Dr. Lynne Quarmby is a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry at Simon Fraser University. In addition to her roles as researcher and teacher, Dr Quarmby is an environmental activist concerned with the lack of evidence-based decision making, which led to her running in the 2015 federal election. We sat down with Dr. Quarmby to discuss how her environmental activism has influenced her research.

For many years the focus of the research in your lab was on deflagellation. Can you summarize your interest in this field?

The model organism that we’ve worked with for a couple of decades is Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which is a unicellular green algae with two apical flagella. Eukaryotic cilia and flagella are really the same thing, and we now know that almost every cell in the human body has a tiny little primary cilia. C. reinhardtii live in murky ponds and soils, and they use their flagella to phototax to position themselves in the sweet spot of the water column, where they get just enough light to photosynthesize, but not enough light to cause UV damage.

We’ve been studying assembly and disassembly of these flagella for a long time – specifically the mechanism of disassembly called deflagellation. So far as we know, cilia and flagella on all cells pop off in response to the right stress. We used C. reinhardtii genetics to try to dissect both the signalling pathways and the mechanical pathways responsible for deflagellation.

After so many years in this field, why did you decide to step away?

All this was occurring at a time when model organism research was more difficult to get funded by CIHR. I tried to keep this research going on NSERC alone for a few years, but it was difficult. I just didn’t have the resources to keep the project going. Since I was having such a hard time getting funding, and I wasn’t really feeling very fulfilled in the lab, I decided to step into the role of Chair of the Biochemistry department at SFU.

Taking over the responsibilities as Chair of the department also coincided with the arrival of Kinder Morgan on Burnaby Mountain. I’d heard about them cutting down some trees in the conservation forest, so I became one of the people going down a couple of times a week trying to monitor the situation. I also wrote an op-ed about what was going on that was published in the Vancouver Observer. This resulted in Kinder Morgan suing me and four others.  Following this I was arrested for civil disobedience. Fortunately both the lawsuit and charges were dropped, and I ended coming out of it okay. But it was a pretty stressful time.

Once the Kinder Morgan situation started to settle down, Elizabeth May came along and asked me to run for the Green Party. So I became the candidate, and life became crazy for another year. So with so much happening in a short amount of time, I got drawn away from my research.

Have you always considered yourself an environmental activist?

I’ve been a low level activist my whole life, but the 2009 climate conference in Copenhagen affected me particularly deeply. It was the first time it really hit me that politicians were not going to step up and do the right thing. I had watched from the sidelines as we eventually did the right thing about acid rain, and eventually did the right thing about the ozone layer, and I knew that globally we could attack these big problems. I think up until about 2009, I had assumed the same thing would happen with climate change as well. I certainly didn’t understand all the forces at work against it. So I started to get more active politically on the climate change front. At first just paying attention to the actual science and research.

When you finally returned to the lab, what made you decide to start a brand new research program?

After the end of the election, I spent a lot of time soul searching. I felt that it was an opportunity to go in a new direction in my life, and I ended up stumbling across this algae that is a sister species to C. reinhardtii. Normally they’re green, but they’re often red on snow. Nobody knows anything about these guys biologically.

So for the past year I’ve been learning about them. I went to a meeting in Germany – the first ever snow algae meeting – and I’ve been applying for grants. I also recruited some citizen scientists who went into the local mountains and brought me back samples. We were able to culture them in the lab, and we now have a total of about sixty isolates. I’m going to focus my project and my NSERC grant on these alpine algae.

What will be your first steps in analyzing these alpine algae?

A lot of snow algae have cilia, but we have no idea what they’re used for. They don’t express them when they’re red on the surface, but they do when we grow them in the lab. So when the snow is red in the spring, we want to know where the algae come from. Did they fall from the sky?  Did they phototax from the soil underneath? Did they swim with their flagella through the riverlets, shed their flagella, and turn red when they got to the top? Are they coming in on the wind? There are lots of possibilities!

I’m also really interested in the rich microbial community. There’s lots of bacteria, viruses, and fungi in addition to the algae. Plus it’s a poly extreme environment that’s cold and nutrient poor. So how does the community work together, and are there complementary pathways for capturing micronutrients that are in low supply? I’m really interested in the cellular symbiosis that’s happening. Most of these organisms are unicellular, so I want to figure out how they’re cooperating.

What advice would you give to someone else thinking of completely switching their research area?

I’m wary of giving advice because it’s really personal, and it depends on circumstances. Starting something new is risky, and it takes a lot of energy. I don’t even know yet if I’m going to get funded, considering that I have no track record with this research. But my gut instinct is to say life is short, so you should be doing what you want to be doing.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Dr. Quarmby!