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SBN Mentor in the Spotlight: Jennifer Gardy

Sophia Peng - Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Cody Lo, January 5, 2015.

This month’s Mentor in the Spotlight is Jennifer Gardy! Dr. Gardy is a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and is responsible for the genomics/molecular epidemiology portfolio in Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Services. In addition to being an Assistant Professor in the School of Population and Public Health at UBC, she is an avid science communicator that has made appearances regularly on TV Programs such as CBC’s The Nature of Things and Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet. In 2014, she wrote a children’s book, “It’s Catching: The Infectious World of Germs and Microbes”, which was shortlisted for several children’s book awards. In this interview I got to chat with Dr. Gardy about her career in public health as well as her experience playing a scientist on TV!

1) You are currently a Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics. Increasingly, I've heard about the importance genomics and bioinformatics will play in almost all areas of biomedical research - such as personalized medicine and epidemiology. In your opinion what role do you see genomics or bioinformatics playing in scientific discoveries over the next 5-10 years?

Genomics and bioinformatics are leading to a lot of fascinating discoveries - it’s a great time to be involved in the field! Over the last several years, a lot of interesting stuff has come out of the basic research world - discoveries like gene editing with CRISPR, or the role of the microbiome in human health. What I’m really excited about is how genomics and bioinformatics is now starting to move out of the academic labs and into the hospital, the doctor’s office, and the diagnostic laboratory. We’re seeing this in every biomedical domain - from replacing traditional laboratory diagnostic pipelines for infectious diseases with genome sequencing runs to looking at patients’ SNP before prescribing them a drug to ensure they won’t experience an adverse reaction to sequencing individual tumours to understand why a cancer occurred and what the best treatment might be. It takes a special sort of scientist to work in this space - someone who understands the biological and technical basics, but also understands the clinical picture and how these technologies can really improve patients’ health.

2) After completing your PhD in microbiology and immunology on bacterial genomics, it seems that your scientific interests have shifted towards a much more public health perspective. What initially got you interested in public health? Undoubtedly I feel there has been a huge emphasis on interdisciplinary research recently and being well-versed in more than one discipline is definitely an asset. What advice do you have for students who may be looking to expand their skill set to include fields such as public health or bioinformatics?

Public health is actually what got me into the sciences in the first place! Embarrassingly, I saw the movie Outbreak when I was a teenager and though “Aha! That’s what I want to do!”, so I went off to UBC with the intention of getting a degree in whatever would let me be a CDC disease detective. When I got there, I realized that there wasn’t really an undergraduate degree in outbreak-ology, so I studied what I found most interesting, which was a combination of microbiology, cell biology, and genetics. From there, rather than stick to my teenage goal of being a disease detective, I just kept pursuing what I found most interesting at the time. I took a graduate diploma program in biotechnology at McGill to beef up my wet lab skills and, as part of that program, took a bioinformatics course - this was in 2001 when bioinformatics was just starting to appear on people’s radar. I really enjoyed that course, so sought out a PhD program that would let me combine my interest in microbes and pathogenesis with bioinformatics. When it came time to do a postdoc, I kept working in bioinformatics but switched my focus from understanding infection from the microbe side to understanding it from the host’s perspective - I also expanded my work to include information visualization, which isn’t traditionally thought of as “bioinformatics”, though that’s starting to change. By 2008, I had accumulated a pretty diverse skill set but really the central theme had always been microbes that cause infection. BCCDC contacted me in December of that year as they were looking to bring on someone with microbial genomics and bioinformatics expertise, and I jumped at the chance - I was finally going to get the chance to be that Outbreak disease detective! I joined BCCDC in 2009 - right in the middle of the H1N1 pandemic - and it’s been an awesome ride ever since.

As far as advice to students, the best thing I can offer up is what that meme says - DO ALL THE THINGS! The job market is more competitive than ever, especially in academia. To stand out from the pack, it’s not enough anymore to be very good at one thing. You have to combine skills in a range of areas to be marketable. More importantly, you want a job that you like, that you’re happy to go to every day, and the best way to do that is build up skills in the areas you find interesting and exciting, and blend them into a unique position that only you can do and that lets you work in all the areas that you enjoy, instead of sacrificing your interest in one area to focus on another. For example, you might find that you really enjoy the life sciences, but you’re also a passionate artist. Become something like a scientific animator! You know the science, you have the art skills, and there are very few people who can do both. Be that person!

3) Outside of role as a professor and senior scientist at the BCCDC, you are also an avid science communicator and have made regular appearances on CBC and Discovery Channel. How did you get involved with hosting popular science programming? What advice do you have for scientists who may be interested in science communication (be it through outreach events, blogging etc)?

This is a classic example of my earlier advice - do all the things! I was always a keen performer growing up - I loved putting on little shows for my family - and as an undergrad student, I used to work at the campus newspapers when I wasn’t in my science classes. That gave me a creative outlet that I could use to build my communications skills at the same time that I was studying what I found scientifically interesting. When I was at McGill for my graduate diploma, I parlayed my campus paper experience into a job working in the newsroom at the Montreal Gazette, and really got to see how news is made and how stories are told by the media. That also led to doing some editorial work for a science magazine that was starting up in Montreal at the time. I came back to BC for my PhD and realized that I really enjoyed science communication and wanted to keep up with the journalism work alongside my science studies, so I spoke to a few mentors and began freelance science writing, mostly for SFU’s official campus paper, SFU News. After a few years of that, I started thinking “if writing about science is x amount of fun, talking about it on TV is probably 100x the fun”. By that point I had built up a good network of science communication colleagues, so I put it out there that I was interested in science TV, and one day someone forwarded me an email from CBC, who were looking for hosts for a new science program they were putting together. I auditioned, got the part, and after that the TV jobs just kept rolling in!

I hear from students interested in science communication all the time, and my advice is always the same - get out there and practice! There are loads of science communications careers, from being a science writer for the media to being a communications officer for an institute or agency to designing museum exhibits to running outreach programs. Think about what you’re strongest in - writing, presenting, developing activities, etc… - and practice, practice, practice. Volunteer for as many places as you can find where you can exercise your skills, and build up a good professional network - that’s where the opportunities will come from down the road.

4) You did a lot of freelance science journalism. Do you think it is important for scientists to have a presence in print media reporting on scientific discoveries as opposed to regular journalists? On that note - do you think being a scientist in real life had any impact on your ability to "play" a scientist on TV?

I think the ideal model for communicating science through the media is where scientific stories are told by teams - it’s not just a scientist, it’s not just a journalist - it’s a team of both who have come together to tell the story accurately, but in an attention-getting way. Scientists have a duty to communicate our work to the public - they fund our work, and it’s imperative that we be able to explain what we do and why it matters to them. Unfortunately, we’re generally not that skilled in storytelling, but journalists are. Journalists can tease that what and the why out of scientists and make a compelling narrative for the public. Whenever you have a one-sided story, it usually flops - if it’s just the scientist telling the story, it usually doesn’t have enough sparkle to get picked up by media outlets; if it’s just the journalist, the science can get misinterpreted and miscommunicated. We really need to work together, and I think the best examples of this are some of the online science writers - Ed Yong, Rose Eveleth, Maryn McKenna - who are really great at building relationships with scientists and ensuring their work has both accuracy and sparkle.

It’s interesting being a scientist on TV too - sometimes it works to your advantage, other times it doesn’t. I guest-host Daily Planet sometimes, and that’s a case where being a scientist is really helpful - you’re essentially telling the day’s science news, which is being put together very quickly by the production team. Sometimes you’ll see an error in the script and, because you have that science background, you can quickly correct it on the fly. Also, the Daily Planet audience loves the technical details, so if you can riff on some of the interesting science and go off-script, it really works. On other programs, though, it can be more of challenge. You want the audience to go on a journey of discovery when you’re doing a long-form documentary like The Nature of Things. Jad Abumrad, the Radiolab host, had a great quote where he said that you want to lead your audience to an insight, and then you as the host bring it up, so the audience feels “Ha! I just figured that out!”. When you go into a topic knowing a lot about it already, it can be hard to navigate that path and act like you’re learning this stuff right along with the audience - it’s sometimes hard to judge how much science you can drop into an interview or a candid interaction without it alienating viewers.

5) Besides having one of the most unique personal websites I have seen in a while - you are also quite active on many social media platforms. How has social media impacted your career as a scientist? What advice do you have for scientists who may be considering building their presence on social media?

I really love Twitter - I find it’s an amazing way to connect with scientific colleagues around the world. What I like the most is the fact that if you’re following the right people, it’s almost like a curated news/discussion feed on the topics you’re most interested in. I wake up, scroll through my feed, and within a few minutes I’ve figured out what today’s new hot papers are, what’s being talked about at a conference, and whether there’s any interesting news, like the release of a new model of sequencer. It’s also a great way to get answers - if you have a quick question and a good community of followers, you can save yourself a lot of work by simply tweeting it. One of the other things that Twitter is amazing for is keeping collegial relationships going. When I was a grad student, there’d be people you’d see once a year or so at conferences and that was it. There was no natural-seeming way to integrate them into your life - you don’t just write them every so often like a pen pal. But with Twitter, you can add these people to your circle of acquaintances and benefit from more regular interaction. And it makes planning beer meetups at the next conference that much easier ;)

Want to ask Dr. Gardy a question? Dr. Gardy currently serves as mentor in the SBN’s mentorship program! Register here and be paired up with Dr. Gardy or another one of our other amazing mentors! The deadline for the first round of registration is January 7th!

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