Jennifer Gardy - Science Star

Whether she’s interpreting massive amounts of scientific data from a computer or citing scientific statistics from a TV prompter, SFU alumna, scientist, and TV host Jennifer Gardy is living her dream career.
By by Diane Luckow
Photography by Amanda Skuse

In the 1995 movie Outbreak, actor Dustin Hoffman fights to contain an epidemic of a deadly virus that threatens to decimate the world population. The medical disaster film earned mediocre reviews, but made a big impression on 16-year-old Jennifer Gardy (PhD’06), leaving her thinking that germs were cool and she should study “cooties” when she grew up.

Today Gardy is a senior scientist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) where she has just pioneered a new way of investigating outbreaks of infectious diseases. In the process, she has created a new scientific field called “genomic epidemiology,” which uses a bacterium’s or virus’s genome sequence as a tool for understanding how an infectious disease spreads. 

“Most people are surprised to find that we don’t know a lot about how infectious diseases spread,” says Gardy. “We know the obvious – that tuberculosis (TB) is airborne, for example, or that influenza and colds travel on droplets you sneeze or spray out.”

But she and the BCCDC team of scientists wanted to know exactly who coughs on whom to transmit disease throughout a community. Armed with such information, they could then develop more effective disease prevention and control strategies.

While Gardy’s PhD is in molecular biology and biochemistry, she has also studied bioinformatics – an interdisciplinary field that uses elements of computing science, statistics, and mathematics to process and analyze large quantities of biological data. It is particularly useful in genetics and genomics, where scientists use bioinformatics techniques such as sequence alignment, evolutionary analysis, and machine learning to sequence and annotate genomes and their mutations.

Gardy’s interest in the field led her to wonder whether it might be possible to figure out how a disease spreads by sequencing the genome of each TB case in a community and then use bioinformatics to analyze and compare the data.

She likens the concept to the game of “telephone”  in which children line up and each child repeats a sentence in the next child’s ear. When the last child repeats the sentence out loud, it usually bears little resemblance to the initial sentence.

“The sentence has mutated as it spreads from kid to kid,” explains Gardy. “The same thing happens to a bacterium’s genome as it spreads from person to person over time in an outbreak.”

By sequencing the DNA for each TB case in a community, and working with SFU bioinformatics professor Fiona Brinkman, Gardy was able to trace where the mutations arose in the bacterium’s genome and which were transferred to the next victim.

“We were first to show how you could use genomic sequencing for understanding disease transmission.”

Gardy isn’t content to just pursue groundbreaking scientific research, however. The 34-year-old dynamo has also taken her interest in science onto the small screen. She has hosted an eight-part TV science series, Project X, is a regular guest host on Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet science show, and stars later this fall in an episode of  “Myth or Science” on CBC-TV’s The Nature of  Things.

Gardy is, literally, living her dream.

It was during her PhD work that she began to wonder if she could craft
a career that combined science research with science communication.

When she graduated from SFU in 2006 with the Governor General’s gold medal as the top graduate, she told SFU News that she was on track to become a professor, but dreamed of becoming a TV science host. By then she had already laid some of the groundwork, writing science stories for SFU News and earlier, during her undergraduate years at UBC, working for the Ubyssey and an undergrad science newspaper, 432. She had also worked at the Montreal Gazette, doing layout and copy editing while enrolled in a one-semester biotechnology diploma program at McGill University.

It was during her PhD work that she began to wonder if she could craft a career that combined science research with science communication. Her thesis supervisor, Fiona Brinkman, offered encouragement and introduced her to SFU biology professor Mark Winston, an avid science communicator. He happened to be developing a new two-week advanced science communications workshop at the Banff Centre with Jay Ingram, then host of the Daily Planet. Winston suggested that Gardy apply.

“I would bug the two of them, asking how do I get into TV? What do I need to do? How do I practise? How do I read the words? What do I do?” she says. “I was really lucky that the two of them invested in me and took me under their wing. Jay would give me Daily Planet scripts to practise on.”

“She was clearly ambitious, and I mean that in the nicest way,” says Ingram, who continues to lead the Banff Centre program. “She had a pretty good sense of where she wanted to go with the kind of intensive, immersive media program like the one we were starting.”

And while her scientific knowledge of a hot topic like genomics is useful, says Ingram, “when it comes to TV, it’s more your personality that’s important.” And Gardy, he says, has what it takes. “She has a good personality for TV – she’s bright and energetic.”

“We were first to show how you could use genomic sequencing for understanding disease transmission.”

Two months after the Banff workhop, Gardy was working as a post-doctoral fellow in bioinformatics/microbiology at UBC when she received an email from one of her workshop colleagues. CBC was looking for a media-friendly scientist willing to be an on-air guinea pig for a new pop-science television documentary.

“It landed in my inbox and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is it,’” she recalls. Within days of sending in her DVD audition, she heard back from CBC’s producers, who requested an in-person interview. She got the job.

“We shot the pilot for Project X in January 2007 and it was super interesting,” she says. “I got to sex alligators on one of those airboats in a Louisiana bayou, take sweaty towels and shirts from handsome exercising men, and suggestively chew on an apple in front of two naked people on a soundstage in Toronto.”

CBC commissioned eight episodes of Project X, with Gardy hosting the human body and health segments in each program. The shows aired in 2008, earning decent ratings. But when CBC acquired the popular shows Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy, Project X was shuffled off into scheduling purgatory.

Gardy has since hosted several episodes of CBC’s The Nature of  Things, including an episode called “Bugs, Bones, and Botany” that featured several SFU faculty. In 2011, Gardy starred in another Nature of  Things episode of “Myth or Science,” again as a host and science guinea pig. She endured a frigid cold-water dunking, munched her way through an eating competition, and tested her attractiveness to mosquitoes and overcooked meat to see if it could cause cancer.

“It was one of the highest-rated Nature of  Things episodes CBC has ever had,” she says. “They commissioned a second one and we filmed it in March and April this year. It will air in November or December.”

In 2011 Gardy also received a call from Daily Planet to join their roster of fill-in hosts. “I’ve worked a month in total over the last two seasons – sometimes for just a day, sometimes a week.” On one of those shows she co-hosted with guest host and mentor Jay Ingram.

Juggling research and communication is a bit of a science all in itself, but Gardy is managing. Her job at BCCDC includes a 20 percent time slot to devote to her own research program or interests. She uses that time for science communication.

In addition to her TV work and job at BCCDC, she is an assistant professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health. She’s also in demand as a speaker in the world of science conferences, bringing a snazzy twist to scientific proceedings that are often dry.

In 2011 Gardy also received a call from Daily Planet to join their roster of fill-in hosts. On one of those shows she co-hosted with guest host and mentor Jay Ingram.

“All of my learning from communications has really gone into changing and improving how I talk about my science and how I share it with the scientific community and with the world at large,” she says.

It’s knowledge she’s eager to share with future scientists. For the past several years she has taught science communications and networking to graduate students involved in Mitacs, an organization that offers research internships to graduate scientists.

“Scientific literacy is so important, and a lot of scientists don’t appreciate that,” says Gardy. “You need to have a public that is science-literate and values it, and that will elect a government that values science and technology and health research and be willing to fund it.”

Now that Gardy has achieved stardom in both TV and science, what’s next?

“In terms of the science, I’m just interested in doing innovative work that has a real application to public health – something that is fun, interesting, and unique but ultimately effects changes in public health policy and practice that results in happier, healthier communities.

At the same time, it would be great to be doing more work with Daily Planet and The Nature of  Things. I would love to work on some BBC documentaries and just become somebody who is a working scientist but a working and respected science commentator as well.”

“It’s all kind of fun. I just hope I haven’t peaked early.” 

To view Gardy’s new episode of “Myth or Science,” on CBC’s The Nature of Things, or previous airings including “Bugs, Bones, and Botany,” go to

Other credits (if needed)