Innovator Spotlight: Heather Proctor

Heather Proctor’s research on mites and tiny invertebrates helps others cultivate a sense of curiosity and wonder for the species we share the planet with.

Dr. Heather Proctor, near Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre on Vancouver Island.

Dr. Heather Proctor, a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science in the College of Natural and Applied Sciences, believes innovation can turn an undefined education and career path into worthwhile, exciting and rewarding experiences.

In this week’s spotlight, Dr. Proctor shares how a teaching philosophy guided by compassion and empathy creates opportunities for student success, and the importance of sharing discoveries to inspire concrete actions.

How do you describe your work to people who don’t work in your field?

I tell people I work on mites, tiny relatives of spiders, plus many other groups of invertebrates including snails, crayfish and different types of worms. I study their diversity, behaviour and ecology. In particular, I’m interested in symbiotic interactions in which small organisms (symbionts) live on or in larger-bodied ones (hosts). Most of the current research in my lab is focused on assessing whether symbionts are good, bad or indifferent from the point of view of the hosts. 

What’s one big problem you want to solve through your work?

I am passionate about improving people’s ability to identify invertebrates through production of well-designed, easily accessed keys for both professional and amateur use. Knowing the identity of an organism is a vital part of conserving biodiversity. I am an editor of an online journal dedicated to publishing such keys. This is not a "problem" I will ever solve, given the more than one million species of arthropods on Earth, but every published key is a step forward. The ultimate problem is one that I address through teaching rather than research — to instill a fire in young hearts, a fascination of the species we share the planet with and to inspire actions to conserve them.

What does the word “innovation” mean to you?

It means to introduce something novel, be it a corporeal tool or a thought process, with the intent of improving the state of things.

What’s been your biggest a-ha moment — in life or work — so far?

I was teaching at Griffith University in Australia, and a student was sitting in my office, very distraught that she hadn’t handed an assignment in on time. At that time I was by-the-book and unlikely to cut much slack. As the student tearfully explained her (truly awful) situation to me, I did my best to comfort her and, quite out of character for me, granted her an extension without requiring the usual written documentation. The student was grateful and eventually submitted a good paper. In that experience I realized that empathy and forgiveness can make me a better teacher. I stopped worrying so much about cheaters potentially getting away lightly. Most students are working as hard as they can, and not everyone has a life in which they can focus solely on studies, as I was able to.

How do you or your team come up with your best ideas?

Looking carefully at small things through a microscope is a source of constant discovery for me and my students. We’ve found many species new to science and unexpected ecological relationships that way.

What’s your favourite thing about working at the U of A?

The tight-knit group of arthropod researchers who are my academic family. We all have each others’ backs. Also, the U of A’s superlative library system!

Do you have a role model at the U of A? How have they influenced you?

My role model was Dr. Hugh Clifford, my honor’s supervisor way back when I did my undergraduate degree in the old Department of Zoology at the U of A. Hugh taught both general invertebrate diversity and a specialty course on aquatic invertebrates of Alberta. When I started my undergrad I thought I was going to be a veterinarian, but soon learned that I wasn’t cut out for many aspects of this profession, including being way too short to be a farm vet. I switched to the Zoology program without having a clear idea of what I would grow up to be. But after taking invertebrate biology from Hugh, who was a marvelously learned and enthusiastic teacher, I realized with astonishment that people could actually work with invertebrates for a living. At the end of class one day I came up to the front of the lecture room and timorously asked: “Dr. Clifford, do you have any summer jobs I could apply for?” He did, and six months later I was doing field work in streams and sorting through the captured invertebrates. What a fun job that was, peering through microscopes at the fantastic and frequently mysterious morphology of tiny animals. I received an Undergraduate Student Research Award (USRA) under Hugh’s supervision on the diversity of water mites in Alberta, and later expanded it into my honor’s thesis. Hugh generously arranged for me to go to Ottawa to have my water mite identifications vetted by Dr. Ian Smith, one of the best water mite taxonomists in the world. My very last job with Hugh was to help illustrate keys in his excellent book, Aquatic Invertebrates of Alberta. I did my masters of science (Calgary) and PhD (Toronto) degrees on different aspects of water mite biology, so my time with Hugh set me up for many years. In a very ‘circle of life’ way, I am now teaching Hugh’s aquatic invertebrate course and curating the U of A’s Freshwater Invertebrate Collection, which Hugh set up himself. Before he passed away, Hugh arranged for me to have copyright of Aquatic Invertebrates of Alberta, which I make available for free to the students who take what I still think of as ‘Dr. Clifford’s course’ with me.

How does your work, your contributions to innovation help you lead with purpose?

Biological diversity is precious and threatened by human activity. I hope that my teaching in undergraduate courses inspires the next generation to want to protect other species. I am also trying to promote local biodiversity by working with the Nature Conservancy of Canada to put a conservation easement on my quarter-section near Elk Island National Park. The easement will protect the land (and its many mites!) from development in the future.

Dr. Heather Proctor

About Heather

Heather is an Edmontonian who did her undergraduate degree at the U of A, masters of science at the University of Calgary, and PhD at the University of Toronto. After having positions at Queen’s University in Ontario and Griffith University in Queensland, Australia, Heather returned to the U of A in 2002 as a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences. She is author/co-author of more than 120 journal articles and has described more than 30 species of mites. Heather teaches undergraduate courses in biological diversity and has a busy lab of seven graduate students.

Find Dr. Proctor on ORCID.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Innovator Spotlight is a series that introduces you to a faculty or staff member whose big ideas are making a big difference.

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