Dr. Rene Harrison
Associate Professor, Biological Sciences, University of Toronto Scarborough
U of M Degrees:
MSc Biological Sciences (1995)
“The path to becoming a scientist can be difficult, but I had such great support that it was a uniformly positive initial experience in research. For students who want to do it, I say just go for it and stick it out, because experiments often don’t work, and things happen beyond your control. This masochistic part of your brain will force you through… but if you’re driven, you’ll get there.”
What was your strongest memory from your time studying at the U of M, Faculty of Science?
When I look back, what comes to mind is the camaraderie between the graduate students within Biology, which was then Zoology. I loved being in this mixed Zoology department, and it was very broad in terms of the topics we were all studying, so you were always thinking outside the box, not just focussed down the microscope all the time. It was a great group of grad students – everyone was very friendly, and I have memories of many laughs and pranks that went on at that time.
What opportunity during or after your time in the Faculty of Science helped launch your career?
Beyond the amazing research experience I had, I had opportunities to be a Teaching Assistant (TA) and that really developed my teaching skills. The professors at the time gave us almost full independence on running and developing the labs. I was in charge of the labs for five or six different courses and out of this I was fortunate to get two TA teaching awards. They even allowed me to be a sessional instructor for the cell biology course, so I actually got to lecture. These teaching opportunities at U of M played a huge role in my getting my assistant professor position at U of T.
What is the most fascinating and/or engaging experience you have had during your career in science?
Working on a project to study why astronauts suffer bone loss in microgravity was definitely the most out of this world. I can’t really compete with that one. Most of my other memorable experiences are from watching living cells under a microscope – while that might not appeal to everyone, seeing the cells at work really made an impression on me.
How did you transition your studies to working with bone cells and the eventual discoveries for space exploration and osteoporosis science for earthbound subjects?
Erwin Huebner, who everyone calls “Doc,” was my supervisor when I did my Masters on the insect ovary at the U of M, discovering how eggs are prepared for fertilization. Doc is an outstanding researcher and he really gave me a strong foundation in cell biology, which made it easy to transition to other fields. For my PhD, I did cancer cell biology and for my post-doc, I did immune cell biology. Now for my own lab I do a few different things, but the big one is the bone cell biology. I have been fascinated by bone cells since I was a TA for Doc in his Histology class. When I got my lab, bone cells were one of the first ones we started studying. Right about that time, the Canadian Space Agency put out a call for proposals for cell biologists, to try and figure out why astronauts have such pronounced bone loss. I thought about what might be happening, I read up on a lot of microgravity studies, but really I drew from my very long cell biology experiences to form a hypothesis that has to do with the cytoskeleton, and which cells might be affected and why. They liked it, so I was one of three Canadian groups that were involved in this initiative to send cells to be cultured on an unmanned satellite that would orbit the Earth for two weeks. Then those cells were treated with a fixative while in space – so they would be prevented from experiencing our gravity when they reached the ground – then brought down to Earth and compared to the ground replica cells. They sent the cells back to my lab and we did a whole bunch of studies to figure out which cells were impacted and why - and my hypothesis was mostly true.
Dr. Rene Harrison is quite sure she’s the first – and only – scientist ever to send a narwhal tusk up into space. She still has the unique whale “tooth” in her cell biology lab at the University of Toronto Scarborough. The tusk, provided to Harrison by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in Winnipeg, was used to grow the bone cells in an exciting mission between the Canadian, European, and Russian space agencies. These agencies jointly launched a satellite containing cultured bone cells into space to figure out why astronauts lose bone in microgravity. Harrison’s post-mission cell biology analysis, which she has discussed in a TEDx talk called The Space Oddity of Couch Potatoes, revealed that both major cell types of bone were affected, leading to significant osteoporosis in astronauts.
Besides this cosmic experiment, Harrison lives her life at U of T largely under the microscope; studying the structure and function of the microtubule cytoskeleton in multiple cell types, while teaching and inspiring future scientists about cell biology and microscopy. She has been part of a cutting-edge research project that determined a link between chlamydia and cervical cancer and is now studying a third cell type in bone that simply senses load, rather than creating or degrading the bone. She is also working on developing an optimal exercise regime for sedentary people who are at risk of bone loss through osteoporosis, like the astronauts. Harrison has won numerous awards and accolades for her research, has been published dozens of times, and is involved in many scientific organizations and grant panels, including the American Society for Cell Biology and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.