers do in different countries – you learn from everybody.

Who have some of your key mentors been – of any gender?

Dr. Bill Roesler was my PhD chemistry mentor. There were some very good people in his lab, as well. VIDO is a very good environment where everyone can work together. You can get support by hiring your own people, some of the pieces are quite expensive, so you can ask for a certain amount of time with technicians, or learn from people in other labs. It’s a great environment where you can learn from everybody. The veterinarians and the veterinary staff have been very good for teaching. There’s also a very good group at the Prairie Swine Centre that I’ve learned from, just outside of Saskatoon. They’ve been nice enough to let me do some of the vaccine work out there. Raelene Petracek at the Prairie Swine Centre, Colette Wheler at the animal care facility at VIDO – there’s been lots of people whom I’ve learned from.

Applying for grants is a big part of your work – can you share what you’ve learned about that process?

You don’t really learn how to write a grant when you’re in university. You don’t know how to do it until you’re in the middle of it – you get a couple back and you realize you scored pretty low. You get copies of other grants and see how they did and you learned from them. We’ve just started about 10 years ago doing [internal review] which has increased how well the grants are written, and it’s increased our success rate. Some people are really good at writing, and some learn as they go, and I think I’m more of the latter. I think I’d never go back and read some of my old grants. It is a grind to apply for grants to keep the lab going. I’ve got friends who are in the non-university world, and they’re constantly surprised at how much work it is to keep going after the soft money.

You’ve done a lot of public speaking, most recently in Brazil. Is that something you’ve always had a knack for, or did you have to learn?

I remember being quite nervous the first view times. As a student, you’re scared you’re going to be attacked, because you’ve heard that’s what it’s like. You have to try to remember to find your audience. I find these kind of talks [podcast interviews] are more challenging for me, because I find it hard to bring it to a level where you’re interested and I’m not losing you. If I can get into using the science words, it’s a bit easier. There’s the science talks, the immunology talks, the producer talks – you have to learn your audience.

What do you think is your biggest strength as a person that have allowed you, and VIDO, to flourish?

I think I’m friendly and easy to talk to. People think of scientists as perhaps stiff. When people get to know me, it’s easy to talk to me. It makes it easier to visit with people.

Have you ever felt like being a woman in agriculture defines you?

Not as a scientist. I’m married to a farmer, and I’m maybe more aware of it there. Of course, it is his job and not mine, but there will be times when the salesperson will not even talk to me or engage with me. But I do appreciate that it would be very difficult to be othered constantly. I have not felt that, really. I think it’s still there. There’s still the “boys club” on every level of society, but I think with more and more women on the lower levels who then keep going up and up and up, and we see ourselves more in boardrooms, as CEOs and the leads of the labs… I think we’re getting there. We’ve still got a ways to go, especially for those from overseas or those who are non-white. It’s certainly more of a culture shock for them. •

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