Career QnA

Read about the career choices our mentors have made to become established biotech professionals. Each month, a new mentor will share their career journeys and advice for those wishing to follow in their footsteps.

Dr. Jennifer Gardy

Ashraf Amlani - Thursday, September 30, 2010

Dr. Jennifer Gardy is a Molecular Epidemiologist at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC) as well as a freelance Science Communicator. Her lab at BCCDC uses genome sequencing to understand the origins, transmission, and evolutionary dynamics of outbreaks of infectious disease. Her science communication activities have involved hosting television documentaries (project X, an episode of The Nature of Things) to writing for The Globe and Mail to running a series of workshop on the soft skills science trainees need to learn in order to thrive.

On a daily basis, her activities range between applying for funding, managing funded research programs, data analysis, writing journal articles and creating conference presentations, assisting other research groups at BCCDC with their genomics and bioinformatics problems, and forming collaborations. Jennifer obtained her B. Sc. in Cell Biology & Genetics from the University of British Columbia, a graduate diploma in biotechnology from McGill University and completed her Ph. D in Bioinformatics at Simon Fraser University.

Jennifer Gardy
SBN: What do you enjoy the most about your job?


JG: At BCCDC, I really love the public health environment. It’s exciting to know that your research and findings are critical to BCCDC’s efforts to fighting communicable disease. I love seeing the translation of my work into actual public health outcomes – changes in testing procedures, outbreak management guidelines, new discoveries that we can put into action right away, etc… I also love the fact that you never what a given week will bring in terms of the outbreaks and pathogens you’ll be dealing with. It keeps you on your toes. With respect to science communication, my biggest thrill is when trainees come up to me after a soft skills training presentation and thank me for the advice or for teaching them something new that they wouldn’t have picked up on as quickly if they had been left to their own devices – things like how to give a great talk or how to overcome your fear of networking. I try and make people realize that we all start out as trainees with the same questions and fears and worries, and when someone thanks you for pointing out that all that is normal, well, that makes me feel great every time.

SBN: Describe some of the biggest challenges that you face at BC CDC.

JG: One of the biggest challenges at BCCDC is also one of its biggest benefits – not knowing what a given week will bring. It’s a little tricky to be a generalist and be required to know a lot about a lot, especially when you sometimes have to become an expert in a particular pathogen in only a few days time. At the same time, it forces you to always be on the ball and always be learning – there’s no opportunity to get stuck in a proverbial rut.

SBN: What attracted you to this profession & what is your inspiration?

JG: I knew I wanted to study infectious diseases and outbreaks since I was teenager and saw Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman. I figured that trapping monkeys with Ebola in the African jungle would be a pretty exciting job, so I read all the outbreak books I could find (I still keep a copy of The Coming Plague on my desk and refer to it often) and eventually decided to go into Cell Biology & Genetics with a microbiology slant. (I opted not to do a Microbiology degree since I loved the pathogen stuff but couldn’t stand the host immunology side of things). During my undergraduate and graduate years I drifted away from the original goal as I began to get interested in genomics and bioinformatics. After my first post-doc was winding to a close, I was even considering giving up the lab in favour of just doing science communication. However, a genomics/bioinformatics job at BCCDC just happened to fall into my lap, and seeing the email posting about the job took me right back to my teenage Outbreak-obsessed years. I can’t imagine being anywhere else now!

SBN: What challenges did you encounter while establishing your career and how did you overcome them?

JG: The biggest challenge I faced was not knowing what I wanted to do. I figured out early on in graduate school that the traditional academic career path wasn’t for me – I needed something more applied – but I didn’t really know what or where. I just floated around for a few years, following random opportunities as they arose, and even drifting towards a full-time career in writing and television on more than one occasion. Fortunately, all along the way I was building up a pretty solid network of people who knew the many hats I liked to wear, and when this job at BCCDC came available, one of those people was made aware of it and put my name forward as a strong candidate. The job was advertised as requiring a mix of skills, including pathogen genomics and bioinformatics, communication, and education, and it seemed tailor-made for me. I only wish I had known something like this existed way back when, before I started on my meandering (but fun) path.

SBN: Any advice you would like to share with those wishing to continue in your footsteps?

JG: Wear a good pair of shoes because my footsteps went all over the place before I ended up where I am today! I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is that it’s totally normal to go through your undergrad, grad, and even postdoc years not knowing precisely what it is you want to eventually do. What you need to ensure, though, is that during those times you’re pursuing as many avenues and interests as you can (to find out what you like and – equally important – what you don’t like, along the way) and building up your repertoire of soft skills. Ultimately, this will lead to finding the right job at the right time.

SBN: One thing you do to relax

JG: Travelling- I think I'd wilt if I didnt have a trip on the horizon at any given time 

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