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Bugs, Drugs and the Leaky Pipeline

02/12/2015 05:29 EST | Updated 04/14/2015 05:59 EDT

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Photo Credit Michael Donoghue

I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Jennifer Gardy. She is a Senior Scientist (Genomics & Molecular Epidemiology), with BCCDC Communicable Disease Prevention and Control Services. She is a scientist in real life and she plays one on TV too.

Dr. Gardy has a very fancy job, and I wondered how we might relate to each other. I came up with a list of things we have in common before we chatted, to help me feel more at ease.

  1. Her work as a scientist and my work as a mom involves a lot of poop and bodily fluids (though her work is more data about it and I'm more "front line staff")
  2. We spend a lot of time asking people to wash their hands.
  3. We both work with data during the day.
  4. She had a blog called Nerd Girl. I am a nerd girl who blogs.
  5. She wrote a children's book. I read a lot of children's books.

What has been your experience as a woman in science?

Dr Gardy talked about being at the edge of a big wave of women in science who don't need to identify as women in science, that we are reaching a point where they can just identify as scientists. She discussed "the leaky pipeline": historical trends of equal representations at the undergraduate level, with women's representation tapering at each level above that. She paid tribute to the waves of women who came before her in the life sciences and public health field that made this possible.

Within the public health field, it is believed that social determinants or the choices available to you can make more of a difference than the choices you make. What Dr. Gardy hopes to see is that people of either gender have the same suite of choices available to them career wise. She highlighted the opportunity for increased diversity in science which is as important as the gender balance issue.

How can parents and teachers encourage girls to become involved in science?

Children are naturally curious. Play is often based in science. Dropping a rock in a puddle and watching the ripples is physics. Gathering plants is biology. Building a dam or a fort is engineering. Getting kids to play out side and nurturing their sense of curiosity is a key way to encourage girls to become involved in science. Discovery based learning is important. Let kid be kids. Encourage creative and artistic perspectives, as this brings and interdisciplinary approach to science. Foster their love and passion for everything throughout their life and through adolescence. Encouraging their love of the arts brings a visually creative/aesthetic point of view, making a more rounded scientist.

What is your advice for women considering this career path?

Be awesome. No matter who you are or what your career choice. You create your own destiny and can overcome any obstacle through confidence in yourself and your abilities. Be optimistic and surround yourself with good people. Distance yourself from toxicity. You can have whatever you want, you just have to go get it. When you encounter unconscious biases in people around you, call them on it. Be the change you want to see.

What messages do you have for parents who are reluctant to vaccinate?

Vaccination is so important and one of the most beautiful scientific discoveries. Our ability to fight disease has been advanced through sanitation (no poop on the streets), antibiotics, and vaccinations. Vaccinations are extremely safe and go through rigorous testing. Nothing is without risk but the risks of getting a disease is much higher than the risk of vaccine adverse events, which tend to be minor. In contrast, measles can lead to deafness.

Some parents born in the vaccine era are reluctant to vaccinate because they view these as "old diseases". They are old diseases because of vaccines. Annual cases of measles increased significantly over the years from 0 to 400. Cases are creeping up because this is not a solved problem. Vaccination is important. Antibiotics resistance is increasing and these drugs are starting to fail us. We are in a real threat of a future without antibiotics, which would make hospital acquired infections even more dangerous. The onus will be on prevention to preserve health and vaccines will be integral.

Do you have any concrete steps that parents can take to protect their kids form Enterovirus D68?

This is a respiratory virus, prevention is similar to any other respiratory virus. Proper hand hygiene is important. Wash your hands for at least 30 seconds. A good rule of thumb is to sing happy birthday twice. Also, avoid touching your face. You can introduce germs from your hands into your nose by touching your face.

What sparked your interest in science as a young person? I know 'Outbreak' inspired your interest in epidemiology but was there anything before that?

Dr. Gardy was always curious, as were her parents. They were university educated and accomplished. She always had a love of reading and learning, English and languages (like French). Dr. Gardy was raised in an atmosphere of discovery. Before dinner parties, her parents would get salmon and she would dissect the heads on the driveway to explore what was inside of them. After the dissection, she enjoyed putting on performances for the dinner guests. Her parents nurtured her love of both sciences and the arts.

There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes about what it means to be a scientist. What does Hollywood get wrong about your role as a scientist (other than that there's always cool music when you make an important discovery)?

White lab coats and coloured liquids in test tubes. Dr. Gardy's work is data focused and on the computer, with the only coloured liquids safely contained in her lava lamp. She really only wears a lab coat for Halloween costumes and if PR people ask really nicely. A great example of Hollywood getting it mostly right is Contagion, which is still slightly over dramatized. The other reason it's great is that the most important characters are also women.

Dr. Gardy was charming, insightful and delightful. I loved her message of empowerment and determination. She makes the things she's passionate about that are highly technical and specific accessible to any audience.

This article originally appeared on Sparkly Shoes and Sweat Drops.