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“I hated high school biology” says the chair of the Department of Biology, Professor Mark Bernards. “I didn’t even take it in grade 13.”
Not everyone comes to biology directly, and for Dr. Mark Bernards, Biology snuck up on him after he was rejected from his first career choice, architecture. “After I didn’t get into architecture school, I took a year off. I grew up in Scarborough, ON, and I’d been working on a pick-your-own vegetable farm for years. I became more interested and engaged in agriculture, so that led me to the University of Guelph for my undergraduate degree.” After a while, Dr. Bernards says, his focus became clear: “It turned out that I wasn’t actually interested in agriculture, but in plants themselves.”
He traces his interest in plant biochemistry to two undergraduate courses. “The first was a course in ‘Pomology’ – the study of fruit trees. We learned an awful lot about how to apply different kinds of herbicides and pesticides, but no one could explain to me how they worked, which I found intensely frustrating. Then in a colloquium course, Dr. Brian Ellis gave a guest lecture about plant natural products and defenses. I was hooked, and managed to weasel my way into his lab.” Dr. Bernards started his graduate work in Guelph on a PhD project in plant secondary metabolism and responses to stress; however, three and a half years in to the project his supervisor relocated to the University of British Columbia. “We saw the move as an opportunity to see the rest of the country, but it was also quite an adventure, because my wife was eight months pregnant when we moved” he recalls.
After his PhD, Dr. Bernards moved to Washington State University to begin a postdoc with Norman Lewis, a plant biochemist, who had just moved to WSU to head the Institute for Biological Chemistry. “When I arrived in the lab, he handed me three grant proposals to read, and I guess I thought I could choose between them. A week or two later we met, and I said ‘well, I really like this project on lignans’ and he said ‘well, I think you should take a closer look at the suberin proposal’ – I guess I was supposed to have been doing that one all along!” At the time, Dr. Bernards recalled, there was a general paradigm that suberin (the polymer that makes cork cells corky, and functions as a wound healing matrix in plats) was just a kind of lignin (the molecule that makes up woody tissue in trees and other plants) with an embedded waxy polyester similar to cutin (which coats the surface of leaves). “We explored the chemical composition of the phenolic component of suberin, and were able to show that it was distinct from lignin. Since Lewis was a lignin guy, he wasn’t much interested in suberin after that, and I was able to take many aspects of the project with me – and it is still the main focus of my research.”
Dr. Bernards’ first stop after finishing his postdoc was a faculty position at the University of Northern British Columbia, which was just opening. “For the first year, we worked like crazy out of rented offices in downtown Prince George, because the campus wasn’t finished. We had no students, but we were flat out planning the curriculum. We got permission to occupy the main campus about a week before the start of classes – we’d unpack boxes in the morning for teaching labs that afternoon!” After five years at UNBC, Dr. Bernards found himself at something of a crossroads: “My NSERC grant was up for renewal, I was going up for tenure, and I felt that I needed to decide whether to stay in the primarily teaching environment, or to try to go somewhere where I could do more research. It all came together and I was able to move to Western, and I’ve never looked back. We have such outstanding facilities, there’s almost nothing you can’t do.”
Dr. Bernards moved through the ranks at Western, and became Chair of Biology shortly after being promoted to Full Professor. He’s a bit evasive when asked what he’s learned as chair (“nothing you can put in print” he jokes), but does comment on how much he enjoys leading the department. “It’s functional. Like a family, there are always disputes and issues, but it is almost always possible to get a collegial resolution because the department is full of reasonable people. Not every department chair has that luxury.” He does note, though, that Biology has a bit of an image problem within the University. “Because we have such a huge undergraduate programme, a lot of people assume that our purpose is to teach at the undergrad level, and they fail to appreciate our excellent graduate training environment and the fact that Biology is becoming recognised as a research powerhouse in many aspects of biology in Canada.”
When I was growing up, I wanted ... to be an architect; this was my first obsession. I was going to turn the architectural world (esp. house design) on its head. It was only when I was interviewed and rejected by two architect programs that reality set in and I had to look for alternatives. Consequently, I have a special place in my heart for all the hopeful pre-meds who don't make it to their program of choice.
My favourite organisms are ... Plants in general. I am fascinated by their chemical and biochemical diversity.
My first publication was about ... The characterization of a plant cell culture-pathogenic fungus co-cultivation system that allowed me to explore the induced metabolism in the plant cell cultures without contaminating fungal metabolism.
My favourite piece of research was ... the study conducted by a PhD student of mine, Wei-Li Yang. She used targeted metabolite analysis and metabolomics to explore induced metabolism in our suberin model organism, the potato tuber. Her work has formulated several hypotheses that we are pursuing to this day.
Biology at Western is ... Amongst the best Biology departments in Canada. There are very few things that can't be done here, which largely only limits experimental opportunities to one's imagination (and grant funds!). The people are fantastic, including faculty colleagues, staff members and students. I wouldn't have agreed to be Department Chair if this wasn't the case.