In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles, News
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Catisha Coburn

Catisha Coburn

The University of Adelaide

Catisha is currently studying a Master of Philosophy in Bioinformatics at the University of Adelaide. Her research focuses on the statistical analysis of ChIP-seq data, in particular data obtained in a time series (samples obtained from the same cells over set time intervals).
Catisha studied a Bachelor of Science(Advanced) majoring in Biochemistry and Statistics at the University of Adelaide. She has always loved both biology and mathematics, and is very excited to be working in a field that lets her combine these two subjects in an exciting way. Bioinformatics is an exciting field, because there are new technologies becoming available every year, and these require rigorous statistical methods in order to properly understand the results.
Apart from her studies, Catisha is very passionate about engaging young people in science, and is currently secretary of the Young Scientists of Australia Adelaide Chapter, which aims to promote science to children through participation in ScienceAlive!, The Science Experience, school workshops and other events. In her spare time, Catisha enjoys photography and dancing.

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 applying Markov Random Fields to the analysis of biological data (ChIP-seq data). ChIP-seq gives us information on the location of protein binding on DNA. Often scientists want to see how this binding changes over time for a sample of cells. However, the data we obtain from ChIP-seq is very noisy, and the amount of data obtained is large, making it difficult to determine what is actually going on. Markov Random Fields is a way of modelling the true state of protein binding, by assuming that regions of DNA next to each other will have similar binding properties, and that the same region only one time-step distant will have similar binding properties. By developing a tool that uses Markov Random Fields to determine changing protein binding sites, I can help scientists using ChIP-seq to better analyse and understand their results.

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?

The CHOOSEMATHS Grant was very helpful to me. The grant significantly contributed to the cost of my flights, and meant I was able to afford to stay at an airbnb with two other attendees. The accommodation was located close to public transport, making attendance at the event easy for me, and also lowered travel time, meaning I could easily attend all of the sessions and social events.

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 grant allowed me to meet a lot of other amazing women during the BioInfoSummer event, especially on the first day during the CHOOSEMATHS lunch. Not only were the other grant holders great to meet (many of which I caught up and made good friends with throughout the week), but it also gave me the opportunity to meet some of the CHOOSEMATHS ambassadors, who I found very inspiring.

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

The experience largely impacted the number of resources I feel I have available to me. I met a lot of people at the conference who I feel I could contact and may be able to help during my research. It was great to meet more researchers who are in a similar field to me.

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

The networking was definitely one of the best parts of the conference. It was really great to meet people who were working in the same field as me, and also for them to meet me. I feel like this was a great benefit and will help further my career in bioinformatics.

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 would like to work in industry, however I am not sure whether there is a large industry at the moment in bioinformatics. I think it is is important to get experience in industry for researchers, because it is difficult to get a job in industry without such experience. This is especially true for women looking for alternatives to academia.

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?

I think one of the big challenges is that people don’t know what sort of career opportunities exist for mathematics. It appears that most people don’t see it as a career path in and of itself, rather something to study in conjuction with engineering or science. Furthermore, I think many people, of all ages and particularly women, tend to view maths as something it is acceptable not to be good at. There is a tendency for people to say “I am not good at mathematics/ I can’t do mathematics”, which I disagree with. While not everyone has a talent for mathematics, it is definitely something anyone can learn and become good at, like literacy. This societal misconception deters people from taking further maths education above the current high school requirements, and reinforces the maths deficit observed today.

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 never intended to pursue a career in mathematics. I had always enjoyed maths at school, and was also quite good at it. I was lucky to have a good Year 5 maths teacher who spent some time finding gaps in her student’s maths education to fill in before continuing with the curriculum (she really helped me with fractions).

When I was in year 10 I attended a Maths Experience day held by the University of South Australia. I met a mathematics academic called Dr. Amie Albrecht, who has a passion for teaching mathematics. She mentored me during Year 11 and 12, and strongly encouraged me to continue my maths education into university. Because of this I completed a Bachelor of Science(Advanced) at the University of Adelaide with majors in Biochemistry and Statistics. My M.Phil in Bioinformatics has allowed me to combine my passions of biology and mathematics, as well as learn important computational skills.

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

I hope I will be working in the field of Bioinformatics or Data Science, either in a university or at another institution. I would love to be able to use my skills to make new discoveries and advances in health, the environment or in agriculture. I think it’d be amazing to be able to both make a difference and also pursue my passion.

Any other feedback/comments you would like to provide on the CHOOSEMATHS grant or AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017?

I had a great time at AMSI Bioinfosummer! It was a wonderful experience, and I learned at lot during the seminars. It was also a good opportunity to meet new people working in the same field as me. It was an honour to receive the CHOOSEMATHS grant and I enjoyed the lunch where we met some of the ambassadors.