Governor General's gold medal

June 05, 2006, volume 36, no. 3
By Diane Luckow

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Gardy visualizes media career

It's not hard to imagine Jennifer Gardy hosting a television science program. The diminutive PhD graduate in molecular biology and biochemistry is attractive, charming, a great communicator and, above all, intelligent - she's one of two SFU graduate students to win a Governor General's gold medal for her superb academic performance.

Currently a post-doctoral fellow at UBC, Gardy is on track to becoming a professor since, she acknowledges, her dream of becoming a TV science host might not be terribly realistic.

Her PhD research focused on using computer science techniques to predict where in a bacterial cell a protein might be located - information that is critical to developing new drugs and vaccines.

As a postdoctoral fellow, Gardy is continuing to examine therapeutic strategies, this time by understanding the human innate immune system - the body's first line of defence against pathogens like viruses, bacteria and fungi.

“Rather than defeat pathogens by killing them with antibiotics, we want to improve the body's firewall to keep them out in the first place,” she says.

As a bioinformatician in a large international collaboration, Gardy is overseeing the development of new methods for visualizing biological networks on the computer screen. “All of the interactions between genes and proteins in our innate immune system can be thought of as a network that we can look at on the screen,” she says. “We can then overlay data from our lab experiments onto these networks to understand our results.” It's her job to work with researchers in microbiology, computing science and psychology to find better ways of representing these networks, making it easier to spot interesting trends.

It seems like a bit of a stretch for a molecular biologist who has never taken a computing science course. But Gardy likens herself to a director.

“I research the methods that might be most applicable to our work and field test them, or I find collaborators from other fields and set up working relationships.” Her PhD studies, she says, prepared her for ferreting out the best information from a very noisy world. “Grad school taught me to teach myself,” she notes.

For Gardy, who values creativity and communication, the field of bioinformatics is very rewarding. “It's a big field and very interdisciplinary,” she says.

“It rewards people who can think about problems in new ways and who can appreciate what other fields of research can bring to the problem.”

In the meantime, Gardy isn't giving up on a career as a TV host. She has applied to attend a two-week workshop in Banff on science communication. “Ideally,” she says, “I'd love to have a show on the Discovery channel.”

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