On the Mic with Mike #3: Coffee with the infectiously engaging Dr. Marceline Côté
In this episode of On the Mic with Mike, CIHR President Dr. Michael Strong meets Dr. Marceline Côté, an assistant professor and researcher at the University of Ottawa who studies viruses like Ebola. The two discuss where her interest in research came from, her career path, and what she’s working on today.
Dr. Michael Strong: Welcome to this next edition of “On the Mic with Mike”. As we talked about last time, the intent of this is to really introduce you to researchers from across the country who have a wide range of experiences, why they became researchers now, and what they see for the future of research.
Today, we’re back here at the Morning Owl Café in Ottawa, and we’re joined by Marceline Côté.
Welcome, Marceline. Thank you very much for joining us today.
You know, as I was commenting earlier, one of the reasons why this is something that is really important to do is it’s kind of giving a sense of who are these researchers. How did we get here? What are the things that get us up in the morning to be thinking about doing research? It’s sort of our advice for people who might be thinking about this.
So thanks for joining us.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Thank you.
Dr. Michael Strong: So tell us a little bit about yourself – from the beginning.
Dr. Marceline Côté: From the beginning? Well, so I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Sherbrooke in biochemistry. That’s where I really got into research, because I was in the coop programs. I did an internship at Sherbrooke, working on cancer and different things which was really fascinating. I really loved it at that time.
Dr. Michael Strong: So you did an internship during that time?
What was that like for you because you would have been early on in all of this?
Dr. Marceline Côté: That was the first year. That was the first summer during my undergrad. That was really great because I entered this biochemistry program not knowing much about research. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was just fascinated about biology and chemistry. That’s why I went into this. But I didn’t really think about a career in research at that time because I didn’t know what that was. So going into an academic lab really opened my eyes to the fact that it’s great.
I’ve always been curious and asking myself questions about nature and different things. Then I had the opportunity to actually answer some of those questions through research.
So it was really great. The fact that it was early during undergrad, the beautiful thing was that I could apply the knowledge I was gaining through my theoretical courses. That was really great.
It really helped a lot.
Dr. Michael Strong: So you mentioned that you were always kind of interested in the sciences – plants, nature, and that sort of thing.
So how far does this really go back then? Was this something that happened as a young child?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, as a young child. I was fortunate because my parents live right next to a forest. I’ve always loved the forest and nature. So I was just walking in the woods very often and fascinated by the diversity in terms of plants, and in terms of insects.
Dr. Michael Strong: Did you ever collect the insects and tear them apart?
Dr. Marceline Côté: No and I don’t want to do these things.
I love observing them. I love going to museums and seeing them, though. But the diversity and evolution, already, as a kid, was just incredible.
So that’s why I’ve always loved science. I think every kid is just like that. They’re fascinated about everything that’s around them.
Dr. Michael Strong: So is there somebody in particular as you were starting to head off into biochemistry, even before you were there, was there somebody who kind of really tweaked you to the excitement of this? Or do you think it was just intrinsic to you?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I think it was intrinsic, but also the fact that my parents were really open to whatever I wanted to do.
My parents are not scientists. They worked in finance. But they were always open-minded in terms of what we want to do and pursue our dreams and our interests. That’s really the way it is.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay.
Dr. Marceline Côté: So when I decided to go into biochemistry, they said, “Yeah, sure, you love it.”
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay. So from biochemistry to Ebola, right? Then work in virology, and a great postdoctoral period of time.
How did that all unfold for you?
Dr. Marceline Côté: So that’s interesting. I’m not totally sure how it happened. During my internships, I did three: two in research labs in Sherbrooke and one at University of Lausanne in Switzerland, which was great. The first one in Sherbrooke with Dr. Alain Piché, who was a great mentor, I was using viruses as tools.
So just to answer your questions, we were using viral vectors to express some proteins and everything. We were looking at potentially an effect on chemotherapy.
So that’s where I started being interested in viruses, because I thought they were so powerful, and we can really manipulate them to do really wonderful things.
During my internship in Switzerland, I was working in a virus and trying to understand how it worked. I was working on a mouse retrovirus. Then I started being fascinated by the biology of the virus itself.
So when I came to do my grad school, which I did at McGill University, I worked a little bit in immunology. Finally I joined a lab who was working on sheep retroviruses. These are oncogenic retroviruses.
Dr. Michael Strong: So oncogenic is what? What does it do?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Oncogenic means it triggers or induces cancer.
Dr. Michael Strong: Ah, okay. Right.
Dr. Marceline Côté: So in that case I was working on jaagsiekte sheep retrovirus. I cannot even say it properly. But it’s actually a sheep retrovirus that causes lung tumours.
Actually, Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, had to be euthanized because she developed tumours due to JSRV.
Dr. Michael Strong: Exciting. So you had a really unique opportunity then with regards to where you’ve gone to do your postdoctoral work then.
People think that that sometimes is more of a random thing. But yours wasn’t. You really thought about what you wanted to do.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I’m going to explain how it happened for me…
Dr. Michael Strong: Yeah.
Dr. Marceline Côté: …but I would not recommend to do it necessarily. So people normally send emails to different labs they are interested in going to, but I did not do this. I sent one email to one lab that I was interested in joining, just because the research that they were doing was interesting. That was Ebola research work, and they were looking for the receptor. I knew this, and I felt like the techniques and the assays that I had developed during my Ph.D. could be useful for what they were doing. So I thought that I could contribute, really. That’s why I sent an email to Dr. Jim Cunningham. I explained my situation, what I had done as a Ph.D. student, and I think I attached some of my papers, my first authored papers, and I said, “I would really like to meet you.” He replied maybe two minutes later.
Dr. Michael Strong: Really?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I’m not kidding – really quickly. He said, “I know your work” and maybe a month after, I was flying to Boston to meet with him and present my research.
Dr. Michael Strong: And was there chemistry? I mean, I hear so often the stories of those of us who’ve gone off to do a postdoc, and some of us who did more interviews beforehand. But there’s a chemistry right away. You know this is the person you want to work with.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I think so. I wouldn’t say I was charmed. I don’t want to say this. But scientifically, by talking with him, I was really inspired. He was really looking into finding hypotheses and looking at the big picture. At that time, as a Ph.D. student, I was so much focused on the details. Sometimes I was losing sight of the big picture. Just by talking with him, I realized that I would learn a lot by working with him in his lab.
Dr. Michael Strong: And how long were you there for then?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I was there for four years.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay.
Dr. Marceline Côté: About four years, maybe a little less than that.
Dr. Michael Strong: A lot of people I talk to, look at the postdoc period of their life as perhaps one of the best periods of their life, right? You’re not yet burdened, so to speak, with the writing of grants and the teaching and promotion dossiers and such. You have come off a really hot Ph.D., publishing through all of it. Then you have this period of your life where you’re kind of in the grey zone where you get to do a lot of innovative things.
Was it like that for you?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Well, I really loved my grad school.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I think I loved my post- doctoral training, scientifically mostly. But I was so much in the lab. So I would say that really, towards the end, I started enjoying more Boston per se.
So maybe I have a little bit of regrets regarding this. Maybe I should have gone out a little bit more during my postdoctoral studies, but my grad school was amazing.
Dr. Michael Strong: Why?
Because the young people that I talk to who are thinking about coming through and wanting to spend time in our labs or whatever, they look at the time. They don’t look at the experience so much. They say, “Gosh, maybe I’ll do a Masters’ first, get a bit of a sense for it. Maybe I’ll transfer across. It’s five years of my life.” You know, I’ve even had one say, “God, then I’ll be done. I’ll be old.” Really?
So why was it so good?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Well, it’s the environment, I guess, and it was just stimulating. I don’t know how to explain it. I had great graduate student colleagues. It was really amazing. I think most of us were really excited about what we were doing.
And yeah, I guess I had more energy. I was young. Maybe during my postdoc I was so work-oriented. At that time. I still enjoyed it. Scientifically, it was amazing, again. I met wonderful people.
I think one thing about Boston is, it’s so rich in terms of all the postdocs being so good. There are so many great labs doing amazing things.
They get people coming to talk, giving seminars that are outstanding, even before the big Nature paper comes out. So it was really great scientifically. Many of my colleagues, when I was a postdoc, now have faculty positions. So we’re colleagues for life. That is the great thing about it.
I think grad school is a little bit more, you know?
Dr. Michael Strong: Fair enough. I know exactly what you’re saying.
So I’ve got two questions that I want to follow up on. The first one, I think, is so you’ve mentioned now several times the importance of mentors, right?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah.
Dr. Michael Strong: Did you know that they were mentors at the time, or only in hindsight?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, so you see, we often you know want to assign you mentors to help you in your career and everything.
I feel it helps to some extent. I see more of them as advisors and people you can talk to, and they’re going to give you their opinion about things. But mentors, this is just a relationship that happens, I feel. It’s something you have to nurture as well.
So with Dr. Shang Yu (phonetic), I’ve really seen him as my mentor all throughout my career.
Even today, I think he nominated me for committees at the American Society for Biology, you know. Things like this. He’s still helpful. He gives me advice on life and research, things like this.
Dr. Michael Strong: So as you moved through that research trajectory, you’ve travelled a fair bit. You’ve been to Louisiana and Boston, started off in biochemistry and then went on to do your Ph.D.
Was there ever a time in the course of all of that where you sort of sat down and went, ”My God, what am I doing?”
Dr. Marceline Côté: No, not really. I’m right where I want to be, I think.
Dr. Michael Strong: Really?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah. Well – yeah.
Dr. Michael Strong: That’s kind of a really satisfying thing, isn’t it?
Dr. Marceline Côté: It’s true
Dr. Michael Strong: That’s great, right?
Not a lot of people can say that.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I feel really lucky, actually. It’s really hard to get a faculty position, and I feel very fortunate that I was able to do this. I mean, it’s still work. It’s a lot of work, but to be honest, most of it doesn’t feel like work.
Dr. Michael Strong: So what’s the most exciting thing you’re doing in the lab right now?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Right now, we try to understand how emerging viruses enter cells. So I’m still working on the Ebola virus and other emerging viruses, coronaviruses, and arenaviruses. We’re trying to identify how celluloid proteins are implicated in the entry pathway.
Not only the receptors, but also proteins that are involved in delivering the viral particles to the receptor. Especially for Ebola, the receptor is in the endosomes and lysosomes.
Dr. Michael Strong: So endosomes and lysosomes are tucked within the cell?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, that’s it. So it’s not the cell.
Dr. Michael Strong: And they’ve got a membrane?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah
Dr. Michael Strong: And they’re stuck there?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, so they need to navigate the endosomes and lysosomes.
Dr. Michael Strong: This doesn’t just pass through? It just doesn’t get in?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Oh no.
Dr. Michael Strong: Everything I’ve learned about virology is wrong?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Well, actually, through evolution, signalling pathways are activated by the virus. There are more and more papers on it, but we also published recently about a similar complex that is involved in the trafficking pathway of the Ebola virus. We think it is activated during entry.
Dr. Michael Strong: So you also mentioned, oncogenes is a big area. There’s a lot of work going on there. I know again when I’m talking to the public or lay groups questions around viruses arise. To preface it, I’m not a virologist; I’m a neurologist. But my work is looking at neurodegeneration. We use viral vectors in order to get modified proteins into sequence-induced degenerative state.
So when I raise that, immediately, you can count on somebody’s hand is going to go up and say, “Oh, wait a minute, do you mean things like cancer are neurodegenerative, they’re viral-mediated?”
How would you respond to that?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Well, I mean, viruses are everywhere. They are part of what we are as a human species too. We’ve got retroviral sequences within our genome.
Dr. Michael Strong: So it’s normal to have viruses within us?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, absolutely. We’re basing viruses right now. Most of them cannot infect us, but some do. But inflammation triggered by viruses can trigger some really important urine diseases.
Dr. Michael Strong: So let’s circle back to another comment, just to close the loop on it. So you said in Boston, when you were doing your postdoctoral, you might have gone out more, if you were doing it in hindsight, right? But that’s a really important piece in learning about being a scientist, right? How do you balance life? Because that’s happening at the same time.
Yet we’re expected to be at the peak of our career, writing great grants, writing wonderful papers, and teaching. How do you balance all of that?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I think it’s dynamic. I don’t necessarily – I mean, it’s not something that is stable. So there are periods that we have more work, some periods that there’s maybe less work and we can do other things.
I just listen to myself and my family, I guess.
It’s just being honest…
Dr. Michael Strong: Right.
Dr. Marceline Côté: …with what is going on and what we need.
Dr. Michael Strong: And is your family also into science? Do they understand what you’re doing?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yes, I’m really – my husband is a scientist too.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay.
Dr. Marceline Côté: So he knows, and he has some periods of time that he’s really busy. So then I try to help more with my daughter. Then there are periods that I’m doing grant writing and teaching, so he helps too. And my parents, they live really – like, you know, two hours away.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay.
Dr. Marceline Côté: So it’s not so bad.
Dr. Michael Strong: How old is your daughter?
Dr. Marceline Côté: She’s four years old.
Dr. Michael Strong: Is she asking about science yet?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Oh yes, I showed her pictures of cells.
She came to the lab once. I showed her cells.
And we have videos of cells grabbing virus particles. We play at home this game where I’m a cell and she’s a virus.
Dr. Michael Strong: That sounds wonderful.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah.
Dr. Michael Strong: Does she ever talk to you about, “Mom, can I ever do this?”
Dr. Marceline Côté: No, not yet.
Dr. Michael Strong: Not yet.
And it sounds like from the background, with your family and your parents, if she decided to go down that pathway, wonderful. If she doesn’t…
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, that’s it exactly.
Dr. Michael Strong: Whatever.
Dr. Marceline Côté: We’ve got to do something that we love in life. I think that’s what it is, something we’re passionate about – whatever it is for her.
Dr. Michael Strong: I think I know the answer to this question. When I ask, the question I think I know the answer to it. But if you had to do it all over again…?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I don’t think I would change. I mean I think there’s like maybe a few things I would change. But overall I wouldn’t change anything.
Overall I’m really happy, honestly. I mean, there’s a few things in my career I would have done slightly differently. When we talk about the specifics about grants, things like this, or papers… Overall, I don’t think I would change anything.
I really had some great experiences. I mean, I had some not as good, but I learned from them. I think I wouldn’t change them because the learning was just as important.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay. So now I’m going to ask you what’s actually one of my favourite questions to ask people.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Okay.
Dr. Michael Strong: If you could go back right now to anytime you want, go back and talk to somebody who has been dead for 100 years, 1,000 years, two years, or still alive or around the corner, who would you go and talk to and what would you ask them?
Dr. Marceline Côté: I’m not going to have anything insightful to say here.
Dr. Michael Strong: It doesn’t have to be insightful.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I don’t know who I would talk to. Does it have to be in science?
Dr. Michael Strong: It does not have to be in science.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Probably my aunt, but she recently passed away, so it would be about something…
Dr. Michael Strong: A personal conversation?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yes.
Dr. Michael Strong: Okay. In science, in your field, because virology just keeps growing, right, and our concepts of it, what do you think was the most important discovery in virology?
Dr. Marceline Côté: What was the most important discovery in virology? Because I worked on retroviruses so much as an undergrad and as a graduate student, I would say the RT was a really important discovery. First of all, reverse transcriptase and how it works because knowing about retroviruses, and understanding how they work, but also because the reverse transcriptase really changed so much in biology in general.
So I would say this is one of the biggest.
Dr. Michael Strong: Now let’s look forward. What do you think is going to be the biggest thing on the horizon? The tough question, right?
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yes. So in my field, we’re discovering – because I work on filoviruses and the Ebola viruses, and in my field, one of the things we thought that filoviruses were really mostly localized in Africa. There’s one Ebola virus that is in the Philippines. But now we realize that Filoviridae family is much more diversified and geographically distributed than what we thought. So there’s new bat-borne filoviruses found in China, for example. There’s a new bat filovirus found in Spain. In a cave, they found that some bats died, and they had a filoviral sequence. We now know that some mammals have actually filoviral sequences within their genome.
So I think there’s a bunch of discoveries…
Dr. Michael Strong: But they’re not all encoding for hemorrhagic fever.
Dr. Marceline Côté: No. But there are some viral proteins that can be expressed Maybe because some mice have it. So maybe it helps them because they can get infected but they don’t develop disease, for example. Maybe there’s something to it.
But I think there’s going to be a bunch of viruses we’re going to discover. Especially with the fact that the techniques for sequencing are so powerful now. We’re going to find so many. The giant viruses now – these are crazy. They encode and there are so many genes in there and we have no idea what they do.
Like the Pandoravirus, for example.
Dr. Michael Strong: So it sounds like there’s a lot of work ahead to be done.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Yeah, in virology, I think there’s really a lot of things that are coming. Just as the technology is getting better, it’s incredible what we can do and discover.
Dr. Michael Strong: Wow! So Marceline, it’s been wonderful chatting with you. Congratulations on a terrific career and the choices that you made.
Dr. Marceline Côté: I’m just starting.
Dr. Michael Strong: Thank you so much for joining us today.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Thank you very much.
Dr. Michael Strong: And the coffee. There we go.
Dr. Marceline Côté: Merci.
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