Interview with Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology, Laura Hug

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

laura hug

Water Institute member Laura Hug, is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and leads the Hug Research group as they explore the microbial diversity that exists in contaminated environments – specifically landfills.

From a young age Laura was drawn to science, biology in particular. After learning about Mendel’s laws of genetics, which she described as an “elegant description of the phenomenon of inheritance,” she was instantly hooked.

Over the last 10 years she has received a number of awards and distinctions for her innovative research in the field of microbiology. Most recently, Laura was awarded the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology by the Government of Canada.

The Water Institute had the opportunity to speak with Laura about her career in science, the future of her research, and the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration in solving complex water problems.

You have recently been awarded a Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology, what motivates you as a researcher?

I find the discovery aspect of science thrilling. I love being the only person in the world who knows something new, even if it’s only for a few seconds. In my research program, the questions I study revolve around my concerns about the increasing contamination load on the environment. I am interested in developing microbiology-based tools to address this growing problem.

What is the research group currently working on?

My students have projects examining the diversity and distribution of different microbial remediation activities in landfills, as well as across non-contaminated environments. We’re looking at compounds like methane (a greenhouse gas), 1,4-dioxane (a hazardous solvent), and bioplastics – all compounds that are becoming more prevalent or concerning as contaminants.

I want to know which organisms are able to survive in landfills, and even thrive.”

“We don’t often think about our waste once it is out of sight, but our cast-off items are a banquet for microorganisms, and

How do you see your research being applied in the future?

Our goal is to develop enrichment cultures of microorganisms that are able to conduct a certain function – break down plastics, degrade dioxane, mitigate methane emissions. These cultures can then be introduced to other sites with these contaminants or issues, as clean-up tools.

What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in your area of research?

I always say that if humankind has made a certain compound, there is a microorganism out there that can degrade it. The tricky part is finding them! We are in a discovery phase for our research right now, testing many different methods of cultivation to select for the organisms we’re interested in. We’re using metagenomics (total community DNA sequencing) to help guide our efforts, as we can better target which site and which organisms have the potential to conduct our activities of interest.

You are a successful female scientist and innovator. How can we encourage more women to get involved in STEM subjects?

It never really occurred to me to do anything else, and no one ever told me I shouldn’t, or couldn’t. I don’t think women aren’t involved in STEM subjects – enrollment in biology programs is often higher in females than males. I think there are some systematic issues with the common accepted path for academic careers (not just in STEM) that make it harder for women – having to move frequently, difficulties when there is a gap in productivity/publications, among others. However, those disadvantages affect people of lower income, minorities, people with disabilities, and people with alternate lifestyles as well. Other than being female, I don’t have many categories where I would be disadvantaged in an academic environment – I’m in a position of significant privilege compared to many. I see the understanding of what a scientist looks like changing, as people become more aware of unconscious biases, but there are still a lot of ingrained ideas that need challenging.

Why is interdisciplinary collaboration becoming an important part of solving the world’s complex water problems?

The question answers itself, really – the problems are complex. Supply/demand, purity, changing distribution with global warming. Access to water is a social issue, an engineering issue, an environmental issue, and, increasingly, an economics issue. There’s no one field equipped to address each aspect, so multi-disciplinary approaches are the only way forward.

 In your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to overcome when working in an interdisciplinary team?

Jargon and fragmentation! We each speak a specialized language, and have specific priorities. Making sure a large collaboration stays moving forward as a unified front, and not as several independent arms is hard. It requires management, and thus the funding to have someone who can manage effectively – someone without a specific piece of the research they are passionate about, and instead focused on the larger goal.

Laura Hug and Josh Neufeld from the Faculty of Science, are co-chairing the 67th Canadian Society of Microbiologists Annual Conference, being held in Waterloo June 20-23, 2017.