In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Megan Coomer

Megan Coomer

The University of Melbourne

I am a PhD student in the Theoretical Systems Biology Group (School of Mathematics and Statistics) at Melbourne University. Our research focuses on building stochastic mathematical models to describe and better understand different biological processes. Particularly, we try to understand how cells make the decisions they do over their lifetime and how we may be able to influence these decisions for the purpose of regenerative medicine.
I originally undertook an MSc in Genetics after I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for three years. During my time in industry I decided to further pursue my interests in computational biology and mathematics and began an MSc in theoretical systems biology at Imperial College, London. From here our research grouped moved to Melbourne University where I stared my PhD in 2019.

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

My group focuses on building stochastic mathematical models to describe and better understand different biological processes. Particularly we try to understand how cells make the decisions they do over their lifetime and how we may be able to influence these decisions for the purpose of regenerative medicine.

What did you want to be when you grew up? If not mathematics research, what would have been?

As a young girl with a passion for science I wasn’t fully aware of the many career directions one could take and as such I wanted to become a doctor. While my family was very supportive of this career I quickly realised that it wasn’t the right choice for me which is when I began exploring alternatives.

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?

A colleague attended BioInfoSummer 2018 and recommended the event to me. I recently moved from London to Melbourne and thought that it would be a brilliant opportunity for me to get to know other Australian researchers and build a local network. The workshops were particularly helpful as we were able to engage with the presenters on a one-to-one basis as well as with fellow colleagues in an informal setting.

In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Did this event lead to any new contacts, projects, collaborations?

As it’s only been one month since the conference it’s difficult to directly quantify the impact the experience has had on my studies, but it has certainly led to new connections and with that always comes the possibility of exciting and fruitful collaborations.

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

This is a question I have been asking myself for many years and I’ve finally realised that it’s okay not to know where you will end up in 5 or 10 years from now. I certainly wouldn’t have imagined that I would end up in Melbourne doing my PhD in maths and statistics 5 years ago, but here I am. That being said, if you stick with something you are passionate about and work hard opportunities will present themselves and slowly begin to carve out a bright 5 or 10 years in your journey.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

I’m lucky to have been surrounded by extraordinarily strong, intelligent and independent women in both my personal and work life. It is these “ordinary” women who are my mentors as I watch them making extraordinary personal and professional strides all the while tackling the present challenges of work-life balance and gender equality in the workplace.

How important was receiving a CHOOSEMATHS grant in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the AMSI BioInfoSummer 2019 sessions throughout the week?

The grant was instrumental in me attending BioInfoSummer and I think it’s a wonderful initiative that offers any student that is interested a chance in attending the conference without having to worry about financial constraints.

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?

Absolutely vital! I remember being a young girl at school exceptionally interested in maths, but never identifying with any potential mentors in the field as all my math teachers and then lecturers at University were male. If you aren’t able to see yourself in the person in front of you it’s hard to imagine that that person may one day be you. It was thrilling to be surrounded by other women achieving in STEM. While we still have a long way to go it’s so important that we show this to other young and impressionable girls and the CHOOSEMATHS grant goes a long way in helping this cause.

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

As mentioned above I think one of the greatest challenges is having female mentors from a young age. Young girls need to be able to see themselves as: the math teacher; the physics lecturer; the astronaut; the CEO. We need to see this at school, in the news, on social media, and at home. It’s also important that we make sure parents and teachers are encouraging to both young boys and girls to pursue maths instead of putting the subject in a separate category reserved for the “gifted” or the “nerds”. We must ensure that school-going children fully understand and appreciate that nearly every up-and-coming career has a significant amount of maths associated with it. That pursuing a degree in maths is a solid foundation on which to build and will open the very best doors for you. Maths truly is the foundation on which the world is built and it’s important that young and old alike appreciate its significance.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

From my mother: “If you don’t ask, you don’t get”.

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

I would certainly recommend the conference to a peer. It was a very relaxed environment in which to learn and network. I would describe it as a good balance between learning, networking and having fun.