Having spent her childhood years in a remote part of Canada's North, Billie-Jo Hardy
developed an early interest in justice, access and equity issues – a passion that's
now propelling her PhD thesis on 'genomic sovereignty' in the developing world.
Growing up in the tiny hamlet of Gjoa Haven, located above the Arctic Circle about
a thousand kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, gave University of Toronto doctoral
candidate Billie-Jo Hardy
a unique lens with which to view the potential benefits,
and potential pitfalls, of conducting genetic and genomic research in the developing
"In the past, some people would describe where I grew up as 'Canada's Third World',"
says Hardy, whose parents, whom she affectionately describes as "adventurous", moved
to the only settlement on King William Island – then part of the Northwest Territories,
and now part of Nunavut – in the mid-seventies. Named after Norwegian polar explorer
Roald Amundsen's ship, Gjøa was the remote locale Hardy's parents chose to make
their home. Hardy's father worked in adult education, while her mother kept busy
caring for Hardy and her two sisters.
"Certainly there were obvious disparities in the North," says Hardy, who cites the
high incidence of tuberculosis and controversies over resource extraction in mining
and oil, as examples of ongoing Northern issues where such disparities surface.
"Growing up where I did gave me a certain political awareness. Justice, access and
equity issues take priority in the way I look at most things. "
Drawing on those early life lessons led Hardy to focus her undergrad studies on
justice, access and equity. When she decided to go to university for the first time
at age 25, after traveling and working at various jobs, she knew she wanted to focus
her studies on genetics and ethics.
"I had read several books about science and technology and the implications of recent
developments. I found myself discussing these issues with friends and decided I
wanted to focus on these interests in university. But, at that time, no program
I knew of blended genetics and ethics into one degree."
Carving out her own niche, Hardy ended up earning an Honors Specialist Bachelor's
degree in biology, with a major in bioethics, at U of T.
"I wanted to get to the policy side, but I thought it would be beneficial to get
an education in science first, to gain a better understanding."
By the time it came to apply for a Master's degree, U of T had launched a Master
of Biotechnology Program, which offered just the kind of interdisciplinary experience
Hardy was looking for.
"We studied the use of technology, science and technology issues, and genomics and
genetics. We looked at both policy issues and business implications."
Through a series of placement opportunities available at the time, Hardy interned
as a commercialization officer with the Western Greater Toronto Area Convergence
Centre – which provides resources about health and life sciences, as well as biomedical
and biotechnological information to the health community. She also interned as a
research assistant in Sanofi Pasteur's Formulation & Stability department.
It was also during her Masters studies that she first came across Dr. Abdallah Daar,
Professor of Public Health Sciences and Surgery at U of T, Director of Ethics and
Commercialization at the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health and Director
of Ethics and Policy at the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine.
"I decided to take an extra course on genomics and policy taught by Dr. Daar and
Dr. Halla Thorsteinsdóttir – purely out of interest. It was fascinating." (Thorsteinsdóttir
is Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University
of Toronto and a member of the McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health.)
That meeting proved to be a turning point for Hardy. Now completing her PhD thesis
under the supervision of Dr. Daar, along with Dr. Béatrice Séguin, Hardy is exploring
the potential opportunities and harms in adopting genotyping technologies for improving
health in Mexico, India and South Africa. (Genotyping essentially involves determining
the genetic constitution of an individual by the use of biological assays. The technology
is important in clinical research for the investigation of disease-associated genes.)
As part of her studies, she has traveled to all three countries to conduct qualitative
research, specifically about the adoption of innovative science and technology to
improve public health and fuel economic growth in the developing world.
"I'm very interested in the issue of 'genomic sovereignty'," says Hardy, "which
attempts to prevent biopiracy and capture the investments made by national governments
in genomics. On the human side, there are huge issues surrounding the export of
human tissue and samples. In terms of plants and animals, the issues revolve around
the protection of biological diversity. Countries are paying more attention to their
biological resources; they want to use these resources to ensure sustainable benefits,
both economic- and health-related for their own populations."
Now engrossed in her thesis, Hardy continues to draw on imprinted memories of life
growing up in Gjoa Haven on King William Island in Northern Canada. This unique
childhood experience has helped her appreciate the kinds of challenges facing less
privileged communities, and has made her genuinely interested in studying ways of
enabling developing countries to build up capacity in the field of biotechnology
and apply it to help solve local health issues.
"I've come full circle. Justice and access and equity issues are now the focus of
my PhD thesis. It's natural for me to look at everything through that perspective."