Heather E. McFarlane

Assistant Professor & Canada Research Chair in Plant Cell Biology
University of Toronto
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Heather R. McFarlane is an Assistant Professor & Canada Research Chair in Plant Cell Biology for the University of Toronto.

About me

I was born/grew up in: Kingston, ON

I now live in: Toronto, ON

I completed my training/education at: BSc (Cell biology), University of British Columbia; Vancouver, Canada

MSc (Biology), McGill University; Montreal, Canada

PhD (Botany), University of British Columbia; Vancouver, Canada

Postdoctoral Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology; Potsdam, Germany Independent Research Fellow, University of Melbourne; Melbourne, Australia

What I do at work

As an Assistant Professor, I teach classes and conduct research. In my research lab, we study plant cell biology. Actually, the undergraduate and graduate students in my lab group do a lot of the research and I mentor these students! I teach my students to use specialized equipment. I also help them plan and conduct their experiments and I make sure that the lab has everything that they need to succeed.

My career path is

In high school, I enjoyed working with computers. At that time, I thought I might like to be a computer programmer or engineer. However, after working in this field for a short time I realized that the job was not what I expected. So, when I started university, I took a very general set of first year science courses. I realized that I liked biology, especially genetics, at university much more than I liked it in high school. While at university, I did a research project with plants. Ever since then I have been fascinated by all of the exciting ways that plants live their lives.

I am motivated by

I love working at the forefront of knowledge. I have always liked asking questions and I get a thrill out of designing and conducting experiments to answer these questions. I also like that there are a lot of opportunities for international collaboration in research. I have conducted research in five countries (Canada, USA, Sweden, Germany, and Australia). I have also presented my research in dozens of countries!

How I affect people’s lives

My research group asks and answers questions about how plants grow and develop. In my lab, we study the plant cell wall. Cell walls provide the plant with protection and support. For humans, they are a great renewable resource. Cell walls are important parts of the fiber in the fruits, vegetables, and grains that we eat. Materials, such as wood, paper, cotton, and some bioplastics are made out of cell walls. Cell wall material is also a source of material for renewable biofuels. By improving our understanding of the plant cell wall, our research has the potential improve the development of biotechnology.  It may also help to improve farming practices. This may lead to improved food security, sustainable bioenergy, and development of exciting new biomaterials.

Outside of work I

Outside the lab, I enjoy knitting (especially socks!), cooking, and growing all kinds of houseplants. I also like to play ice hockey and soccer. I’m a huge fan of the Montreal Canadiens.

My advice to others

Try it out! See if there is an opportunity for you to tour a local lab or volunteer there. Conduct some experiments for a science fair project.

When I was a student, I enjoyed:
  • History
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Math
  • Science
  • Computer Science
When I was a student, I would have described myself as someone who:
  • Brought People Together
  • Played on a sports team
  • Wanted to be in charge
  • Liked being given free range to explore my ideas
  • Liked reading
  • Learned Best by Doing

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