In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Natalie Thomas

Natalie Thomas

Monash University

Dr Natalie Thomas is a Research Fellow at Monash University, where she coordinates the molecular psychiatry laboratory for the Women’s Mental Health Division. She completed her PhD training in the field of molecular biology and biochemistry (Melbourne University, 2016), and first graduate training position in clinical psychiatric research (Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre, 2018). Psychiatry as a field of medicine struggles with the lack of measurable objective diagnoses and hence targeted treatments, and novel approaches are desperately needed. The broad focus of her current post-doctoral fellowship works to further our understanding of translational biomarkers in psychiatric disease states, particularly within the areas of stress biology, psychoneuroendocrinology, and women’s mental health. This translational field requires a unique skill set that bridges her laboratory knowledge and techniques, with clinical research. Her research goal is to help unravel the mechanism by which stress and trauma can be a catalyst for the onset of stress-related psychiatric disorders, such as PTSD, borderline personality disorder (complex PTSD), and depression.

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

My current work broadly aims to characterise the relationship between blood-based biomarkers and psychiatric diagnosis and symptomatology. This currently involves biostatistical analysis of longitudinal data, including group-based trajectory modelling. Having co-established a biobank at Monash Alfred Psychiatry research centre (MAPrc), I am currently collecting biological with comprehensive clinical and cognitive information. I was also recently awarded a Monash University Platform Access Grant for use of the Monash proteomics and metabolomics facility for the systematic study of metabolites in mental illness. I hope to be involved in the analysis of these samples using an untargeted metabolomic approach, with the aim to establish a unique metabolomic fingerprint.

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

I’m still deciding what I want to be when I grow up! When I was younger, I wanted to be an investigative journalist- in many ways, being a researcher and searching for the ‘truth’, is very similar!

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?

Attending AMSI BioInfoSummer was the catalyst for my commitment to move some of my research into the fields of large data, and bioinformatics- something I had previously been apprehensive of! Importantly, it provided me with the foundations to evolve my skills in high-throughput bioinformatics, which I believe will be central to my future methodological approach in translational psychiatry.

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

Although no formal collaborations were made, there were opportunities to talk to and get to know many people in the fields of Maths and Stats for potential collaborations and encouragement.

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

I hope to still be working within the field of translational psychiatry, helping people with their mental health. I hope to be using more high-throughput and bioinformatic technological platforms to answer my research questions however!

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

I learnt that mathematics is central to many 21st century jobs- many yet to even be created!

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

My supervisors are currently my mentors and the people I admire; people who work with strong scientific integrity in a sometimes harsh, and superficial academic environment, and who do so with human kindness first and foremost.

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 researcher in the space of molecular psychiatry, I often have the opportunity to attend more biological and clinically focused conferences and workshops. This grant was important in financially supporting my attendance and providing the opportunity and encouragement as an ECR to attend a maths focused workshop to learn new skills. I learnt about this grant through the AMSI BioInfoSummer 2018 website.

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?

There is still a huge disparity between male and female participation in STEM, so it is great to see this kind of encouragement of women in mathematics. I believe lack of opportunity and confidence are two main driving forces behind such a lack of women in STEM, and initiatives such as the CHOOSEMATHS Grants, profoundly help shape the narrative to change these factors.

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?

Maths underlies all our existing, and future technologies and is central for pushing new ideas into the forefront. If we can encourage students at early levels of their education to engage in the field of maths, and teach them WHY it is important to everything they are interested in, I believe more students will continue high levels of mathematics. More female leaders in STEM fields should build confidence in female students, and encourage them to continue in higher levels of secondary education, and into university.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

“If you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”

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

AMSI BioInfoSummer offers a great variety of seminars, inspirational talks and engaging ‘hands on’ workshops covered by experts in the field. I would recommend attendance to all interested students and researchers, at all levels and fields. I hope to be back to learn more at AMSI BioInfoSummer 2020!