Readers, this may be my favorite "Behind the Fins" interview because of who the interviewee is. Dr. Catherine Boisvert is a role model, mentor, advisor, and friend. She is someone I will be joining on a boat at the end of next year to go to Antarctica, braving the cold and remote environment. She does fascinating work in evodevo (don't worry, she tells you what that is) and I am so lucky to have her to turn to advice for... well, life. I am so excited for you to get to know this amazing woman, so please enjoy this interview as much as I did.
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in the marine sciences?
Catherine Boisvert: I always liked fish and I was fascinated by the coelacanth as a child (my parents kept handy encyclopaedia) but growing up in Montreal (next to a river but far from the ocean) and doing my scuba dive certification in a cold muddy lake in Québec meant that I didn't really get acquainted with marine science until much later. During my PhD in Sweden, part of my research was in Sydney, Australia and I understood how great it was to scuba dive and it really ignited by passion for the marine world. That being said, I don't really consider myself a marine biologist.
TFUI: What is your day-to-day schedule like?
CB: It is very varied. I am a research academic but I have started to teach this term. I meet with my PhD and volunteer students and work on their projects with them (ranging from terrestrial ecology, palaeontology, developmental biology and shark biology), I do experiments, image samples on the confocal microscope or the micro CT scanner, analyse data and have various meetings to run my research group and apply for funding. It is busy!
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the research you and your students currently do? Elaborate a little bit on what evodevo is for those TFUI readers who have no idea.
CB: Evo Devo stands for Evolutionary Developmental biology, quite a mouthful so you now understand why we shorten it. What is it? It is using developmental biology to understand the mechanisms behind evolution. The way I do my evo devo is by looking at questions from the fossil record (I am a palaeontologist) which tells us the story of life. I then try to solve the mysteries of how these evolutionary transitions happened using shark development. For example, I was interested in understanding how the neck fuses in some sharks (chimaeras and batoids) and how it evolved so we synchrotron scanned (this is a super powerful xray machine) a fossil placoderm and compared it to a growth series of elephant sharks. We learnt that the fused vertebrae of the neck develop individually before they fuse. This gives us information as how this process evolved and what it can tell us on some human diseases. See the full story here.
CB: This is just one example of EvoDevo. In the past, I was looking at where our fingers originated. I looked at a fossil called Panderichthys and found that it had distal radials that looked suspiciously like fingers. I then did some gene expression analyses on lungfish, our distant cousin still alive today, and we found that the radials expressed the same genes as our fingers. Taken together, it proved that fingers evolved in our fishy ancestors.
TFUI: Wow! So why is your research so important?
CB: Where do we come from? This is a question a lot of us likes to ask. My research answers where we come from and how we got there. I am studying the time period and the species where we acquired all the parts of our body that made us so successful (limbs, teeth, jaws, reproductive organs, body regionalisation) and gives us lessons about how all jawed vertebrates are patterned. Studying sharks and ancient, extinct animals sounds very far removed for understanding humans but it is important in linking different model systems (mice, zebrafish, rats etc) that are used for research on human diseases together.
TFUI: We talked earlier about a lack of evodevo in scientific conferences. Why do you think this is? Why should a section of evodevo be added?
CB: There are now dedicated evodevo conferences and the society of vertebrate paleontology in the USA is integrating an EvoDevo session each year. It is still a field that is young (the new evodevo stems from the early 19th century but had many iterations and really took off in the 90s) and we tend to either attend conferences about our model systems or about the specific techniques we are doing. It would be so nice if once in a while we have a shark evo devo meeting at one of the shark conferences. We are a few around the world doing shark evodevo... we just have to manage to get together!
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about being a professor?
CB: I wish I were a professor!! I am a research fellow. I love doing research, I love helping my students become researchers, find out cool things about their work and see them develop as people and as researchers. I also really enjoy teaching and seeing when people "get it". The few infrequent things I get to do too (being in the field collecting fossils or sharks) are fun despite the large amount of hard work that has to go into it. I love that my job is varied, that I work with interesting clever people and that I get to discover things that people didn't even know existed.... and do a few inventions along the way.
TFUI: Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment? What about with sharks? If not, what can be done to better it?
CB: In WA no, absolutely not. They are seen as the enemy and any accident is reported as "shark attack". People are so fearful of sharks. I think the education work you are doing is absolutely the right thing to do. In addition, we need to step up and comment on those" shark attacks" so that people are better informed about the ocean. I also think that we should refer to this website every time there is a "shark attack." Humans have the responsibility to assess dangers when they go into an environment that is not theirs. It is like the responsibility of wearing a seatbelt in a moving car.
TFUI: You studied elephantfish (a chimaera) for a while! Can you tell us what you were studying and what you found?
CB: I established a colony in Melbourne for providing eggs for evodevo research. That means that the embryos are being used on a massive array of projects right now from synchrotron micro tomography to understand histology to the neural network paper we published this year in Cell. Elephant shark are important because they have the slowest evolving genome of any vertebrate, their genome has been sequenced and there is a developmental table available. That made it an ideal model for evodevo. I was working in Melbourne and they come to lay their eggs very close to where Monash University was so I started this very challenging project. The downside was that they were very very hard to keep. I care deeply about my animals and Camilla Martins and I worked very hard to provide the best catching, handling, transport and husbandry techniques for them. Alison Edmunds from Melbourne aquarium helped a lot and we published a paper about the husbandry. That took a large proportion of my research time the first few years but now we are using the material to find out so many cool things about sharks and evolution. I have projects looking at hard tissue development (fin spine etc), part of the project was published in 2014, a follow up on the synarcual paper, looking at how the vertebrae fuse, and how muscle forms. You will have to wait a little longer for the great conclusions on these projects... this stuff takes time!
TFUI: What’s next for you research-wise?
CB: I have about 20 projects ongoing at the moment. A lot of those are with collaborators internationally. the projects I am most focussed on at the moment are the origins of muscle formation, the fusion of the neck and the development of the pelvic claspers. I am really looking forward to building my team with more PhD students interested in shark development so contact me if you are interested!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK catherine FOR HER TIME AND WE WISH HER WELL ON HER CURRENT/FUTURE PROJECTS!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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