International Women’s Day is an opportunity for the Canadian Rivers Institute (CRI) to highlight the critical contributions of one of the institute’s founding members, a leader in her research field, and a strong advocate for women in science: Dr. Deborah MacLatchy.
Dr. MacLatchy was a member of the original founding visionaries who created the CRI in 2001. Today she leads a research laboratory in analytical ecotoxicology and comparative endocrinology at Wilfrid Laurier University (Laurier), is currently the provost & VP academic, and has been newly named as the next president and vice-chancellor. She is also a founder of the Laurier Women in Science Centre, which aims to “build a strong community for women in science through research, communication and action.”
Her own career first developed as a professor and then dean of Science, Applied Science and Engineering at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Over the years, her work has continued to focus her CRI science using both laboratory and fieldwork.
By using both field observations and lab exposure studies, she is able to link effects in native fish species from the molecular level through to organism and population level effects. “I am primarily interested in the source, mechanisms of action and effects of anthropogenic chemicals known as ’endocrine disruptors‘ on fish native to Canadian ecosystems, including those ecosystems under additional pressures such as climate change,” says MacLatchy.
Her expertise in this niche area of research began through a focus on understanding the reproductive effects of pulp and paper mill effluent on the mummichog or Atlantic killifish (Fundulus heteroclitus) in the Saint John River in New Brunswick. This multi-year, government-industry-academic partnership facilitated through the CRI, was the recipient of the 2005 NSERC Synergy Award for Innovation and has contributed to enhancements in the federal Environmental Effects Monitoring program for pulp and paper mills.
Her current research focus is on the Canadian Arctic, investigating the potential impact of extractive industries and climate change on native fish species such as shiners (Notropis spp.), walleye (Sander vitreus) and lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformes). This work is done in partnership with local communities and First Nations. MacLatchy notes the crucial importance of linking her work using scientific approaches to traditional knowledge of partnering communities to understand how to best assess the health of these vulnerable aquatic ecosystems.
“Native fish species are bioindicator species that can provide crucial warning signs regarding the health of a whole system,” says MacLatchy. “Baseline fish health is one way to understand how climate change is manifesting itself and impacting important river systems. In the Northwest Territories we have been working in both the Kakisa area of the Dehcho region and the Fort Smith area of the South Slave region.”
Dr. MacLatchy’s research reinforces CRI’s core aims to develop research that: is applicable to communities, governments and industries; addresses the immediacy of critical water issues and expands laboratory- and field-based research and education opportunities for graduate students and professionals. It is one of the many examples of CRI leadership in applied aquatic science, which is attracting students and next generation scientists who are seeking to research with experts in their fields, and to work directly on environmental challenges.
Dr, MacLatchy is now collaborating with the next generation of women scientists, including Dr. Heidi Swanson, an assistant professor and university research chair at the University of Waterloo (UW). Dr. Swanson is a CRI alumna (2010) of Dr. Karen Kidd (UNB) and current CRI associate of Dr. Simon Courtenay (UW). She was a recipient of L'Oreal Canada-UNESCO 'Women in Science Research Excellence Fellowship' in 2010-2011 and attributes part of her early-career successes to being a part of the CRI.
“My research program is more visible than it otherwise would be, and I have been granted several opportunities that are unique for someone at my career stage,” she says. “The CRI is a network with a wide group of aquatic ecologists who continue to function as invaluable mentors and collaborators.”
Dr. Swanson is currently collaborating with Dr. MacLatchy to determine mercury transfer in food chains in order to identify the health of the fish for human consumption. “Dr. Swanson’s contribution is important in order to understand and track contaminants in food webs and commercially significant fish species in northern communities. Fish as a source of food are critical economically and culturally for Indigenous communities that place high value on the health of the whole ecosystem,” says MacLatchy.
Dr. MacLatchy is one of CRI's 23 Science Directors who have now trained more than 475 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows through their interdisciplinary research programs. “Students are perhaps initially attracted to the fieldwork and applied components of the research and then develop a broader range of laboratory, analytical, critical thinking, and communication skills,” she says. “The growth in students as scientists over the course of a graduate degree or postdoctoral experience is always exciting to see.”