Interview with Dr. Margo Moore

Professor, Department of Biological Sciences

Microbiology, Fungal Pathogenesis

Dr. Moore is interested in the features of human fungal pathogens that enable them to colonize and survive in the human body. Fungi as a group are not generally pathogenic to humans but instead have evolved as specialized pathogens of insects and plants. There are relatively few fungal human pathogens and most are superficial such as those that cause dermatitis. Dr. Moore’s laboratory is interested in aspects of fungal biology that influence their ability to cause invasive disease in humans; specifically, the ability to acquire iron, which is a limiting nutrient in the human body, and the role of sialic acids – specialized sugar molecules found on the surface of some fungal pathogens – in adhesion and invasion of the human cells.

How has your research program evolved at Simon Fraser University (SFU)?
My focus has always been on filamentous fungi. I became interested in them because they’re eukaryotes that inhabit unique environmental niches and because their biotransformation abilities were relatively untapped. My early work at SFU involved the industrial use of fungi for biotransformation reactions, integrating them into organic syntheses. A second, related interest was their use in bioremediation; we monitored biodegradation activity of isolates from contaminated sites. Later, I became interested in their role in human disease and now my work is almost exclusively focussed on fungal pathogenesis. I suppose the unifying theme of my research program has been the biochemistry of filamentous fungi applied to different aspects of their utility or pathogenicity.

What research obstacle currently keeps you awake at night?
What keeps me awake is the challenge of making constructs to get fungal genes to express. I often wake up at 4 am thinking about about experiments and have done so for my whole career.

The funding situation keeps all Canadian scientists awake at night. I think that the decreased availability of funding for basic research is diminishing our profile on the international stage. Without that profile, we can’t attract enthusiastic young people and we lose any edge we ever had as a country. We have excellent scientists, an excellent education system and we have capable, dedicated young people; we just need the funding to train them.

What is the best part of the research you do?
When experiments work and everyone is happy; when something you predicted happens, or even when you didn't predict it but it is interesting. Everyone shares a sense of accomplishment when projects are working; possibly more so than when the paper finally gets published.

As a participating researcher in the Canadian Glycomics Network (GlycoNet), what opportunities does that bring to your program?
The opportunity to liaise and collaborate with a group of people who are interested in similar research, and it brings access to certain technical aspects, equipment and skills. It connects me with scientists in a similar area who have alternative approaches or techniques that may be of interest in my work. It's a great opportunity for us that will advance carbohydrate chemistry and biochemistry across Canada.

How has the funding landscape for your research changed over the last 10 years?
Now, there is a closer linkage between what you do and whether there is an immediate application for the work. That's difficult because much of the research done at universities is by its very nature discovery-based basic research.

I think what has changed the most is the need to have multiple-investigator applications. For large amounts of funding, multidisciplinary teams have to be in place; this requires a great deal of work before applying for funds. Having effective multidisciplinary teams can bring together new ideas and approaches but it can be artificial in the sense that often you don't know who your collaborators will be until you have some results.

Do you think the trade-offs with the changes in funding trends are for the greater good?
It is true that the more junior scientists and the ‘smaller fish’ researchers benefit from the credibility of the ‘big fish’ in this new funding model. But then some people included in a team have a lesser chance to establish their own program because they are added as individuals who can complete some component of the project – they are less likely to be the primary investigator. In this system they become technical contributors rather than independent researchers.

Now, there are fewer funding opportunities that allow the investigators to make their own research decisions and have flexibility in the direction of the research – the course of research is more prescribed. If you already know which collaborators you need and the specific directions the research will take, it becomes less likely that you will find something novel. The work becomes just a confirmation exercise.

What other roles do you play at SFU and in the scientific community?
At SFU, I've participated in many committees: Graduate Chair in Biology, the Biology Appointments Committee, the Associate Chair in Biology. I have been Chair of the SFU Biosafety Committee for many years. In 2010, the Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS) asked me to join their administrative team as a representative of the lab sciences. I did that for 5 years, during which I also stepped in as the Associate Dean of Education for 2 years. Although this took me away from my research and teaching, it was an opportunity to do something different and help build the faculty. It's definitely hard to keep your research going at the same pace when you take on administrative tasks. I miss working with my colleagues in FHS but it is terrific to be back in the lab, making a greater contribution to my research and spending more time thinking about science.

At the national level, I have served on the Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada (NSERC) grant Evaluation Group for cell biology. I was recently appointed to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s (PHAC) Advisory Committee for the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, a group that provides advice to PHAC on Canadian biosafety regulations.

I am also involved in our local community. I have worked for Science World as part of their Scientists and Innovators in the Schools program for many years. I think it’s important to introduce science in a positive and enthusiastic way to young people; even if they don’t themselves become scientists, as adults they will be more likely to value the role of science in society. I visit classrooms with Grades 4-6 students, and talk with the students about microbiology as well as provide hands-on experience.

Which of these service roles is the most important? Which are the most rewarding?
They are all important. As an administrator, it’s as if I were in the basement of the building attending a giant machine; my job is to keep it working quietly and efficiently at all times so that nobody sees or hears the machine or even knows I’m there - until something goes wrong. That's what administration is, it's meant to facilitate, to make systems work, to make policies that are beneficial to the people they affect.

I get pleasure from all of these service roles. I like seeing kids look at microbes on a plate and actually think it’s cool, not gross. But it's also rewarding to put a policy in place that helps graduate students or makes a new faculty member have a better experience at the university.

What contemporary scientific issue concerns you the most and needs more attention?
Public support for the scientific enterprise; the understanding of evidence-based medicine, the scientific enterprise and its value in our society. My concern is one of the public looking away, a weakening of public trust in the scientific enterprise. There is a general lack of understanding by public decision-makers and sometimes our own students of how science works. The trend toward abandoning the scientific evidence-based approach is alarming. The alternative plunges us back into the dark ages where we made decisions based on anecdotes and superstitions.

We need the Canadian public to be educated and aware, to value the evidence but also be knowledgeable enough to realize that weight of evidence is not the equivalent of a guarantee. We need more teachers who are trained scientists, more public discussion and more people with scientific backgrounds to have influence in decision-making at every level of government.

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 Read more: Dr. Moore’s profile on the Biological Sciences website, the GlycoNet site and the Featured Researchers page

Interview by Jacqueline Watson with Theresa Kitos