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Meet Our Speakers: Heidi McBride

February 19, 2023
by Amanda Bentley-DeSousa

Meet Our Speaker: Heidi McBride

By Amanda Bentley-DeSousa

Heidi McBride is a professor in the Department of Neurology and Neurosurgery (Montreal Neurological Institute) at McGill University with a cross-appointment in the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology. At McGill, she focuses on understanding molecular mechanisms and functions of mitochondria dynamics with various projects ranging from understanding mitochondrial-derived vesicles to metabolic flux. From contact sites to its role in the switch between innate and adaptive immunity, and more. Prior to her seminar at Yale, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. McBride about her career and research, and to ask for her advice.

Dr. McBride originally grew up on a farm in the Ottawa Valley not exposed to what research was. She was originally inspired by the TV show ‘Quincy MD’ which follows a medical examiner. This show piqued her interest in science, however, once she learned a medical examiner requires a MD, she chose to look elsewhere. Inspired by phenomenal researchers like Marie Curie, she decided to begin her career in research after completing her undergraduate studies in biochemistry at McGill University. Following this passion, she obtained her PhD at McGill University studying in Gordon Shore’s lab and then pursued a postdoc in Marino Zerial’s lab at EMBL in Germany. She now operates her own lab at McGill University since 2011, earning the title of full professor in 2014. Throughout her career, she has been recognized with many awards and honours. Those of great importance are her honours as a Canada Research Chair Tier 1 in Mitochondrial Cell Biology, YWCA “Woman of Distinction” award, and as an Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada.

At McGill, her lab studies mitochondria dynamics from many different biological viewpoints. Currently, the biggest project in her lab is funded by ASAP (Aligning Science Across Parkinson’s) where she focuses on understanding mitochondrial-derived vesicles. Integrating this into a physiological viewpoint, Parkinson’s Disease related proteins PINK1 and PARKIN are important for regulating these vesicles to ensure proper mitochondrial quality control. This project has led to many multi-disciplinary collaborations which includes 9 labs each with a wide range of expertise. In addition to this, her lab was the first to develop a cell free mitochondrial fusion assay which led to a critical discovery concerning the protein mitofusin which challenged a long-held view and re-shaped ideologies within the field. Generally, Dr. McBride is not afraid to take on challenges within the field and pushing past ‘all there is to know’ as she enjoys findings answers to outstanding questions and to things that bug her. She claims she often finds herself where she doesn’t belong because in following the science, her lab continues to find interesting applications and avenues to pursue.

Dr. McBride claimed one of the biggest challenges in science is having the courage to follow your observations and to not to feel intimidated by a central dogma. Within science, every scientist has their own background, experience, and opinions which help shape their views and interpretations. When analyzing a result, some scientists might disregard an irregular finding that is outside the dogma and consider it as an artifact. In reality, sometimes these outliers could be something incredibly important and could change how we view science, so it is imperative to “dig into what the outliers are doing”. She explains, “your voice is good as anyone else’s”. These words of advice are inspired by her revolutionary research concerning mitochondrial-derived vesicles – a concept that challenged many thoughts in the field.

When asked how she sees the scientific landscape in 10 years, she explained she hopes science becomes more collaborative. For the longest time, science has been built by the ‘lone genius’. She believes true multi-disciplinary research is required to make scientific advancements but is often stifled by the publishing landscape and questions of ownership/authorship. In addition, she states that inclusivity and equality are things that must emerge in science. In order to improve science world-wide, these are areas that require improvement and hopefully, the next generation of scientists are capable of pushing for these changes.

Although we talked a lot about science, I did get the opportunity to ask her some more personal questions. Outside of the lab, she enjoys going back home, visiting the Ottawa River, and having dinner with friends.

I would like to thank Dr. Heidi McBride for taking the time to share her research and experience with us. Apart from being a brilliant and courageous researcher, she certainly has great views on the future followed with amazing advice for researchers at any stage of their scientific career.

Submitted by C. Patrick Lusk on February 21, 2023