In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Bobbie Cansdale

Bobbie Cansdale

The University of Sydney

Bobbie Cansdale is a PhD student in computational biology and animal genomics at the University of Sydney. She completed a Bachelor of Animal and Veterinary Bioscience (Honours) at the University of Sydney in 2015, after which she was awarded an Australian Postgraduate Award to begin her postgraduate studies the following year. She has worked on many projects throughout her undergraduate degree and summer internship at the Australian Museum including the genetic basis of elbow dysplasia in Labrador retrievers, KoRV subtype specific PCR primer testing, ELISA development, and crocodile MHC diversity investigations. Her current research interests include the modelling of chromatin architecture, genomic data analysis, novel sequencing methods, and the integration of various data types to better answer questions. She is also keenly involved in software testing and curation for OMIA.

Can you give me a quick overview of the type of mathematics you are studying and its potential impacts for the broader community

I am interested in a variety of mathematical and biological areas including genomics, statistical bioinformatics, data modelling and visualisation, and how these can be used to answer a variety of questions. More simply put I am interested in seeing how we can best interpret new sequencing data and using existing data in new ways to gain meaningful insights. Many genomic features are looked at in isolation, so I am interested to see if we can further our understanding by looking at the relationship between these. The more we understand these features at a fundamental level, the easier it will be to extend this understanding to answer questions regarding biology and disease.

You attended AMSI BioInfoSummer, what drew you to this event? What was the most valuable part of AMSI BioInfoSummer for you in terms of furthering your career in mathematical sciences?

I previously attended Bioinfosummer in both 2015 and 2017 so I knew from experience how valuable a learning opportunity this event can be. The themes this year aligned well with my research interests, and there were excellent speakers both domestic and international, so I knew immediately that I wanted to attend.

The most valuable part of Bioinfosummer is the people you meet. While the talks and workshops are an excellent learning opportunity, this early in my career it is invaluable to have a network of people you can contact to ask questions, collaborate with, and potentially find new work opportunities as you progress.

Did this event lead to any new projects, collaborations? What were some outcomes in terms of your work?

This event lead to many new contacts and potential future collaborations. I met people working in similar areas to me who will be visiting my institution soon to discuss their work with my lab group, which has the potential to lead to future collaborations and data sharing. The future of science is interdisciplinary research so making contacts in a wide range of fields will be beneficial.

You received a CHOOSEMATHS Grant to assist your attendance at AMSI BioInfoSummer. How important was this in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the sessions throughout the week? How did you hear about the grant?

As a full-time student I only have limited room in my budget for travel expenses, so this grant was definitely a big factor in my ability to attend and participate in this conference. Being able to stay on campus was a definite help when it came to making the most of everything the conference had to offer.

How important are initiatives such as the CHOOSEMATHS Grants in terms of fostering the participation and achievement of women in mathematics, particularly in terms of access to networking opportunities and further training opportunities?

For an area I have often experienced as being male dominated, these grants definitely seemed to assist in addressing these imbalances in conference participation. At this conference I was able to meet many brilliant women, most of who were also attending thanks to these grants. Having grown up in maths and science classes with very low levels of female participation it was great to see. Without these grants I would have missed to opportunity to meet these people and learn the new skills taught at this conference.

In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Has it influenced the direction of your research?

This experience has opened my eyes to new potential avenues for my research going forward, mostly in terms of computational approaches to problem solving. Concepts I was previously only vaguely aware of were explained in a clear and concise manner so I could envision ways to integrate them to address my own research questions. As well as new concepts, I was also shown new platforms and software that will be a great help with data acquisition and analysis.

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from the BHP Foundation to turn the tide on Australia’s maths deficit and strengthen maths education and participation of women across the discipline. What do you see as the big challenges facing maths in Australia, particularly for women?

For women a major challenge is being taken seriously and being encouraged to further our maths education. Growing up I saw progressively fewer girls taking up maths and maths-based subjects, with my HSC classes consisting of a mere 10-15% girls. In my school experience the boys always expected to be better in these areas and would take offence at “being beaten by a girl”, as if this was a great dishonour. This attitude, that maths is not a “girl subject” is not uncommon and undoubtedly impacted the level of participation of girls in these higher-level mathematics classes. Aside from gender impacting on mathematics education there is also a more general issue relating to the public perception of maths. The portrayal of maths in the media, and those who are good at maths, is a great problem facing the field. Children are constantly exposed to this idea that maths is hard and to be hated, and that people who enjoy maths are “uncool”. Without these ideas casting a shadow on maths I feel that more people would be encouraged to pursue it.

Did you always want to pursue a career in maths? Were you encouraged to study these subjects at school?

I always excelled in and enjoyed maths so have been involved in advanced and extension classes for mathematics for as long as I can remember. I was always encouraged by both family and teachers to pursue this and challenge myself to learn as much as I could. While I had many excellent teachers throughout my education my year 11 and 12 maths teacher stands out. He went above and beyond to make his classes engaging and encourage us. The result of this was that we had one of the biggest class sizes the school had seen in years. He took the time to get to know us and instil the same love of the subject in us that he infused into every class.

Where do you see yourself in five or ten years time?

I see myself working in and contributing to my field in some way, whether this be in pursuing an academic position, or a job in industry, or anything else that may come along. Hopefully this will be overseas, but only time will tell exactly where I am headed. For now I want to leave my future open so I am not blinded to emerging opportunities in this fast moving field.

Did you learn about new career options available to you that you were not aware of prior to attending AMSI BioInfoSummer?

I was very interested to hear about the application of bioinformatics techniques to humanitarian work in Africa, which was not an area I had previously heard much about. We often hear about pure scientific or business applications of our work so it was enlightening to see it being used to create a direct impact within a community. I also learnt a lot about the APR Intern program and how our skills could give us career options in a wide range of industries.

If a peer asked you if they should attend AMSI BioInfoSummer, how would you describe the conference to them?

Like a school camp, except everyone is broadly interested in the same field. There are many talks and workshops covering exciting areas of research and the chance to meet some excellent scientists in a relaxed setting.