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Jennifer Gardy heads the Genome Research Laboratory at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)
Jennifer Gardy heads the Genome Research Laboratory at the BC Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. (Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail)

The XX Factor: Women in Science

Epidemiologist’s Gen-Y zest for science is catchy Add to ...

Jennifer Gardy’s research has been published in the New England Journal of Medicine, she has taken a zero-gravity flight, sexed an alligator in a bayou at night, and has been recognized by Esquire as a “semi-famous (in Canada, anyway), sexy, supersmart babe.”

There is probably no other epidemiologist in the world who could match her diverse string of accomplishments, or the way in which she documents them. Like other Generation Y members, Dr. Gardy’s iPhone is at the ready to tweet, e-mail or Instagram. Unlike the average millennial, though, Dr. Gardy, 33, uses social media to infect others with her enthusiasm for science.

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At the same time Dr. Gardy was doing a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of British Columbia in bioinformatics, she was hosting CBC’s Project X, a pop-science TV series that aired in 2008. Since then she has gone on to host The Nature of Things and various Daily Planet episodes. Next month she will shoot Myth or Science 2: The Quest for Perfection, a sequel to one of The Nature of Things’ highest-rated documentaries.

Currently she heads the Genome Research Laboratory at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) in Vancouver, where she has spearheaded a way to track disease outbreaks by following the genetic mutations in pathogens across patients. It’s this kind of disease detective work that won her the Genome Technology Young Investigators Award of 2012.

“She’s had a very big impact here at the BCCDC and has helped how we investigate disease outbreaks,” says Robert Brunham, provincial executive director of the BCCDC. “It takes quite a while for advances like this to diffuse through public health or medicine and become known to a larger audience, and that’s where her superb communications skills come in.”

Were you to glance at her Twitter stream you might find evidence of these communication skills perplexing. In the span of one hour Dr. Gardy might tweet her 2,000-some followers a rhetorical question pertaining to office toilet etiquette: “Who’s been eating cookies on the toilet?!" and then reference Eurosurveillance magazine’s issue on molecular and genomic epidemiology. Then again she might be exclaiming “HOLY CATBALLS!” or hypothesizing as to whether the explanation for mean-tempered cats might be microbial.

“In a way she’s the epitome of the Internet scientist,” says Jer Thorp, a software artist and educator and one of Dr. Gardy’s close friends from her undergrad years, who cites her addiction to viral cat videos and her citizen science “Kitty Microbiome Project” that will kick off this summer and seeks to survey the microbes that call kittens home.

“I think that’s just part of the new generation,” says Fiona Brinkman, bioinformaticist and genomics researcher at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver and Dr. Gardy’s PhD supervisor. “I see that in a lot of new scientists; they are just more comfortable with communicating in lots of ways.”

“[Dr. Gardy] has really mastered that generation’s ability to use different types of media to be able to get a message across in a tweet or a blog or in a traditional scientific paper,” says Bonnie Henry, medical director of communicable disease control at the BCCDC and Dr. Gardy’s boss. “That’s why we hired her. We saw that nice combination of being able to communicate to the public but also we saw her as someone who is going to be a leading scientist in the country.”

Dave Ng, a geneticist at the University of British Columbia and one of Dr. Gardy’s friends, adds, “I think as a whole the younger you are the more you are used to sharing things, whether you’re in the scientific field or business or what have you.”

Mr. Thorp asks, “I wonder if that’s a new luxury for scientists to be more of themselves in public? It’s a great thing for Jennifer because she gets to have a lot of fun and she gets to do the science that she likes.”

“I don’t put on an act. I’m just me,” Dr. Gardy says from her office on the second floor of the BCCDC. “I like puppies. I like kittens. I like over-explaining various things. Life is good and happy and fun and full of cute, fantastic, interesting things, so you might as well get excited about it and show your enthusiasm.”

As “adorkable” as Dr. Gardy is – a petite brunette with high cheekbones, exclamation-laden speech and a kittenish voice to match – one only has to peruse her Tumblr account of peer-reviewed scientific publications to see that she isn’t scared to roll up the sleeves of her black Aritzia blazer to get to work.

“Would you like to see my genomes?” Dr. Gardy asks as she turns to her computer. She’s referring to the 40 tuberculosis genomes that she’s analyzing from an outbreak in Kelowna that began in 2009 and is still ongoing. There are 300 cases of TB in British Columbia each year (each of which costs between $50,000 to $60,000 to treat). The BCCDC has set a target, together with the province, to reduce by half the incidence of TB by 2022.

Dr. Gardy opens up a terminal window on one of the two screens that run off her Mac Pro and starts typing in unix commands in a green type while she scat sings under her breath. In response the computer spews out reams of letters that spell out TB’s genetic code, which runs 4.4 million base pairs long (the human genome is 3 billion base pairs long).

“It is literally CSI but it’s ‘cootie scene investigation’ instead of Crime Scene Investigation,” she says. “It’s solving the outbreak and that’s the holy grail of epidemiology.”

Because pathogens such as viruses and bacteria mutate steadily, scientists can track the direction in which a pathogen spreads by analyzing how the genetic codes differ among patients. Even when Dr. Gardy dips into her jargon-laden methodology, the enthusiast in her is never very far away. She gestures at the code on her screen, a bunch of T, C, G and As framed by ascii symbols. “Also it’s just fun! It’s nuts. You’re reading TB’s entire set of instructions for life.”

If Dr. Gardy’s enthusiasm has a nemesis, it’s bad PowerPoint. “There’s no excuse for giving a bad talk,” she says. “Every scientist’s duty should be to be able to explain and sell their research.” The way she sees it, the public has a stake in scientific research, since their tax dollars fund the lion’s share of it. In return, scientists owe it to the public, their benefactors, to explain what they do.

“In order for science to thrive in a country, you need to have a voting public that values science,” she says. “If scientists are being muzzled or if scientific projects are being cut, you want a public that will stand up and fight for the scientists.”

She gestures outside her office window. “If I can’t explain to the people out there what I am doing, what their tax dollars have funded, why it is important, why it will make a difference in their life, then … I might as well not have done the work at all.”

 

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