In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles, News
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Carmel Maher

Carmel Maher

Flinders University

Carmel studied a Bachelor of Science specialising in Animal Behaviour at Flinders University, and completed her Honours in 2015 with A/Prof Mike Gardner and Prof Mike Bull on spatial variation of major histocompatibility complex genes (involved in immune response) in the endangered pygmy bluetongue skink (Tiliqua adelaidensis). This was one of the first broad population studies of functional genes for this species. Her interests are conservation biology, ecology, and evolution, as well as genomics and how it relates to and connects fields in biology. Continuing work on the pygmy bluetongue and expanding her experience in genomics and bioinformatics, Carmel’s PhD aims to use transcriptomics to investigate gene expression under different environmental conditions, and potential adaptation in this species. This will provide valuable information when assessing conservation methods and potential translocation. In addition to A/Prof Mike Gardner, Carmel is also supervised by A/Prof Mike Schwarz and Dr Terry Bertozzi from the South Australian Museum.

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

For my project I’m looking at differential gene expression between environmental conditions in the endangered pygmy bluetongue lizard, a skink endemic to S.A. I am using bioinformatics to identify and analyse functional genes expressed in different individuals and tissues collected at both the beginning and end of the dry season. Understanding which genes may be involved in surviving dry periods, and this species’ ability to adapt to changing conditions, as well as any genetic differences between fragmented populations, is crucial to translocation decisions and conservation efforts. Results from my research will provide a baseline for future genetic studies in this species, as well as contribute to a wider body of work where many aspects of pygmy bluetongue ecology are being studied.

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?

Receiving a CHOOSEMATHS grant to assist in attendance at AMSI BioinfoSummer was a huge factor in my decision to attend at all. AMSI does a great job of keeping registration fees accessible to students, however taking the week off from casual work as well as paying for everything required for me to travel interstate and attend would not have been feasible for me.

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?

The CHOOSEMATHS Grant is incredibly valuable in terms of fostering the participation and achievement of women in mathematics. Without this grant I would not have attended the 2017 BioInfoSummer. I reconnected with some people I met at the 2016 BioInfoSummer in Adelaide, and made many new friends from different universities. Through both the active involvement of women in similar fields, and the collaboration among scientists from both maths, IT, and biology backgrounds, this event is unique in the networking opportunities provided as well as the positive atmosphere it fosters.

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

Though some content will probably inform my choices of tools or programs into the future, BioInfoSummer has not changed the direction of my research per-se. However, the collaboration between fields encouraged at BioInfoSummer is part of an important focus on interdisciplinary research. BioInfoSummer is one of the sources of experiences, relationships, and information which have allowed me to build my confidence in bioinformatics and seek out the opportunities that I have had.

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

The networking provided through events such as these is always invaluable, and the participation of different scientific fields at BioInfoSummer is special. Besides this aspect, I always enjoy the workshops provided during the week where different methodologies or programs are demonstrated. A number of talks, which discussed different programs used to complete analyses or even comparisons between the effectiveness of new and old programs, and links to databases that provide user feedback and reviews. This is incredibly helpful with keeping up to date on the ever-growing number of tools available.

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?

Industry engagement is incredibly important to give university graduates the connections and practical skills required in a workforce relevant to their field of study. My current employment is partially due to other work experience I had taken at that workplace. Too often students are required to sacrifice their own time and money to complete unpaid work experience, or contribute to volunteering projects in order to gain field experience. Even where these experiences are beneficial and enjoyable for students, their very nature excludes those who cannot sacrifice that much time away from part time employment or families, without some kind of support.

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?

  • Teachers need to be able to rephrase content and cater to different learning styles among students. Maths is often a very regimented subject, and students can quickly get lost if they miss just one concept. The availability/workload of teachers when additional help is needed is often not able to cope with this.
  • There is this pervasive idea that people are inherently good or bad at maths, and once a teacher or student decides that a student has no affinity for the subject, their confidence and motivation to learn disappears. There very quickly becomes a divide between people who are “talented” at maths, and people who dislike the subject.
  • Schools seem to focus heavily on university prerequisites, and students are not given real direction for their topics’ content. When the entire subject can be reduced to one tick box which determines whether they get into university degree A or B, and they think they might not get the grades to be competitive for A anyway? All of the subjects for A may be dropped, because it is seen to ultimately serve no purpose.
  • Teaching methods evolving with technology. There is a disconnect between what is assumed knowledge for the younger generation by teachers, and the necessity to teach students how to use computer tools effectively, as well as some teachers themselves lacking the technology skills. When some classes barely manage to get students to effectively use existing program interfaces, how are we supposed to increase interest in elective IT classes and what goes on behind the scenes?
  • Keeping Maths an engaging topic and giving difficult content perspective for the students; providing interesting relevance and real-life applications. Calculators are readily available in phones and computers, but the importance of basic maths skills is not communicated to students within a larger context, but instead enforced through strict rules and exercises. This only increases animosity with teachers, the negativity associated with what is often a boringly taught subject, and squashes any interest they may have had.
  • Unless students go out of their way to ask or seek additional content, or are singled out by teachers through their engagement or grades, they are often not given the additional guidance or encouragement required to excel in these fields. The fact that additional attention on top of set curriculums may be required for many students to excel is a problem in the curriculum all on its own, but in a system where that focus can make all the difference in engagement, retaining students and increasing grades, already disadvantaged students slip through the cracks for a larger variety of reasons.
  • More opportunities and availability of resources to bridge the gap later in life for people who did not study much maths, to catch up on specific content which may be relevant to furthering their career or study direction.

Of course, all of these points are not new information, and I have personally benefited from programs aiming to address some of them in my own education. We just need to continue to talk about it and try new solutions into the future.

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 was turned off maths before the final year of high school. I was still getting good grades, but I didn’t enjoy the classes and didn’t have the confidence. I didn’t want to jeopardise my ATAR by choosing difficult topics. Though I was always interested in science, and got into a Bachelor of Science in biology without any prerequisites. I never particularly enjoyed mathematics as a theoretical topic, but I do appreciate what it can do. This was such an important thing for me to acknowledge, and something that wasn’t truly demonstrated to me until a few of my genetics and ecological statistics classes in my undergraduate studies. These topics were able to give a mathematical perspective on the topics that interested me, and made it much more engaging. I completed my honours on population genetics, and am now studying gene expression and transcriptomics. Though daunting, I have gradually, and almost accidentally, increased the level of bioinformatic analyses required in my research simply because I have had the opportunity and interest. Though I do still sometimes feel at a disadvantage compared to peers with a history of study in maths and more focused genetics.

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

Probably a lab technician in industry, hopefully with a completed PhD, hopefully with a mortgage.