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Women in Science – podcast with Dr. Hana Weingartl

We work on the development of veterinary vaccines because these are what would stop the transmission of a virus from livestock to humans. It may not be visible, but we definitely maintain a state of readiness.

Dr. Hana Weingartl - Head of Special Pathogens Unit, Winnipeg Laboratory

With over 30 years as a scientist, Hana has taken the opportunity to share her knowledge and experience as a teacher in the classroom and in the lab as the head of special pathogens unit at the Winnipeg Laboratory.

Dr. Hana Weingartl – Audio Transcript

Today we are speaking with Hana Weingartl, Head of the Special Pathogens Unit at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease in Winnipeg. Hana, thank you for joining us today to talk about your role at the CFIA and why you love the field of science.

Can you tell us more about your role as the Head of Pathogens at the National Centre?

I think the role is described quite nicely in the title. I'm the Head of the Special Pathogens Unit at the National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease. We work on diseases which could be transmitted from animals – especially livestock – to humans, and for which there is no cure or vaccine for humans. So, my role is to lead the Unit and to develop the program for the Unit and also to conduct research and development with diagnostic essays for those diseases, such as the Nipah virus disease or the Ebola virus disease.

Those are very important viruses to combat, certainly. So, with such important work being done, can you tell us something about the work that you do that helps the lives of Canadians?

Okay. So, in our lab, which is a biosafety lab, we work with quite dangerous viruses such as Ebola and Nipah. What we are trying to achieve is to develop diagnostic methods to detect them as soon as possible in case there is an incursion or intentional introduction of those viruses into Canada. We work at the veterinary level because our colleagues at the Public Health Agency of Canada have diagnostic capability and, actually, they also very often perform diagnostic testing for those diseases in humans. So, we focus on the veterinary aspects, and the work is more in terms of prevention. In case there is an outbreak, we are also working on developing veterinary vaccines because those would stop the transmission of the virus from livestock to humans. We, for example, know that the Nipah virus can be transmitted very efficiently from pigs to humans. So, our role is to be able to detect, immediately or very soon, the virus in the swine, and then prevent transmission to humans. So, it is a little bit on the preventive side, and maybe not so visible, but we definitely maintain a state of readiness.

So, when did you know you wanted to work in science?

I think I discovered it in Grade 6. We had a fantastic math professor. At that time, I was attending an experimental school that lasted for only about one year. She was teaching at the university but volunteered to also teach kids in this special school. She was very inspirational. Since then, I kind of thought, "Science, yes, it looks good. It's interesting."

So, did you know what kind of science you wanted to study, what field you pursued, starting out, obviously, with a love of math?

Yeah, I liked math, and then I also liked physics, but in the end, I moved more towards biology because at the very end, I wanted to know the origin of life, to see how that works. You know, viruses are very interesting because on one side they are not alive, and then, on the other, they are alive. So, this was, for me, very intriguing. Then, also, during my studies, I did general biology studies at Charles University in Prague. We had lots of courses which were actually on the border of physics and biology. We had biophysics. We had to study biophysical chemistry. We had mathematical modelling of biological systems. But I started more with mathematics and physics and then slowly moved to biology and then to virology.

So, what would you say that would be your love of science? What do you love most about science?

Well, I like solving mysteries and puzzles, and I think with science, every day there is something new. You get to ask questions and then look for the answers, or you get the pieces of a puzzle and then you put them together. So, it's more that you are always challenged, and what you do is always interesting. It's actually a very nice way to work.

What is the coolest scientific fact that you know? What is something that… you know, anything, whether it's something that you studied previously or even something that you're studying now?

Well, actually, what I like more than the facts is the theories and the hypotheses. For me, the coolest one, it's not in my field. Not so long ago, there was a publication that wrote about how it looks like there is a bump into our universe because there was another universe which bumped into our universe. These types of things, I really enjoy them. I think they are really cool.

So, obviously you've had a great career, an opportunity to study many different facets of science and, of course, mathematics and physics. So, who is a scientist that inspires you, and why?

I think since I was a kid, I have always admired Marie Skłodowska Curie. She was pioneering research in radioactivity, and she discovered, together with her husband, two radioactive elements. She was just a powerhouse. She was the first woman to get the Nobel Prize. She was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and she's still the only one who got them. One is in physics, and one is in chemistry. What I found really nice about her is that, during the First World War, she assembled a small, mobile X-Ray laboratory, and then she was one of the first women to get a driving license to drive it around from one hospital to another to help injured soldiers who were returning from the front. She did it with her daughter, so I think she was just, you know, an amazing woman.

You know, having so many people like that, like Marie Curie – because I've read about her myself and, of course, I watched the movie – it's intimidating, right? It's intimidating, but it's also inspiring to think we can and should do more. What scientific breakthrough do you hope for in the next five years? I know that you're also a teacher. So, you probably get to see a lot of opportunities.

So, I will be retiring this year. So, actually, what I am hoping for is for my two students to successfully graduate, and then I have, right now, three postdoctoral fellows. Actually, all five of them have very interesting findings. So, I am hoping to publish whatever they achieved and hopefully it will be in the high-profile journals because I think that what they have discovered is quite exciting.

So, you are a teacher. You've had a long career. You are on the verge of retirement. You've studied different facets of science, and obviously you have a lot to share, a lot to provide. So, what would you tell girls and young women today to encourage them to choose science?

Well, I think I would probably tell them that they can have a very interesting life. It's quite exciting to work in science, and if they like science, they should follow up and not let anyone tell them that they are not up to it because they are girls or young women. That's all.

Well, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your sharing your love of science with us and we wish you so much luck with the next set of adventures that you have in your life. Retirement?

[laughs] Well, thank you very much. It was pleasure to talk to you.

Thank you.

[End of recording]

Women in Science – Dr. Hana Weingartl

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