The University of Adelaide
Nhi Hin is a PhD candidate at The University of Adelaide. She is currently based in the Bioinformatics Hub and Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Laboratory. Her research uses bioinformatic approaches to analyse omics data from zebrafish mutation models of familial Alzheimer’s Disease. Her presentations relating to this research have won awards at the Model Organisms in Human Health Australia (Melbourne, 2017), COMBINE (Adelaide, 2017), Australia-Japan Joint Neurodegenerative Disease Symposium (Adelaide, 2019), and most recently AMSI BioInfoSummer (Sydney, 2019) and COMBINE (Sydney, 2019). Nhi previously completed a Bachelor of Science (Advanced) also at The University of Adelaide, with majors in Chemistry and Genetics. She is particularly passionate about using data storytelling and visualisation to encourage understanding and curiosity. Twitter: @nhihin.
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 studying bioinformatics, which combines statistics and computer science to solve biological problems. At The University of Adelaide, the Alzheimer’s Disease Genetics Laboratory focuses on researching Alzheimer’s Disease, a complex disease that still has no effective treatment despite over 140 failed clinical trials! Sadly, we still don’t really understand the molecular basis for the disease, and it’s difficult to study as there are so many changes in the brain that happen leading up to the disease. The types of data we are able to collect nowadays with modern omics technology allow us to capture these changes in the brain at the molecular level. It’s kind of like an ultra high-res photograph – but all scrambled up. This is where bioinformatics really becomes useful. Bioinformatic analyses allow us to actually understand and interpret what’s going on. With the analyses I have been working on, my aim is to understand how the details (e.g. like gene expression and protein abundance) contribute to the disease state. I think that these kinds of “back to basics” approaches that don’t make assumptions about the underlying cause of the disease are important for building a less biased understanding about how Alzheimer’s disease develops, which might hopefully lead to more insightful ideas for drug development in the future.
What did you want to be when you grew up? If not mathematics research, what would have been?
Any career that values both analytic and creative skills in addition to constant self-development is a win to me. I am grateful to have landed in a field as interdisciplinary, challenging, and innovative as bioinformatics.
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?
Originally, I was drawn to the scope of skills the workshops covered. Throughout my PhD research, I’ve been analysing gene expression (e.g. RNA-seq, microarray) and proteomics data. I think it’s vital to keep up to date with other technologies so that we can take advantage of them and their complementary insights in future studies. Without AMSI BioInfoSummer, I probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be exposed to so many interesting techniques and analyses in such a short period of time. I particularly enjoyed the Hi-C and single-cell RNA-seq workshops and I am definitely excited to put these skills into practice in the near future. It was really motivating to be surrounded by other students who were so keen to learn.
In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Did this event lead to any new contacts, projects, collaborations?
It hasn’t directly led to new projects or collaborations. However, getting to meet peers from interstate and other academics has been really inspiring. I am going to try and make the best of my remaining studies in bioinformatics.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years time?
Mathematical sciences are evolving so quickly! Honestly, I’m not sure about where I’d be in five or ten years’ time, but I am hopeful that there will be many opportunities as long as I keep improving and staying up to date with where the field of bioinformatics is heading. I would really like to deepen my knowledge in data management, statistics, and other data science skills to ensure I’m ready for new opportunities.
Did you learn about new career options available to you that you were not aware of prior to attending AMSI BioInfoSummer?
The public lecture by Prof. Rafael Irizarry was particularly inspiring. Outside of bioinformatics, it was amazing to see how statistics, critical thinking, and data visualisation and exploration were vital in properly analysing any dataset. I think it made me realise the importance of the data analysis skills we’re using in bioinformatics. These are probably quite transferrable to other jobs involving data as well.
Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?
My main mentors are my supervisors, A/Prof. Michael Lardelli, Dr. Stephen Pederson, Prof. David Adelson, and also Dr. Dan Kortschak and Dr. James Breen (Bioinformatics Hub). They have guided my PhD research and also inspired my development into a more objective, critical, meticulous, and curious researcher. I also really admire Bret Victor and Edward Tufte. Their approaches to communicating and visualising data have inspired me since undergrad.
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?
I heard about the grant from one of my supervisors, who encouraged me to apply. I am very fortunate to have received the grant, as I would not have been able to attend AMSI BioInfoSummer otherwise.
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?
CHOOSEMATHS Grants are extremely important initiatives. I think that students are probably the audience that would receive the greatest benefit from AMSI BioInfoSummer, yet it is unfortunate that many may not be able to attend because of the travelling and accommodation costs. AMSI BioInfoSummer had many talented women as presenters. I think that because women are currently not as prevalent in the field of bioinformatics, it is particularly important for young women aspiring to become bioinformaticians to go to events like AMSI BioInfoSummer.
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?
I think that due to initiatives by AMSI, the stereotype that women are bad at maths is quickly disappearing in recent years. I think the greatest challenge is probably the perceived relevance of maths, particularly at a high-school level. While it is important to understand the basics, I think that there’s still a massive disconnect between maths in high-school and more specialised/applied maths used in research settings which still hasn’t been resolved.
Best piece of advice you’ve received?
Your fears become your limits.
If a peer asked you if they should attend AMSI BioInfoSummer, how would you describe the conference to them?
You can be inspired by talks from top bioinformaticians, learn new skills in the workshops, and have the opportunity to socialise / network with others. Because it’s at the end of the year, it’ll also motivate you to finish your current project so you can present your research and get feedback from others. It’s probably the bioinformatics event of the year.