Canada's Science Communicators: Jennifer Gardy

November 2, 2016

By Jeremiah Yarmie

Dr. Jennifer Gardy is the reason I started writing about science. She showed me that I could make a life out of combining my two biggest passions: storytelling and science. I started communicating science after watching her get dunked in a vat of ice water in the lab of Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht at the University of Manitoba (my alma mater!). It meant the world to me that she took the time to sit down with me and chat with such genuine excitement and pleasure.

Jen is a Senior Scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control and Assistant Professor in the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia, where she holds a Canada Research Chair in Public Health Genomics.

Using DNA sequencing information as her tool, Jen chases infectious diseases as they spread from person to person. But you probably recognize this disease detective from TV. 

She has hosted a fair number of episodes of The Nature of Things and can often be seen on Daily Planet to fill in for hosts Dan Riskin or Ziya Tong.

Her decision to become a professional germ hunter came after watching the movie Outbreak. Perhaps making a career decision based on a Dustin Hoffman movie isn’t a natural decision for most people, but neither is taking inspiration from the antics of a researcher named Professor Popsicle.

From her many appearances on the CBC and the Discovery Channel, Jen has established herself as a familiar and reliable source of science for Canadians.

Handout/Owlkids Books
Dr. Jennifer Gardy, author of It’s Catching: The Infectious World of Germs and Microbes.

In addition to reaching out to people on TV, Jen recently wrote a children’s book about microbiology called It’s Catching: The Infectious World of Germs and Microbes (which is amazing, by the way).

I asked her what a young Jen Gardy (who, in a clear sign of the scientist she would become, cut up salmon heads on her parent’s driveway) would have thought of It’s Catching.

“She would love it! She would totally love that book,” Jen said, laughing.

“If I think back, one of the things that got me into infectious diseases in the first place was this series of books all about famous scientists that were written for kids. I had the whole series: your Isaac Newton, your Marie Curie—but the one that I kept opening, and opening, and opening, time, and time, and time, and time, and time again was the one about Louis Pasteur,” Jen recalls. “As a kid I loved reading—I loved the book about this cool guy doing amazing stuff with germs. If I had It’s Catching when I was small, that would have been my book jam—totally.”

It’s Catching
is gross and silly and fun, but it still manages to explain abstract microbiology concepts with detail rivaling my first year microbiology class, all while still being accessible to children.

When it comes to the current state of science communication, “I think we need to get better at letting people know that science communication isn’t just David Suzuki or Jay Ingram up there on a television screen hosting a show,” said Jen. “There is so much more out there that anybody can access.”

Jen told me that she believes it’s important for established science communicators to take the time to share their experiences and the stories of their career paths with others to help inspire the next generation of communicators.

Her journey down the path of science communication began like with so many others, with writing.

While finishing up her undergraduate degree from UBC across the country at McGill, Jen stumbled upon a newsroom job at the Montreal Gazette.

“I got the job because I had worked at the campus newspapers as an undergrad at UBC, so I knew how to lay newspapers out and work all of the software.” 

At that point in her life, science writing and communication wasn’t even on her mind—the Gazette just happened to pay well.

But, while laying out newspapers, she would often read the columns and thought to herself that it was something that she could do. So she honed her writing in secret—nobody has ever read those practice lifestyle columns.

“The hardest thing—and I think a lot of writers would agree with this—is just getting started. It’s just screwing up the courage to say ‘oh, I can do this, this is a thing, and I’m good at it’.”

At the same time she was working at the Gazette, Seed Magazine was preparing to go to press with its first issue and was in need of a science-savvy copyeditor and fact checker. 

Seed contacted the Gazette to ask them if they had a science reporter who would be able to help them out.

“The Gazette told them ‘we haven’t had a science reporter in years, but we have a really smart copy clerk who’s a science graduate student’. So I got sent over there and then I really realized ‘whoa, hey, I could totally do this’.”

"It’s just screwing up the courage to say ‘oh, I can do this, this is a thing, and I’m good at it."

After her time in Montreal, Jen ended up back in British Columbia to start her PhD at Simon Fraser University. At the suggestion of her PhD supervisor, Fiona Brinkman, she spoke about her interests with bee scientist and expert communicator Mark Winston.

Winston suggested that she start writing about science for SFU’s official newspaper, and later encouraged her to attend the Science Communication Program at the Banff Centre (which is now hosted by Beakerhead).

From those experiences, Jen made a ton of connections, some of which ended up leading to her first collaboration with the CBC, a science television program called Project X. Soon after that, The Nature of Things reached out to her, as did Daily Planet.

Two years ago Dan Riskin hosted a front page reaching Reddit AMA. As the eager, budding science communicator that I am, I took the opportunity to ask him for some career advice and may have mentioned Jen a little (or a lot). To my surprise, she responded to my question and ended up giving me the single best piece of advice I have ever received: “tell EVERYONE what you want to do with your life. You'd be amazed at the advice and opportunities the network of people you already know can provide once they find out what your dream is in life.”

Telling everyone about her dreams has definitely worked out for Jen Gardy.

“There has been no one amazing role model or mentor in my career, it has just been this network of people that feed opportunities my direction, and then, in return, I try to give that back to the community too—by doing things like this interview!”

I asked her what she thinks of the uncertainty that comes with navigating an unconventional path in science.

“It’s kind of funny—when you look back at your career, you can see how everything led to everything else,” said Jen. “You can kind of pick out this little beautiful chain and say ‘Aha! That’s how things happened’. But at the time, you have no idea.”

“As an undergraduate I was studying science, but I also worked at the campus newspapers, not because I thought ‘Oh, this is going to prepare me for a career in communications’, but because it was fun—the first paper I started working at was a comedy paper in the style of The Onion, which I used to read in-between classes because I thought it was hilarious.”

“You just have these little steps, it’s never done with a purpose,” she told me. “Things just fall in your lap.”

“Equip yourself with an interesting and diverse set of skills and make yourself a niche. Form that one amazing person who is the only one in the world that could do this particular thing.” 

Understanding that not all science communicators are extroverted or want to be on TV, Jen suggests honing in on the type of content and output that works best for you, your skills, and your passions. 

“I think it boils down to knowing that there is a really broad range of media out there—science communication isn’t just talking. It’s everything from tweeting about it, to painting it, to writing it, to coming up with a musical composition—the sky is the limit. Figure out what you’re comfortable with and what taps into your unique expertise, and make that your niche.”

“Don’t feel like you need to be this professorial orator up on stage—just be you. If you are widely enthusiastic and hyper and full of energy, be that. If you’re incredibly funny and like to tell jokes, be that. If you are the professorial, serious type, don’t try to be anything else—be you. People respond to authenticity and personality, no matter what that might be.” 

So has Jennifer Gardy reached her science communication peak? “No way!” she told me while laughing. Of course she’s not done, but what’s next for this cat-loving microbiologist?

“I have no idea, I just know that there’s loads of exciting years left. I’m just curious to see what the next thing is. I have no plans. Whatever lands in my lap, if it looks fun, then I’ll just follow that thread and see where it takes me.”

Jeremiah Yarmie is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. While completing a BSc at the University of Manitoba, he realized that he enjoys talking about science much more than he enjoys doing it. When he isn't telling stories about science and the people who make it happen, he can be found on stage making stories up as an improviser. You can find some of his writing on his website. You can tweet at him @jeremiahyarmie.

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