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Jennifer Gardy: Disease Detective Using Genomic Epidemiology

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Recommended by: Jonathan Eisen, University of California, Davis

As a teenager, Jennifer Gardy of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control saw the movie Outbreak and was instantly hooked. "I thought that would be the coolest job in the world, tracking infectious diseases," she says.

At BCCDC, Gardy is combining her background in informatics, infectious diseases, and genomics to help piece together epidemiological, clinical, and sequence data from a strain of tuberculosis that had caused an outbreak in a small town in British Columbia. The work resulted in a 2011 New England Journal of Medicine paper that helped launch the now-burgeoning field of genomic epidemiology. "I'm really proud that something I did is so new and cutting edge," she says. "And also it's just fun. It's solving an outbreak. It's being a disease detective."

Looking ahead

Now, with funding from the provincial government, Gardy and her colleagues have reconstructed the events of another recent TB outbreak in BC at both an epidemiological and genomic level, and are applying these same tools to examine all TB cases that have occurred there during a 20-year period.

"We're just going out there with our field binoculars — which in this case happen to be an Illumina MiSeq — and looking at how bugs are actually behaving in the population, and how the underlying transmission dynamics work in an outbreak or epidemic," Gardy says.

But Gardy, seemingly not satisfied with tackling one project at a time, is also a "brilliant" communicator, according to the University of California, Davis' Eisen — a skill that she is putting to good use as a host of regular science documentaries for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and as a sometimes-host of Discovery Channel Canada's Daily Planet program.

Gardy says that the biggest hurdle she faces in her work is that the field of genomic epidemiology is so new that "we're not exactly sure what the rules should be. And the technology is changing so quickly, too, that we're really having to keep pace with new [sequencing] read lengths and improving our assemblies, and new SNP-calling methods."

And the Nobel goes to…

If Gardy were to win the Nobel Prize, she would like it to be for "taking bacterial genomics and the insights we get from it … and translating it into a really effective public health intervention … that is culturally sensitive and that people can get on board with."

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