Connell Lecture Series: Dr. Heidi McBride
written by Em Miraglia
Dr. Heidi McBride is a professor at McGill University and a Canada Research Chair in Mitochondrial Cell Biology. She was invited to give a Connell Lecture on November 13th, 2019, during which she shared two ongoing stories from her lab focusing on mitochondrial dynamics in a cell. I had the opportunity to catch up with Dr. McBride after her lecture to learn a bit more about the person behind the work.
Dr. McBride grew up in Westmeath, Ontario, a small town on the Ottawa River. Her love for science started early in life with farming. “I grew up on 400 acres of land, we had cattle. I think that farming is the first kind of science”. Her interest in science at the cellular level was sparked in high school, as she remembers being particularly fascinated when she learned about photosynthesis. However, going into her undergraduate degree at McGill, her only ideas of what it meant to be a scientist were doctors and forensic pathologists. She considered the latter as a possible career path, saying she wanted to be like Quincy, who she tells me was a forensic scientist on “the old version of CSI”. After spending some time at McGill, she realized that being a research scientist meant making new discoveries, and this drew her into the field. The element of discovery is what still makes science so exciting to her. “It’s amazing what we don’t understand, and how many times you can look down a microscope and see something that nobody’s seen before.” As a PI now, however, her trainees are usually the ones at the microscope. That’s why her fulfilment at this stage of her career is also derived from being a supportive mentor by guiding her trainees while giving them the freedom to explore in their research.
Currently, her lab focuses on how mitochondria know when to perform key chemical reactions and how they communicate with the rest of the cell. “Mitochondria are responsible for so much of the biochemistry that happens in a cell, hosting thousands of chemical reactions, and there is a lot that we still have to learn about it”. Her lab studies mitochondrial function at different levels and with a multidisciplinary approach, which comes from fostering collaborations. Recent work from her lab, which studied the mitochondrial response to infection in relation to driving Parkinson’s, required expertise from a microbiologist, an immunologist, a neuroscientist, and a cell biologist. Core biochemical mechanisms of mitochondrial function, cell signalling at the mitochondria, and mitochondrial involvement in Parkinson’s and cancer are all fair game for Dr. McBride and her collaborators. She greatly values working alongside other scientists from different niches and finds collaborative work to be an exciting part of the job.
When I ask about the most challenging part of her career path, her answer is one that will resonate with many scientists, especially new graduate students. Imposter syndrome affected her as a young researcher, and it didn’t help that she made a (controversial, at the time) discovery early in her career that took over a decade for her field to get behind. She found that mitochondria were releasing vesicles, a function that was not known at the time and was hard for the field to grasp onto. Pursuing this unexpected phenomenon took perseverance and faith in herself and her research, and it paid off. To her younger self in the thick of that pursuit, and to any other young scientists in those shoes, her main piece of advice is to trust your gut and stop being so hard on yourself.
Dr. McBride leaves me with another parting message that I’m sure scientists and other professionals at any level can appreciate. “I think the most important thing for people to remember is to try to chill out.” This might sound funny coming from someone with her position and merit, but she does make a compelling argument in favour of chilling out, one that is absolutely worth holding onto. “You can’t think properly if you’re stressed out, you can’t design the right experiments. Take the holiday you need. And enjoy your work. It’s a privilege to have this job, you get to make discoveries! You have to focus on that.”
If you are interested in learning more about Dr. McBride and her research, you can find her website at https://mcbridelab.org/.