Jennifer Gardy leads one of the most interesting double lives in science. By day, the medical epidemiologist uses DNA sequences to track disease outbreaks. By night, she appears in science documentaries on TV, subjecting herself to weird experiments, like being dunked in ice water or spun in a human centrifuge.
But mostly, Gardy loves cats. She would rather someone give her a cat sticker than a fancy plaque for a scientific achievement. And this past week, she choked up on an episode of “The Nature of Things” — essentially the Canadian version of the PBS program “NOVA” — when a sleep expert guessed from her dream diary how much animals meant to her. (She has a dog, too.)
Gardy spoke with STAT about her round-the-clock passions.
As a self-described “disease detective,” you must be riveted by news of the Zika outbreak?
For the first time, the public is really getting a sense of what epidemiology is about.
What do you hope people learn from this?
Not to sound like Leonardo DiCaprio here, but [Zika and Ebola] are climate change diseases. The more that we humans start encroaching on habitats that we’ve never encroached on before, the more we’re going to meet novel pathogens.
How did you come to be interested in infectious diseases?
I saw “Outbreak” with Dustin Hoffman and that’s what I decided I wanted to do. Never pick your career based on a Dustin Hoffman movie — but at least in my case, it’s worked out.
What makes you willing to submit yourself to embarrassing experiments in public?
People like to see the story unfold. They like to see their friend Jenn doing something ridiculous. I like it because when they’re following along with the story, the information sticks way better.
Lately, you’ve been tracking the bacteria and viruses that live in cats’ guts. What got you interested in the kitty microbiome?
It started as a joke. [Two colleagues and I] were at a conference where someone was giving a microbiome talk. I said “You know what would make this talk better? Kittens.” We made a Twitter account for it. Bought a website. We said, “One of these days we’ll do it.” [But, for busy researchers] swabbing cat asses for fun is kind of at the bottom on the priority list.
That was back in 2012. But last year, you did actually launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund Kittybiome. How does it work? You receive a kit and then…
Swab your own cat’s butt and you can explore what’s living in little Fluffy’s poop. The kit came with gloves. You fish out a poop from the litter box, break it in half, dig a core sample out, drop it into a tube, put it in a biohazard bag, and mail it.
And the results?
The raw food diet cats had the best craps. Lots of good microbial diversity there.
You’ve become a big fan of interval training since doing a show revealing the science behind it.
My fitness philosophy comes down to: If there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, do I want to be the person who’s able to pull herself over the fence, or do I want to get eaten?
Zombies are a great lens to look at life. I’ve always loved zombie movies.
Jennifer Gardy is a senior scientist at the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, a guest host on Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “The Nature of Things,” and the author of “It’s Catching,” a children’s book about microbes. This interview was edited and condensed.