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 a 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.

How important was receiving a CHOOSEMATHS grant in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017 sessions throughout the week?

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. I could book the most appropriate travel and accommodation close to the venue without having to worry about the cost. Being only a few minutes away 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. I know from my own personal experience at this conference I was able to become friends with a number of smart and encouraging 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 grant I would have missed the 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 upcoming semester I have my coursework project (thesis) to deliver and one of my main goals was to gain inspiration from relevant topics and areas of study. Although my degree has taught me many things AMSI BIS has shown me a wide range of ways how mathematics and computing skills are applied in real life to the research of those presenting driven by scientific discovery and purpose.

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.

What was the most valuable part of AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017 for you in terms of furthering your career in mathematical sciences?

The most valuable part of AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017 was having my eyes opened to the breadth of opportunities available in this field. Traditionally when we think of working in this area we think of research in an academic setting, but attendees at this conference demonstrated that there are many more options than I originally thought. There were speakers present from a variety of backgrounds, both academia and industry, all speaking about the different ways they have used a similar skillset and knowledge foundation. Excellent career advice was given at the careers panel and many training opportunities were discussed that could certainly be helpful as I progress further towards my future career.

A presentation on the AMSI Intern program was included as part of the Careers Session. One of the aims of the AMSI Intern program is to maximise employability and help prepare research graduates to drive industry/private sector research. Are you hoping to work with industry? How important is this experience for researchers? Particularly in terms of offering career flexibility for women?

I am open to working with either academia or industry. While industry isn’t a specific plan I have, I also wouldn’t discount it as a possibility. There are many opportunities available working with industry, and this experience would be a great way to explore this as an option and provide valuable industry experience should this be a path I choose to pursue. This experience could be a gateway to a new career and better enable women to enter an often male-dominated workforce.

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from BHP Billiton 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?

Being taken seriously and being encouraged to further our maths education. Growing up I saw less and less girls taking up maths and maths-based subjects like physics, with my HSC classes consisting of a mere 10-15% girls. In my school experience the boys were always expected to be better in these areas and would take offence at “being beaten by a girl”, as if this was shameful and unexpected. This attitude, that maths is not a “girl subject” is not uncommon and was a common theme that undoubtedly impacted on the 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? Do any particular mentors come to mind? Any outstanding teachers?

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 was absolutely outstanding, going above and beyond to engage his classes and encourage us. He sat in on a year of extension 2 mathematics classes especially so he would be able to take over the role and teach it to our class, and as a result we had one of the biggest class sizes the school had seen in years. He took the time to get to know us all and instil in us the same love of the subject 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.