In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Nikeisha Caruana

Nikeisha Caruana

The University of Melbourne

I completed my PhD in 2019 at La Trobe University after also completing a double degree (with first class honours) in arts and science at La Trobe University. My research focused on integrating ‘omics techniques and bioinformatics in order to highlight potentially bioactive proteins within the slime secretions of a family of cephalopods, Sepiadariidae.

After completing my PhD, I moved to The University of Melbourne’s Bio21 Institute to work with Dr. David Stroud’s group as a post-doctoral researcher. I now focus on using integrated ‘omics tools to analyse the ways that mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell, changes and develops in exercise, disease, and aging. I enjoy furthering my own understanding of how bioinformatic tools can aid scientific discovery and also enjoy sharing my own knowledge with the surrounding community.

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

I currently use a combination of statistics and programming in order to solve biological problems on proteins and genes. In particular, I use data collected from biologists and am able to turn that data into information and visual tools in order to help biologists make informed decisions about their work. The subject I am currently working on is mitochondria, which are the powerhouses of our cells. Analysing mitochondria is useful for understanding how our cells respond to disease, aging and even exercise. In further understanding our mitochondria we can learn a lot about how our cells respond to being stressed and hopefully find new ways of helping our cells deal with that stress. As a result, I am continually exploring statistical algorithms in order to analyse and integrate different types of ‘omics data (the analysis of data from proteins, RNA and DNA).

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

I almost always wanted to be involved in something scientific that would also contribute to the surrounding community. I originally thought about being a doctor or psychologist, however I also had a passion for computers growing up. While I started off in biochemistry and biological sciences during my undergrad it seemed like a natural progression to combine this with my love of programming and computers to work in 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?

AMSI BioInfoSummer is unique in that it creates a fantastic learning environment for those with varying levels of mathematics, biological and computer science knowledge. We were all able to learn not only from the lecturers and experts in their fields, but also from each other. Learning different skills in statistics and mathematics in particular was particularly valuable to me, as was the networking opportunities.

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

Understanding the wide range of backgrounds within maths and the way that each background understood and utilised maths for their own purpose allowed me to see how much could be accomplished within science if we combined all these skills. The ability to have a varied group of biologists, engineers and statisticians within one area allows for fantastic collaboration and the development of ideas. I met contacts that I hope to count not only as collaborators but also friends in the coming years.

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

I hope to become even stronger within my maths and statistics background and be able to really combine programming, statistics and biology in order to push the limits of being a bioinformatician. I also hope to be able to use my knowledge to teach and inform the upcoming female generations.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

I admire all women within mathematics, particularly those involved in science and statistics in the surrounding Melbourne area including Charles Gray, Dr. Saskia Freytag, Dr. Melissa Davis, Dr. Alicia Oshlack and Professor Melanie Bahlo. All of these women have been crucial to not only focusing my passion for bioinformatics but also the surrounding Melbourne scientific community.

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 recently changed fields within the sciences, going from non-model organisms to humans. While I work within a very supportive lab environment, it isn’t a small amount of money to attend workshops over a week in a different state. Receiving the CHOOSEMATHS Grant enabled me to not only attend AMSI BioInfoSummer but to do so with minimal financial difficulty. I heard about the grant through social media, and had been following BioInfoSummer as well as AMSI due to a number of prominent women who work with AMSI being vocal and encouraging within the field of mathematics.

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?

I wish I had more engagement with AMSI and their initiatives during high school and my undergraduate courses. Being able to see the participation and achievement of women with maths, particularly within a scientific context has been crucial in directing me to a more statistical and maths-based job. I feel supported within the community and pushed to achieve more.

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 was fortunate enough to have three female maths teachers throughout the majority of my high school maths education who were extremely supportive of women in maths. While I got extra tutoring and endeavoured to push myself within maths, I was unable to apply maths in a stressful environment like exams and this limited my enthusiasm towards the end of high school. As a result, I pushed myself away from math during my undergraduate degrees and focused on more biological-based subjects before I developed the courage to try again. Not all women are lucky enough to have such great role models throughout high-school, however I think the biggest limitation for women are the male dominated jobs and careers in maths. This is where the real exclusion is happening and as a result, younger girls aren’t able to see women in high positions of power in these positions.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

Always find a niche and pursue it!

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

A fantastic way to network with like-minded people who come from a variety of backgrounds in a supportive environment. Being able to listen to professionals in their field and get a sense of how they use maths within their everyday lives and learning new skills is an invaluable experience.

AMSI BioInfoSummer is an extremely well organised week of workshops and I will be forever grateful to have attended!