environmental factors interact with genetic factors. We can examine
thousands of genetically identical animals under a huge number of
different conditions and we can examine phenotypes that may only
affect a fraction of the population. This is something that would
be just too costly to do with mice. The C. elegans community is
fantastic. There are a huge number of C. elegans resources available
and the community has made it very easy to obtain and share these
resources. Why doesn’t everybody work with worms?!
Is there any change in our healthcare that you hope to
achieve through your research?
Dr. Lesley MacNeil (left), with Sophia Duong, 3rd year Biochemistry
Dr. Lesley MacNeil’s interest in research began during her
first year as an undergraduate student at the University of
Guelph where she majored in Microbiology. From there, she
pursued a Master’s degree at McMaster University under the
supervision of Dr. John Hassell before transferring to a PhD
program at the University of Toronto studying axon guidance
and cell migration in Dr. Joe Culotti and Dr. Jeff Wrana’s labs.
She then went to the University of Massachusetts, where she
worked with Dr. Marian Walhout. It was during her time as
a postdoctoral fellow that Dr. MacNeil noticed that C. elegans
displayed different phenotypes depending on the type of
bacterial diet they were raised on. Since then, Dr. MacNeil’s
research has been directed intensively towards using
C. elegans to understand how gene-environment
interactions influence disease and development.
Yes! It’s probably still very far off, but we hope that one day, with
more understanding of microbiota, that we can create designer
bacterial therapy for each person’s specific genotype and disease.
But for now, we are focusing on identifying the exact molecules
and mechanisms by which environmental factors, like diet and
microbiota, exert their influence on an organism.
What are your ultimate career goals?
Honestly, my goal is just to do good science and train talented
people who can then continue doing great research.
What qualities do you look for in students?
There are two qualities that I think are most important for succeeding
in research. The first is perseverance – when you get into the
grind of lab work, you have to deal with the fact that many of your
experiments will fail and persevering through those tough times is the
only way to reach your goal. The second quality is creativity. While
perseverance will keep you going, you have to be imaginative in your
approach to the problem if you want to make a breakthrough.
Now that you’re starting your own lab, how does the
transition from a lab to an office feel?
Did you have a mentor that has contributed to your career?
What advice do you have for students seeking such a key figure?
I was very lucky to have many mentors in my education. I wouldn’t say
that any one of my advisors was the biggest influence but I would say
that each contributed to the Scientist I am today – and I thank them
for that. For students who want a mentor, my advice would be to find
someone who inspires you and just go talk to them. Most professors
are not as scary as they seem and they are happy to know that you are
interested in their research. You shouldn’t feel obligated to know every
detail of their research – it’s impossible! Instead, show them that you
are interested and that you want to learn.
Of course it’s nice to have people working for you, and to be honest,
there is too much lab work for one person to do. But, I do miss having
more time in the lab. There is nothing even close to the feeling of
coming into the lab in the morning, looking into the microscope,
seeing something amazing and wanting to scream ‘Eureka’. That is
what keeps me going!
In the upcoming months, Dr. MacNeil is planning on launching
several collaborative endeavors with Drs. Mike Surette and Ray
Truant. With her goal of “doing good science”, we can’t wait to see
the fruits of her labor.
Why did you choose to work with C. elegans in lieu of
the common mouse/cell models?
Editors note: Sophia was delighted to tell me, that after
interviewing Dr. MacNeil (and unbeknownst to Sophia being
interviewed in return!), that she was offered a 4th year thesis
position in the MacNeil lab for the coming year)