In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Nitika Kandhari

Nitika Kandhari

Monash University

I started my career in Biology in 11th Grade. After passing my 12th Grade, I enrolled myself in BSc. Bioinformatics course in DAV College, Panjab University and then MSc. Bioinformatics in Bioinformatics Centre, University of Pune. I studied a bit of Mathematics during my Bachelor’s and Master’s course. The aim was to do a PhD in bioinformatics or a related area. To pursue my dream career, I worked as a Project Assistant in the Computational and Systems Biology Lab (Sinha’s lab) in Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER)- Mohali and worked on a project involving Molecular Dynamics Simulations on protein molecules. I also learned complex network analysis and applied it to protein biology. After that I studied in the department of Mathematics and Statistics for a year and then got enrolled in a PhD course in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at Monash. I now work in the RNA Systems Biology Lab (Beilharz lab) at Monash, where I study transcriptomic data and do Bioinformatics analysis on RNA-seq data from breast cancer cell lines. I am navigating my way through studying gene-expression analysis, network analysis while slowly transitioning into studying scRNA-seq data in breast cancer.

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

My research work does not involve complicated Mathematics. It mostly requires basic knowledge in Mathematics such as some concepts in Linear algebra, Matrix algebra and Biostatistics which is statistics focusing on data and problems in biology.

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

When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a doctor to find a cure for cancer as one of my Aunts who was suffering from cancer at the time. But I ended up studying Bioinformatics for my Bachelor’s and Master’s that paved a path to do a PhD degree. My current project focuses on cancer bioinformatics. I am analysing RNA-seq data from breast cancer cell lines and I couldn’t be happier.

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?

The program covered topics that I am interested in and relates to my research project- Epigenetics, single-cell omics and precision medicine. All the talks in single-cell RNA-seq analysis and the hands-on workshops were the most valuable part for me.

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

I met a lot a people and made a lot of friends who work on similar projects. I got a lot of ideas from participants who shared their research during the poster presentations. I also asked a student to share the methodology he used for normalizing RNA-seq data along the lines of using housekeeping genes he was happy to collaborate.

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

I want to take my bioinformatics, data analysis and programming skills to an advanced level where I can build amazing tools to study different kinds of biological data. In next ten years’ time, I hope to start a research lab that sits in the middle of academia and industry, undertaking amazing projects and building new algorithms, software and tools for complex data analysis on one hand and on the other hand train young bioinformaticians.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

A/Prof. Traude Beilharz and A/Prof David Powell at Monash University are my PhD mentors and I really admire Traude and Prof. Somdatta Sinha (IISER Mohali). These two ladies have iron clad will to pursue their careers in research and succeed. They both overcame extreme challenges and came out victorious. I take much inspiration from their stories and try to give my best.

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?

It was really great to have received a CHOOSEMATHS Grant to attend AMSI BioInfoSummer. Having funding was really helpful in managing my expenses. It would have been quite expensive for me to find accommodation in Sydney and cover flight expenses. Since the accommodation arranged by AMSI was so close to the venue, it saved the commute time and money. I learned about this grant on the AMSI BioInfoSummer 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?

These initiatives help and encourage women in science to meet the experts in the industry and academia. It is generally difficult for women to have access to such opportunities. I can’t say for others but my own journey started with fighting with my family to pursue my dream career. I would not have been in the research industry pursuing a PhD degree and travelling to different places to attend such amazing events and network with the peers and experts, if not for initiatives such as CHOOSEMATHS Grants. So, I am extremely thankful for such initiatives.

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 believe that there’s a general fear of Maths that’s instilled in women that keeps them from choosing a career in Maths. Being an international student, I can’t say anything specific to Australia but I remember my parents telling me stuff like Maths is hard, especially for girls and I think this is common to most female students. I too feel scared when it gets complicated but I have got no other option that to face my fears head-on. I wish there was a program available in the early career stage that help and guide female students that encourage them to study Maths in a fun way and not be scared of it.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

Make a career in something that you enjoy, most of the time it won’t be easy but you just have to work hard and keep marching forward even if you manage to take a single tiny step at a time.

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

I would highly recommend it. A vast array of topics were covered in a timely and a well-structured fashion. Even the talks that were not at all related to my own research project were good to listen to. The speakers were really great and I did not have to force myself to concentrate. The hand-on workshops started at the basic level and progressed towards advanced level. Regardless of what year of PhD or Master’s degree you are in, there will be something to take back home.