Humans of Biology: Dr. Kathleen Hill

« 1 of 6 »

 

Introduce yourself.

So I am Kathleen Hill and I have the most wonderful job in the world because it is not like a job at all. Teaching students, doing research, travelling the world, and talking about science. And I golf.

Why do you like golfing?

Golfing is a social activity, it’s a very polite game and it’s a challenging game. It’s not one that I have mastered very well so you can continue to do it. It’s new each week, you can win prizes, and being a very social game, it’s good too, you get to talk to people and it’s excellent for networking. So some of the people I collaborate with in research, I met them on the golf course.

When did you start golfing?

Probably Gr. 9 of high school. But it’s too expensive as a student! And I don’t know how my parents afforded it—with the clubs, and the lessons. But it was enough that I could learn and then occasionally golf with my father. So we wouldn’t be able to afford it that much. And then, I had to wait and have a real job and now I can afford to play at some of the less expensive places.

What was your undergrad experience like?

So I went to university to become a lawyer. So I took courses in psychology because I thought that the human mind, human relationships, human beings were fascinating. So if I could learn more about people and about how people develop, so developmental psychology, or where there’s atypical development, learn about abnormal psychology, they would call it, and they would also have experimental psychology so you would work with people and do experiments in behaviour and so I thought that would be a good degree and then go to be a lawyer.

So what made you change your mind about law?

I had one of the best first year biology professors. His name was Robert Doyle and Bob Doyle was at the University of Windsor. And he just loved students and he loved biology. And he was very Irish and he told fabulous stories in the lectures that you could remember. And the stories made the exams so much easier cause you knew the story. It wasn’t like memorizing facts that didn’t have a plot. He had a way of telling stories so that you could remember it when you came to the examinations. And he had created tutorials that you listen to his stories and you worked independently and then in groups in the laboratories so biology became my favourite topic. Chemistry not so much. My father was in chemistry at Windsor. Chemistry not so much, biology I like.

So after your first year, did you decide that you didn’t want to go to law school and you wanted to do something more science based?

Right, and I wanted to shift from psychology to biology. So I did a double major so I really enjoy when students also do double majors. Like you get to choose a breadth of courses and so those that do double majors, even like music and, or English, and biology. And they think about combining skills together. So I kept both psychology and biology but I wanted to study neuroscience. And I wanted to do it from the molecular level and from the level of the cell, not so much from the human behaviour point of view. I wanted to know more about the molecular levels.

So what led you to teaching here at Western?

Well I went to school here. So my PhD comes from Western and the lab that I did my PhD in is only four doors around the corner and my supervisor is here. So London is home—my great grandfather came here with some of the people that actually started the university. They were in the same cohort of ministers in theology here. And so Western is very much home. Our family farm is just up in Ilderton so coming back here is very nice to be back with family. So I worked for a time in the States but coming back here, Western was my favourite school, for PhD, and when this building was built, I was the first person in one of the labs here. So this is a very wonderful place to be. And this is just like coming home.

So you’ve seen Western change throughout the years then. What kind of changes have you seen?

There’s many more new buildings. But there’s still some tunnels they could make so I don’t have to go outside. Well I worked in Pasadena, California and it’s a lot warmer and when I came back here I would forget that it’s raining. In Pasadena, it doesn’t rain for 300 days straight so you wouldn’t think about grabbing an umbrella and boots, and the rest of this And even getting from here to some buildings, I still have to go outside to cut between Medical Sciences and Social Sciences. I know most of the tunnels here and tunnels to important places like the Grad club, but there’s still some places you can’t get to.

Describe what an average day looks like for you.

So there isn’t really an average day. Every day I found is really, really different. So we have several collaborative programs. So today’s day was all about DNA and DNA signatures and it was a computer science kind of day. Tomorrow will be a study of breast cancer and lung metastases and the DNA changes there. And if I think of Thursday, it’s going to be a day where we look at synthetic biology and Saturday will be a cancer conference meeting. And then there will be other days where we look at vision loss. So the most fascinating thing about being a professor is that you don’t have… there’s never anything that’s monotonous or anything that is of regular schedule to it. Every semester there are new students and students are at different stages and there are new courses to teach and you get new research results. So when you arrived here, what we did for the first time today was actually classify different cancer types based on a DNA signature and we weren’t sure if it was going to work. It’s not as clean as we thought it would be but there’s a lot of hope that we’re actually going to be able to take genome sequences and start to classify different cancer types. So the student you met, who was just here, is very excited and he is putting that into his poster for Saturday. So that is pretty fast before the world will hear about it.

There was a rush to get all the genetic courses this year. So many people didn’t get them.

Yes I heard, it was very popular. So one of my courses started out with 80 people and it grew to 100 and if there had continued to be more people wanting into the course, it would’ve expanded as well. So yes, that’s really really interesting. And what I’ve noticed is that students are attending every lecture, desks are full. I had to ask custodians to bring in chairs so we can think about bigger rooms for some of these. So genetics is such a hot topic that we’re looking at a phenomenon called genomification and so there is this thing called scientification, where society is becoming very scientific. There is a lot of data and a lot of science that people are finding very interesting. And they think about their life and their lifestyle in terms of science. How to manipulate diet, how to think about genetic testing as an example. So Thursday’s lecture, we will have a professor from the Arts and Humanities and we’ll talk about how genome science has made dramatic transformations in it’s sort of invaded human culture. So people are basing some decisions and they’re changing their social media to reflect some of the data they have on their ancestry from their DNA testing. So we are going to look at where science is changing culture and our digital profiles and how the genome in particular, getting genome information, is changing behaviour and how people think about themselves.

So genetics is very popular. I’ve learned more and more people have actually sequenced their genomes and they are researching ancestry, they’re researching health, whether it is cholesterol levels or it’s metabolism, they’ve been looking at various markers in their DNA and trying to understand more about it for themselves. Instead of relying on a physician, they’re actually thinking of the DNA on their own.

Are you working on any personal projects right now?

I was thinking, in my family there may be genetic determinants for macular degeneration. So when we study macular degeneration, I think about that. And I’ve had relatives and immediate family with different cancers or heart disease. So I think about how I could learn more about lymphoma, as an example.

I have goals all the time. I have so many grants to review. I have so many papers to write and I have so many students to see today.

So I’ve gone back to school and I have a goal to get a Master’s degree in a completely different topic. Not with any rush because it is a journey I plan to enjoy for a long time. So I am enjoying being a student and I am a Master’s student in theology. So I’m in an Arts and Humanities program at a different university. And so I have a goal to understand how to learn through reading and studying. Right now, I am reading literature from 100 A.D. to 300 A.D. So I am studying one of the early abolitionist of slavery. So someone who had to stand up, say, against Roman slavery and what was wrong about that. So that’s my personal goal. I wanna be a better student though. Sometimes I have to do my papers the night before. And I have to make sure they’re not late. So I’ve learned that I have to read the professor’s course outline and then I have to follow the professor’s course outline and then some professors are very good, they give you a discipline, you have to do something every week and then some professors just give you maybe three deadlines and if you leave them till the week before you’ll never finish them… So learning how to write in the arts and humanities, learning how to do bibliographies and footnotes, so that’s a personal goal—to be a better student, to understand and not forget what it means to be a student.

In your theology research are you focusing on a certain culture?

So I had to learn a lot about human social structures that would be Greek when the Greeks were at their peak. So thinking about Alexander the Great and then I was learning about Roman culture and how that came in but also learning about the Palestinian culture and Jewish culture of that time and then that will expand. So if I continue to take this, it will become some of the Celtic, Gaelic, the Gauls and it will move as the history brings us forward. But to begin with, it’s Greek, Roman, Jewish, and it looks at Judaism, Christianity at this particular point. And the thing is, I don’t know how to read Greek. And it’s very important that as these courses go on so I won’t get to learn Greek though until next fall. And I’ll only be in like “Kindergarten Greek.”

So I took Latin and Latin has been very, very important because all of our disease terminology and much of the language when I’m teaching genetics—that’s Latin. So I can understand that. And one of the courses that I took as a very easy arts course when I was in undergrad was the dictionary course. So I would understand a little bit of many languages. But Greek is really important and a gap in my knowledge because many of the terms around the cell, those are Greek. So if you talk about mitosis and meiosis and chromosomes, all those words, those are all Greek. So whenever I stumble over a word, it’s probably that it’s Greek, and not Latin. So if I have the Latin plus the Greek, that’s going to help all that science terminology. And someone like Tony Percival Smith will tell you that many of the developmental  terms are German. So if you look at the gene names associated with developmental programming, you’ll probably find a little German.

So all those different cultural influences in science as well, it helps to know those languages. Cause then you’ll remember the meaning. A lot of the students in genetics find it challenging because everything is a new word and what does it mean? Those that have Latin, even if they don’t know it from the sciences, they can break it down and then they can say what it means. It has another meaning for them, not just as a genetics term, but as a language that they actually know something about.

Probably students who are Spanish speaking, Italian speaking, some of those romance languages, they’re going to be able to tease some of those words apart. So even on an exam, if they can’t quite remember, they can break it down and give me a definition that is worth part marks, even if it isn’t worth full marks. They can figure it out.

In your spare time, what do you enjoy doing?

So there’s golf, and I enjoy singing a lot. So I’ve sung in some choirs that are big groups. I’m not a soloist, I’m not that good. But if you have a big group of people, then I can sing with them.

What range do you sing?

So mostly alto. Soprano, not so much, it’s a little on the high side. And if they’re missing a tenor, I can sort of do the tenor-soprano part. Early in the mornings is better for tenor and I can work my way up.

At Western, students know you as a professor and a researcher. Aside from this, how else would you describe yourself?

So more and more of the students think of me as a student. So there’s a professor, a researcher, a student… Some people have golfed with me so they know about golf. One thing that I like and we’ve done this when we’re recruiting in the lab, some of the students who really adapt well to working in the lab, cook or bake. And I love to cook, I love to bake, I love the epicurious app that’s on the epicurean things that are on the ipad. So there are quite a few people here who are excellent. And the different cuisines from all over the world, if we have a potluck here and we have all the students contribute, we pretty much can cover the globe in terms of all of the types of cooking that we have. Cooking and baking. Fabulous.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would you be?

Croatia is beautiful. I had a meeting there and that is amazing. And England is wonderful. But I haven’t had as much travel as you would think as a professor. There are many more professors that are all over the globe. Most of my travels are in the United States and Canada, also England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Croatia.

I would really very much like to go to the regions around the Mediterranean and look at all the historical sites and look at the Colosseum and the Amphitheatre. So to go to Athens would be very good and to go to Philippi and Ephesus and to go into the Palestinian area. It’s one thing to study it and have pictures in the textbook. I would really like to go to where they have some of the most ancient writings. Cause you can read about something but unless you can actually go and see what papyrus looks like or what a codex looks like, look at really ancient writings. I used to live near the Huntington museum and it has a library, the Huntington library, it has botanical gardens. And if you had permission and you wanted to study some very old literature, they have that there. So I would like to do that. That would be fantastic.

Do you have a favourite movie?

I do. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” is very much up there. Now are we going to say that’s number one? I think, and I might have to go home and watch it now that I actually mentioned it, I think that could be. Something about taking a day and having such great joy with your friends and getting to know your friends better and having very close relationships with them. Cause it has its trouble parts, and to be in a parade. I used live on a parade route and in my high school I helped make a float at the Santa Claus parade. And to sing in front of all of Chicago, that’s pretty cool.

What kind of music do you enjoy listening to?

I like a lot of different music styles because we’ve sung a lot of the classical requiems and other types of music. But urban gospel is very interesting and I’ve been watching… do you watch those karaoke in the car? I forget what his name is. So I’m going to admit I’m addicted.

Carpool Karaoke with James Corden?

Oh yes, I love him. And I saw the one, okay I was kind of goofing off a bit when I should be doing other things, the one with Adele. Justin Bieber was kind of funny, but there was another one…oh Pink! So I love the voice, it’s just amazing. And sometimes he surprises them with how good his voice is. Michael Buble, that one was the most moving because he got to talk about very difficult experiences about his son who had cancer. And he is making a statement about how everybody can help, in terms of research, and helping children with cancer. But their voices in a car—it’s amazing. So my music is karaoke in the car—that’s my favourite. And they’re my favourite Youtube thing along with TEDTalks, those are very cool.

Who would you bring with you into the lab to help you?

Anyone can come in! Anyone who is truly interested, we’re going to go in there and we’re going to attack the zombie apocalypse. I think we can hold up in the lab and we can find a cure. We’ll make it from there.

Is there anything you regret?

No, I don’t think so. But I have a wish. I want many more hours in the day! So that we can get all the things we would like to get done. It’s dark when we come, it’s dark when we leave. There’s so much more that everyone wants to do and learn and there’s not enough time to golf and study and be a student. Your days must be full with all of your classes.

With your new masters, do you have to commute to the other university?

No, you know the neat thing that I know will be available for many people is distance learning. So what I’ve been doing actually by being a student I know how I be a better professor so I’m working with professors that are very skilled at giving distance courses, online courses, multimodal courses conference based courses. So how to put a course into a week, how to learn together in a workshop … So I actually listen to lectures the way my students do it, it’s a recording, it’s online, it uses a college system. I’m learning how to interact with the lecture, the material and my class, our discussion groups, all through online material so I could someday deliver one. I only spend a couple of hours in the morning before coming to work to sort of do the work, do the homework and do the lectures, work on papers. I’m only taking one course at a time. There are many universities now, you can do this in an online way. If I do go, there are study days, or our study week, I can take vacation and I can take a course with them if I want to.

I didn’t think I would want to do another research but I’m changing my mind. I think it would be very interesting at some point. Maybe I’m planning my retirement and in my retirement I’ll do a thesis/research on thing that might be an author, a point in history or a topic that I think might be something I want to do. Some people would want to do mission work — field work — they would travel and have an experiential learning class.Right now all of mine have been course based, text, lecture and writing.

You see, you really want to be a professor, because then you would have sabbatical. THen you can say “I’m going to study this next technique by working in this place.” So, there are some areas of research that I would like to learn to take our laboratory to the next step in some of the computer sciences and mathematics area so I would have to retrain myself. So, we were just looking at a meeting down at Berkeley and we could send some of the students down to learn but sometime I would like to have the time to go and learn some of the assembly of the genomes and applying our methods to looking at signatures in those. But I would have to increase my programming skills and I could learn here with some of the students. But sometimes you know you need immersion — you need to go to the new environment and work in that area. So, there are a couple of cancer institutes I have my eye on with some of their genome databases and wanting to work there. So, you could go and live there and learn languages and you could advance research at the same time. So you want to be a professor.

Do you have any advice for students in terms of academics, balancing school, and personal life?

The balance is very important. Yes, I think it’s really important to do a variety of things that interest you. Sometimes the singular focus is really helpful—to be that expert in that particular area, but what we’ve noticed in a lot of the science now, you’ll hear the word multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary, being a really good communicator and working with different teams of people, I think is becoming very important. And I think it is really important to do those research summers, if we can find more internships and more laboratory based experiences, finding more industries who will link up with the university and with students to offer on the job training or at site training and get that kind of immersion in science, that immersion in an industry setting. So I’m interested in trying to find more industries and more companies that have more opportunities for students to work and apply some of the things in the laboratory. The more scholarships we can find for summer internships; I like the work-study and the Western Volunteer so that people have, even if it’s a few hours, we’ve had students from first year all the way through their whole undergrad career work in the lab and they did a few hours every week and they’ve been authors on papers. They’ve been able to meet physicians and be able to meet other researchers that are doing basic research science and figure out just what kind of science they want to do.

We have a high school student joining us as well. He’s going to be doing Chaos Game Theory and he’s going to learn how to look for signatures in DNA signatures to classify them. He may use this for his science fair project. We’ve had science fair students here to actually be awarded their university tuition. They earned a bursary at the local level, the provincial level and they even compete at the national level. When going to their first year of university, their tuition was paid.

The neat thing about learning the scientific method, and even with grant writing, you learn a lot about constructing an argument and making sure you have the justification for that. The fourth year students just made their proposals and they delivered their proposals to their advisors. So they were teaching their professors the science so they thought they were cool. “I’m actually teaching university professors.” So that was amazing to them because the professors work somewhere else and they don’t know what that project is. So they were teaching, but they were also like lawyers. They were advocating for their project, they were giving their arguments as to why this was a sound hypothesis and these objectives will meet their goals. They were the defending it all. So they were actually getting really good training in what an advocate would do for a person. Instead of advocating for a person, they were advocating for their project and design.

I think there should be lawyers with a technical background in high demand. We’re doing a unit in our human genetics course where we’re going to look at policy and government and ethics and there are lawyers that need to understand from patent law, but also understand the science. So we have had several student here go to law school here. Some go into education, teaching and communicating science but law has been popular. The patent laws and the laws that are associated with some of the science that is now affecting human life, so the editing and the germline editing and the policies associated with privacy and confidentiality. There’s a place for the scientist to be able to understand that and communicate to those that don’t have a science background.

What’s your experience been as a woman in science?

Interesting… My mother is a very independent person and she’s quite the role model for me in terms of, I’ve never thought that I couldn’t do anything. And I know that many women that’s unfortunate they don’t have that experience. They maybe ran into a situation. But my father worked in a university and he worked with colleagues who were both male and female and my mother, she was of an era where you became a nurse or a teacher. She really wanted to do a degree in visual arts and she wanted to pursue university education further. So she had a pause and she did the teaching but then she went back to school, and that really inspired me that people at any age being able to go back to school and being able to achieve their dreams, etc. So I never had any feeling that I couldn’t do whatever it was that I wanted to do. And even in undergrad, I remember going into high schools and trying to talk about empowering women to continue in science and not drop out and take maths. So I didn’t experience it personally because I had many people who said that every individual can meet their full potential and be given every opportunity. My mother certainly was inspirational in that. But I do realize that sometimes in a room, and we’re defending a thesis, I might be the only woman in the room. Or if I wasn’t there, my student was female, she might be the only person in the room. It’s changing and in some fields, women are taking the courses and people are starting to wonder where are the men in some of the fields. So sometimes it’s noticeable and sometimes you notice that it’s changing. We’ve actually had committee meetings now and sometimes the only male in the room is the student and somehow he has assembled a team of examiners and advisors and supervisors and they’re all women in the room. So I think it’s changed.

The golf course in your office–do you play during breaks?

The students gave it to me, graduate students, it was a birthday present! So actually, I’ve used it twice and I haven’t had a chance to use it, but my guests use it. So what I’ve noticed and you noticed today–the putters are too short, especially when you wear high heels. So I’ll have to buy one. I don’t normally golf in a dress. So mostly the guests have used it if they’re interested. Now, we haven’t had many putting days, most of them are puttings outside. I think it’s more for the collaborative meetings and the discussions, people give it a try and if students, if you were nervous about coming to visit the professor, how nervous can you be when there’s a putting green there. Especially when the ball’s a minion. And we’ve had professors’ children have come. The putters too big for them, but they play.

 

Dr. Kathleen Hill studies the genome organization and integrity at Western University. Read more about her research here.

Interviewers: Elaine Liu, Jasmeen Ranu and Farshad Murtada