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May 17, 2021 15 mins

Jaye Gardiner is about as perfect an example of a modern-day renaissance person as you can get. A first-generation American of Belizean descent, a scientist and cancer researcher, she spends what little free time she has creating and publishing aspirational comics to increase students' STEM literacy. She's a born teacher, capable of reducing complex science into simple and easy to grasp metaphors. You can check out her company, JKX comics, here (

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:05):
This is On the Job, a podcast about finding your
life's work. On the job, is brought to you by
Express Employment Professionals. This season, we're bringing you stories of
folks following their passion to carve their own career path.
Lab work and science tech jobs are some of the
many unsung heroes of the pandemic. The problem with awesome
unsung jobs like this people don't know about them and

might be missing out on occupations they love working on.
Today we talk about those jobs as someone who loves
working in their field and is trying to make it
just a little bit more accessible for everyone. This season
on the show, we're talking to a lot of people
who work behind the scenes in tech, people who honestly
shape the way that we all live by doing jobs

that most of us might not understand. Right. Um, so
hi to me. Jay Gardner is one of those people.
Jay Gardner, I am thirty one years old. I am
currently a post doctoral researcher at the Fox Chase Cancer
Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Okay, so what does that mean? Okay,

it's on the most basic level. I'm kind of trying
to study the biology of cancer and understand what makes
it tick. Jay does a lot of complicated, fascinating things,
as you're going to hear in the show. But what
she's exceptionally good at kind of her whole thing is
explaining it. So to start, she specializes in pancreatic cancer,

one of the worst because it usually gets caught so late.
But what's kind of unique about what I do and
what I study is that instead of studying the tumor
cells themselves, so the cells that are growing uncontrollably, I'm
actually studying the cells that are in its environment. So
if you think of it like a plant, right, the

tumor cell itself can be the seed that's oil around
it that gives it the support, is what I'm studying.
So when our bodies are healthy, it's more like an
aerage soil that stops that can tank or a seed
from growing into a destructive plant, versus when you do
have cancer, it's super fertile and rich and has all

of the nutrients to give life and support to that seed.
And so I'm trying to figure out what's happening when
it's in that fertile state and how we can turn
it back into an ariage state. You have definitely described
that before, that was amazing. Thank you, just you just
made something so confusing makes sense. Talking with Jay, she

immediately feels like that science teacher you really wish you
had in high school. And I think what makes her
so good at teaching is how enamored she is with learning,
because that is her job. Yeah, and it's kind of
great when I think about it, because how much I
wanted to go to school and just what I'm doing now,
I just found a way to in school for forever,

except now you get paid for it. Yes, now I
get paid for it. Her obsession with school started early.
She was a first generation kid raised in Chicago. Both
of her parents are from Belize in Central America. Her
brother is nine years older than her, and even as
a little kid, Jay got super jealous every time she
watched him leave for school. I didn't start school until

I was five, but then before that, I would like
every day put on my mini mouse backpack and pretend
like I wanted to go to school, and I go
by mom, I'm going to school now, and pantomime opening
and shutting the door, and like to go to this
school that I definitely didn't know where it was or
how to get to or even really have an idea

of what school was like. It was just something that
I really wanted to do. She eventually did go to school,
and unsurprisingly, she loved it and was immediately drawn to science.
I loved the puzzle aspect of it because I really
like puzzles, even just like reading. I love mystery books
and trying to figure out who the culprit is or

who did it before I reached the end of the book.
So it's all very much on brand for me to
do science now. It was also at this young age
that her eventual studies and cancer got put into motion
after she lost an uncle to call in cancer and
watched another uncle and her father survived prostate cancer. So
I started to kind of not fully understand what cancer was,

but know that it was a bad thing, and start
to have these questions like I have an older brother
and my dad and his brother's got cancer, Like does
that mean that my brother could get cancer? And those
sort of questions started to keep pushing me to figure
out who done it. Into high school, she was interested

in pretty much everything. She was even so into art
and anime and comics. She almost went to college for it,
but her early fascination in viruses landed her at McAllister College,
where she majored in biology and minored in chemistry. What
was it about viruses that was It was such a
pull for you. Just how something so tiny and microscopic

and can't survive on its own just find the way
to rewire things in the human body for their own purposes.
One of the things that really grabbed her and blew
my mind is that cancer cells are not technically living things,
but are also not technically dead because they can't do

things on their own. They require a host, but they
do things that living things do, like reproduce and use
energy and things like that. Wait, wait, how how can
something be not alive or dead? It probably comes down
to what characteristics that define life are the most important

to you, maybe, like if you go completely philosophical, okay, okay,
so so also the way you talk about them, you're
you're obviously fascinated by them. Yeah, do you ever find
yourself rooting for viruses? Not rooting, but almost in a
voyeuristic way, just like, what are you doing? It's like,
tell me more. We'll get back to our story in

a second. First, a word from Express Employment professionals, a
strong work ethic, takes pride in a job well done.
This is you. But to get an honest day's work,
you need a callback. You need a job. Express Employment
Professionals can help. We'll connect you to the right company.

We're committed to your success and never charge a fee
to find you a job Express Nose Jobs. Get to
no Express, find your location at express pros dot com
or on the Express Jobs app. Now back to on
the job. So while she's objectively fascinated by cancer, she's

still trying to defeat it. In her way of figuring
out how to is to look at it differently, studying
the micro environment around pancreatic cancer. You know that seed
and soil analogy from earlier. The micro environment is super
super important. If you were to cut out a tumor
mass from a patient, the majority of it would be

that soil and hardly any of the plant. Jay's focus
on the environment of pancreatic cancer is still pretty new,
but she was deeply inspired by an advisor she had
going into a PhD, Dr Patty Keeley. She revolutionized how
doctors think of the micro environment of breast cancer. But
for her story, she had breast cancer at one point

in her life as well, and that I think, you know,
motivated her to studying that. And I think a lot
of people that are involved in cancer research probably have
a similar sort of stories too. They have a stake
in the game. Yeah. Well, Jay already had a stake
in the game watching cancer affect or family as a kid.

It got even more real when Dr Keeley, after surviving
breast cancer, was eventually taken by pancreatic cancer. It's it's
almost like a badge of honor that I'm one of
the final pH d students that kind of she put
her seal of approval on to say, yep, you can
get a pH d like go forth and and do

something like with that passing the torch. Yeah yeah, that
like I also get to do that and then research
the thing that ended up claiming her life too, as
in a field that she revolutionized. So sort of like
in an homage to her as well, this idea of

passing the torch and paying homage to scientists you might
not know about, that's the driving idea behind another part
of Jay's work that you probably wouldn't expect. Okay, so
could you explain what you're showing me. What I'm showing
first right now is one that I made just this
last month for UM Black History Month, and it's an
illustration that I made of Gerald Jerry Lawson. Okay, so

what she's showing me is a comic strip that she
did with a couple of friends. The comic strip is
this wonderful little cartoon of a big, jolly guy, Jerry
Lawson holding a gaming console. You may not have known this,
but the person that that created our ability to change
games in your home gaming system. So the little cartridges

that you have that you can switch out and play
whatever game you want, as opposed to buying a device
and only having that one game that you can play
that's hardwired in. That's all thanks to Jerry Lawson. The
comic is five panels and reads kind of like a
Superhero origin story. Jerry was a black man in the
seventies working as an engineer, and his free time, he

developed the first cartridge gaming system in his garage. It
was called the Channel F and it went on to
inspire Atari and every single gaming system that came after it.
But probably the most important panel is Jay's illustration of
young Jerry in a first grade classroom next to a

poster of George Washington Carver, so probably the most prominent
black man scientists that every child is taught about um
with a teacher saying this could be you write a
teacher that encouraged him to saying like, hey, like you
want to be a scientist? Like yeah, like you go
be a scientist. This is the idea that these comics

kind of came from. Jay channeled her high school love
for art and teamed up with a couple of friends
to create jk X Comics, comic about science as a
way to make it more accessible to people, so changing
the language so that it's not overly complicated so that
people that aren't in science can understand it. The comics

do this not only by using relatable language, but by
featuring relatable living scientists that aren't just stereotypical images of
scientists that we might have in our heads, you know,
maybe Albert Einstein in a basement by himself yelling Eureka.
There are people that are actively doing this and that
don't all look like Albert Einstein, you know, like you

can't see on the zoom call because this is a podcast.
But I am not a white man with like crazy
looking hair. Right. There are people from all walks of
life that do this, People like the women at NASA
featured in the movie Hidden Figures, whose calculations got humans
to and from space. People like kids Mikia Corbett, the
thirty five year old African American scientists, who's a huge

reason we can get a COVID vaccination more effectively quickly
than any time in history. Yeah, and there's so many
people in history that are like this. Yeah, So do
you believe there have been many a young scientist or
a cancer doctor out there who never really found that

that's what they were because the industry itself or the
profession just didn't make sense to them. Yeah. Yeah, and
you don't know to ask about it, because how can
you ask about what you don't know? Now, six years

after its founding, jk X Comics launched a successful Kickstarter
campaign and will be a real thing in print. The
heroes in the comics are PhD students and scientists working
and breaking ground today, like the young scientists uncovering how
micro and a squirrels gut is how they survive hibernation.
Who thought that's where Jay is now uncovering the unknown

day in and day out, whether she's in the lab
or making comics, she's asking the same question she did
when she was a kid who done it, but maybe
more importantly about everything she does. Her real pioneering is
how she makes all the insane things that she's learning
and doing easy to understand. Yeah, well, I mean like communication,

if you're going into sciences or chemistry, is not a
big part of the education or the learning process, and
you're saying it it kind of needs to be. Yeah,
I basically want to turn everything on its head and
every way possible. For now, she's doing that by putting
the things that fascinate her in comic form and putting

it in front of young, curious people who probably also
couldn't wait to go to school. People that you know
may grow up and be like, I want to be
a microbiologists and study microbes and squirrels, or because I
saw it in a comic, because I saw it in
a comic, like and there was a real person that
did that, and I didn't know that that was a
thing for On the Job, I'm motus Gray. Thanks for

listening to On the Job, brought to you by Express
Employment Professionals. This season of On the Job is produced
by Audiation. The episodes were written and produced by me
Otis Gray. Our executive producer is Sandy Smallens. The show
was mixed by Matt Noble for Audiation Studios at The
Loft in Bronxville, New York. Music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Find us on I Heart Radio and Apple podcast If
you liked what you heard, please consider rating and reviewing
the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. We'll
see you next time. For more inspiring story about discovering
your life's work, Audiation
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