Portrait of Science: What do Cows, LSD and The Salem Witch Trials have in Common? Ergot!

Vanessa and Her Research Bulls. Image: Erin Matthews

This is the part where I usually start with a snarky quip – a little heavy-handed witticism and an awful joke or two about some microbe or your brain (or about some microbe inside your brain). Then I would jump into some educational spiel about some topic in science that I either stumbled across during the week or one that is close my heart.

I am going to do something a little different this week.

It too is close to my heart but is not a long-winded diatribe on science communication (that was last week’s unfortunate post). We are going to take a view through the microscope’s eye piece at a local woman slaying the science game one bucket of grain at a time.

Shop Local

Since this blog came into existence, a few short months ago, I have had the desire to cover some local science content. We have some incredible, world-renowned science happening right in Saskatoon. That is pretty amazing considering we are a tiny little city that is split in half by a tiny little river in a province that most people have a hard time pronouncing.

There is the Synchrotron (the only in the country) where scientists point high intensity beams of light at things so they can gather information… about said thing. (Please, read about it HERE. I promise it explains it more accurately than I can).

We also have VIDO InterVac, an infectious disease and vaccine research organization that works on both human and animal vaccine development.

Both of these high-level research centers can be found tucked away on the humble University of Saskatchewan campus. That’s pretty incredible.

The best thing about science is that you can do it anywhere if you have the smarts and the determination to answer those curious questions.

 Science in the time of Nazis

Rita Levi-Montalcini  (Google)

Take a look at another incredible woman in science, Rita Levi-Montalcini. She won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986 for her discovery of something called nerve growth factor – which she isolated in the early 1950s. Rita was born into an Italian Jewish family in 1909 and, if you know anything about history, you are aware of what is to come. Rita was an promising rising scientist at the University of Turin in 1936, working in the lab of her mentor Giuseppe Levi. (Fun fact: Levi, was a pioneer of in vitro studies of cultured cells!) Just a few years later, with the Nazi’s rise to power in Europe, Jews were barred from careers and education.

Rita Levi-Montalcini went into hiding to survive the Holocaust but she didn’t let a little genocide get in the way of her love for science. She set up a secret lab in her room – working with chicken embryos and using make-shift equipment she MacGyvered from household items.


When the war ended she went on to continue her research in actual labs. Working with biochemist Stanley Cohen, they managed to isolate nerve growth factor and lay down some pretty amazing foundations in Cell Biology and Neuroscience.

As my friend Vanessa Cowan would say, “YAS QUEEN”.

Vanessa is the local woman in science I had allude to earlier. After some gentle poking for her to answer some interview questions, she came through this week with an amazing look at her research and what it means to be a woman in science.

Portrait of a Woman in Science

When did you first get interested or involved in science?

I first was interested in science in my grade 11 and 12 years of high school. I realized that I had a knack for science based on my attention to detail and fastidious studying habits. In my first year of university, although the science classes were more difficult, the material I learned in these classes (as opposed to ancient history and English) was more applicable and tangible. Once I decided that I wanted to major in a scientific field, I chose Toxicology because of its applied aspect. Not to mention that poisons and poisonings are super interesting! My first ‘real’ exposure to science was between my 3rd and 4th years of my undergrad (I did 5 years altogether). I applied for an NSERC undergraduate student research assistant (USRA) scholarship, which was essentially my salary for the summer and an opportunity to have my own research project. I enjoyed the hands-on aspects of sample collection and lab work. The most satisfying part of all, arguably, was compiling all the data and seeing your results. From that point, I was awarded another NSERC USRA scholarship for the summer between my 4th and 5th year of undergrad. I also started working for one Canada’s preeminent veterinary toxicologists, Dr. Barry Blakley, in the toxicology sector of Prairie Diagnostic Services.

What is so appealing to you about Veterinarian toxicology?

Although I had exposure to topics in veterinary toxicology as an undergraduate student, my interest in veterinary toxicology really blossomed when I started working with Dr. Blakley. Part of my work was to do an exhaustive database search on all of the various veterinary toxicoses that Prairie Diagnostic Services received samples for over a 16-year period. I was able to see which poisonings were most common for which animal species, how poisoning patterns changed over time and season, and also insight into why these poisonings were or were not prevalent. Searching through thousands of case records took me nearly 8 months. This work was very rewarding, however, as Dr. Blakley and I were able to characterize and describe poisonings in western Canada over a substantial period of time. This information is practical for veterinarians, regulatory agencies, the agriculture industry, and to farmers/producers.

I love the variety of veterinary toxicology. Livestock can become poisoned from grazing poisonous plants or consumption of old car batteries on pasture. Minerals in feed in the wrong proportions can make animals sick. Drinking water with blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) can result in sudden death. Dogs may be poisoned maliciously with strychnine-laced meat. Regular use or misuse of agricultural pesticides can result in non-target species toxicity, which has been seen in bald eagles. From all of these examples, one must rule out other differential diagnoses based on the known mechanism of action of each toxic agent, the symptoms reported in the animals, the animal species poisoned (i.e., dogs may have a different toxic response to an agent compared to cats), and the laboratory results of what is actually in the animal tissues.

Image: Vanessa Cowan

Explain your PhD research and the most intriguing part of it

I’m studying the effects of ergot alkaloid mycotoxins on the bovine cardiovascular, endocrine, and reproductive systems. I am also developing a method to detect ergot alkaloids in bovine plasma with the goal of running pharmacokinetics studies. Mycotoxins are a global hot topic issue right now because they are difficult to control, they are diverse in terms of their toxicity and systems affected in people and animals alike, and they occur in mixtures. Mixtures are notoriously difficult to study in toxicology.

Ergot was once considered an old-world disease; ergot contaminated rye bread was the culprit for the gangrenous/burning syndrome St. Anthony’s Fire in the Middle Ages. Ergot had also been implicated in the Salem witch trials.

As a woman in science, have you faced any road blocks?

Certainly. There seems to be an inherent requirement of women to explain themselves, explain their rationale, and to prove themselves as competent and capable of their work. I have personally had to repeat instructions that I had already made clear because the other parties involved were not really listening to what I was saying. It can be very frustrating. With that being said, however, that is not the case with all people that one might interact with in science. I have been very fortunate to get to where I am today because of (male) professors who believed in me. I am glad that the work environment for women in STEM fields is evolving, however more work is still needed on changing ‘out-of-date’ attitudes.

Image: Vanessa Cowan

What does your typical research day look like?

It really depends on the day! The variety of day-to-day work is something I really enjoy about research. I’ll describe a farm day, though.

My cohort and I head out to the research farm outside of Saskatoon in my car (which is essentially a ‘farm car’ now, as I feed the bulls out of it and has driven 1000s of km on grid roads. RIP tires). We feed the bulls and set up the barn space while they’re chowing down. Once we are all set up, we round up the bulls. It has only been like a rodeo a few times. I can tell you first hand that 2000 lbs of pure meat and testosterone barreling towards you is horrifying. So, we move the bulls up to the barn and start our sample collection. We can usually collect all we need from each bull in about 8-10 minutes. I measure their scrotal circumference, take blood, and we collect semen through a process called electroejaculation. This is essentially stimulating the bull’s prostate with low electrical current to get him to ‘produce his sample’. Once we have collected samples from all the bulls, we clean up the mess of crap, urine, and semen in the barn (gross) and head back to campus. Any work with semen is time sensitive, as the cells as actively respiring and are sensitive to temperature and osmotic changes. Back in the lab, I assess the motility of the sperm

Image: Vanessa Cowan

Your research, on the surface, is not what comes to mind when one thinks about science. What would you say to people who don’t see what you do as a contribution to science?

Certainly, my research may not have the ‘sexy’ aspect of cutting edge work with the synchrotron or vaccine development or molecular markers of cancer. However, I am of the opinion that generating basic scientific information is absolutely crucial in the scientific community. The audience meant to receive your work has different needs/expectations. For example, livestock producers simply do not care/do not benefit from high tech molecular research. They want to know if their animals can eat mycotoxin-contaminated feed, what concentration of the toxins in the feed is acceptable for animals without affecting growth/reproduction, and first indicators of sickness in the animals. Regulatory bodies need basic scientific research to develop relevant safety guidelines for dealing with mycotoxins in food and feed.

What’s your long term goal?

My long term goals are to finish my PhD and my degree in veterinary medicine (I start at the WCVM this fall). After that, I would be interested in a career that combines clinical field work, research, and teaching.

Image: Vanessa Cowan

Who is Vanessa when she isn’t stomping in cow shit and counting sperm?

I really do try and have a life outside of grad school. It’s very easy to forgo ‘work-life-balance’ in Academia. I’m a fairly introverted person, so at the end of the day I like to hang out at my apartment with my cat and drink a cup of coffee. On most evenings of the week, you can find me training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (white belt, yas). I also enjoy rugby, soccer, and going to the gym as well. Some of my favourite times are spent with friends over a coffee or beer/cider.

Image: Vanessa Cowan – taking silver and her first BJJ match


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