Name: Jennifer Gardy
Job: Assistant Professor and Science Communicator
I have the best jobs in the world. Most of the time, I am chasing my childhood dream of being Dustin Hoffman in Outbreak – as a Senior Scientist at the BC Centre for Disease Control, I use next-generation DNA sequencing technology as a tool to understand how outbreaks start and how they spread from person to person. There are somewhat fewer monkey chases and helicopter firefights than Outbreak would have led me to believe, but the thrill of “solving” an outbreak and making a real difference in public health is something I will never get tired of. When not sequencing DNA and studying pathogens, I work in science communication. What began as some freelance print work eventually morphed into a career in science documentary television hosting, along with leading workshops on communication and authoring my first kids’ book.
Academically, my path had that wiggly trajectory that, in retrospect, seems like a recipe for being a well-rounded, interdisciplinary scientist, but at the time felt a bit drifty (this is normal! If you feel drifty, you are not alone!) I opportunistically pursued my interests and changed trajectory as passion and chance dictated. After a BSc in cell biology and genetics, with a number of microbiology courses, I took a semester-long graduate diploma in biotechnology, where I was exposed to the then-emerging field of bioinformatics. I found a PhD project using bioinformatics to study infectious diseases, so ended up working in the world of microbial DNA analysis. I then chose to postdoc with a specific researcher – the scientist who had mentored my PhD supervisor – and ended up studying immunology using information visualization tools, which required learning about network theory. I was then “head-hunted” by my current employer, where the weird mish-mash of skills I’d picked up along my journey – infectious diseases, bioinformatics, and network analysis – was exactly what they needed to launch their new genomic epidemiology program. Drifty? Sure. But I ended up carving out a totally new scientific niche!
Meanwhile, I had always had a keen interest in communication, probably stemming from a childhood hammy desire to perform at any and all opportunity. Throughout my undergraduate years, I worked at the campus student newspapers – the skills I picked up there served me well when, during my graduate diploma, I landed an evening job at a major daily newspaper, doing various lowly newsroom tasks. Seeing “real” news get packaged taught me a lot about storytelling, and when I started my PhD, I began writing freelance science news pieces for my university’s official newspaper – they’d contact me when they needed a piece written about one of their faculty members and their new great discovery, and I’d go to work. This led to a few magazine commissions, and more importantly, allowed me to connect with some local science communicators.
Through these connections, casting notices for science TV series started to land in my inbox. Rationalizing that if writing about science was x amount fun then doing it on camera and talking about it was probably 100x fun, I sent in some audition tapes. After a few non-starters, I finally landed my first show, an eight-part series for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation called Project X, which aired in 2008.
A great secret of science TV is that once you get on it and do reasonably well, producers will just keep inviting you back to make more programs. This was indeed the case with me, and I’ve been lucky in that the work steadily arrives through regular emails and phone calls and that there’s a sort of positive feedback loop, wherein the more you do, the more opportunities – TV, books, speaking gigs – land on your proverbial doorstep.
I am so privileged to be able to do both things – being a scientist obviously helps me to be a better science communicator, but my communications work has dramatically impacted my science. I am a better grant writer, a better manuscript author, and a better speaker thanks to my media work, and regular media requests mean I am able to draw attention to my work and the issues I feel are important (open data! pandemics! new ways of doing epidemiology!) I also draw inspiration from the many scientists I meet in the course of filming our documentaries, and their work in different disciplines helps me see my research through new and unique lenses.
Doing EVERYTHING is rewarding, but it’s also extremely busy. I’m able to take on a lot and balance the two parts of my career thanks to a few factors. First, my research enterprise keeps chugging along while I’m away thanks to a great team, the fact that our work is computational and not lab-based, and my availability over email, no matter where in the world I am. As long as I keep churning out good work at a good rate, my benevolent overlords are happy. Second, my university values faculty who get out there and work with the media and give our school a positive public face. Finally, on a personal level I’m one of those people who has to fill every moment with words and every second with some sort of activity – I’d rather be busy than bored.
Lack of monkey chases and helicopter fights aside, I truly do have the best jobs in the world. If I could leave tomorrow’s scientists with one piece of advice, it would be to tell EVERYONE what it is you want to do with your life, whatever drifty path through and/or beyond science you want to travel. You never know which of your contacts – family, friends, the dog-walker, cousin Billy – will have some important bit of advice or a potential opportunity for you. Tell everyone everything all the time (which is also good practice should you choose the science communication route).