In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Pei Qin (Sabrina) Ng

Pei Qin (Sabrina) Ng

The University of Adelaide

I graduated from the University of Adelaide in 2017 in Bachelor of Science (Advanced) majoring in Genetics and Biochemistry. I first came across bioinformatics when I “snuck” into an introductory bioinformatics course for honours and graduate students during my second year of undergraduate. Following a summer research placement and an internship working on bioinformatics-related projects, I decided to pursue an interdisciplinary MPhil-then-PhD path in plant epigenetics and bioinformatics. My current research focuses on using bioinformatics to understand the role of RNA modifications in RNA processing in plants, using the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana.

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 uses bioinformatics to study ribonucleic acid (RNA) modifications and how it impacts molecular processes in plants. It is crucial to understand how messages encoded in the genome gets conveyed through the “message” RNA, how these punctuation-like modifications are essential in creating a dynamic system to regulate and influence molecular processes in ever-changing environment, especially RNA processing. Often these processes can be unique in plants in comparison to other organisms, as plants are sessile and evolutionary distinct. More importantly, plants are vital in ensuring sustainable food source and a balanced ecosystem.

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

I have always wanted to be a medical doctor instead of a PhD Dr. I was once maths-phobic until I ventured into bioinformatics. Learning bioinformatics was when I realised mathematics is vital to explain biology, especially genetics. Both bioinformatics and genetics share the same element – code, with genetics being the ‘code of life’ while bioinformatics uses coding skills to sieve and analyse extensive genomic data. Mathematics is essential in modelling, prediction, and validation of biological data, and I cannot imagine the world of genetics and the emerging epigenetics research without it!

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?

I was highly interested in the series of workshop AMSI BioinfoSummer 2019 had to offer. The hands-on problem solving and guidance from experienced researchers made it a rewarding learning experience.

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

AMSI Bioinfosummer 2019 provided me with a fantastic platform to network with different researchers of various backgrounds and expertise. The conversation sparked some new ideas for my research and motivated me to venture out of my comfort zone in bioinformatics. For instance, I am hoping to code my R package soon!

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

I am hoping to learn more about bioinformatics, both related and unrelated to my current research. I wish to use bioinformatics to unravel more mysteries of genetics by becoming a postdoc after graduating from PhD.

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

I have always worried that my bioinformatics skillsets might be too niche. Through attending AMSI BioinfoSummer, I have learnt that there are different types of data scientists and bioinformatics skills are more transferable than I previously thought. Attending Bioinfosummer reassured me that my experience in my current PhD projects are valuable to the field, despite it may be uncommon for now.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

Katherine G. Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan. They are brilliant women mathematicians behind the NASA early space mission, but most of all, they never gave up regardless of the adversities they faced.

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?

Being a recipient of the CHOOSEMATHS Grant boosts my self-confidence of attaining a career as a bioinformatician in the near future. As an international student, expenses to attend conferences could pose an enormous financial stress. I am thankful for being awarded the CHOOSEMATHS grant to attend the AMSI BioinfoSummer interstate, without having to worry about the expenses.

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 believe it is necessary and impactful to have such initiatives. It is unbelievable how women are underrepresented in the mathematical sciences. It baffles me how many young girls gave up mathematics as they thought maths was not meant for them. People need to be aware that gender does not define mathematics capability. CHOOSEMATHS grants provide an opportunity for women in the mathematical sciences to celebrate and showcase the infinite possibilities with mathematics if women defy gender stereotype.

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?

In my opinion, the gender stereotype in mathematical sciences is still prominent, and ironically there are many amazing female mathematicians out there to show that women do maths too. The biggest challenge to get more participation of women in maths and strengthen maths education globally and in Australia is first to cultivate the young minds that maths is for everyone. It is not the gender that defines possibilities, but the determination, persistence, and passion that decides your ability to achieve anything you desire.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

This advice came from one of my undergraduate lecturers when I was applying for my MPhil scholarship: “Do not reject yourself until someone has rejected you. If you are unwilling to allow yourself to try something, to begin with, how are you going to convince anyone to give you a chance to prove that you can? ” It is unbelievable how powerful our thoughts can be, and sometimes, a simple change of thought can change a lot of things.

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

AMSI BioinfoSummer is an interdisciplinary conference that showcases how the mathematical sciences can provide in-depth insights into biological systems. It is also a safe space to learn and make mistakes. This learning space is made possible with well-designed workshops guided by experienced tutors, learning alongside like-minded delegates; simultaneously, it challenges you to venture out of your comfort zone into the unknown, whether if it’s a mathematician learning biology and vice versa. You rarely find conferences that celebrate learning.

Any other feedback/comments you would like to provide on the CHOOSEMATHS grant or AMSI BioInfoSummer?

Thank you AMSI and the BHP foundation for awarding me a CHOOSEMATHS grant. I attended my first AMSI BioinfoSummer back in Adelaide when I was still an undergraduate. That inspired me to pursue the path of bioinformatics. For my presence in bioinformatics as a woman in mathematical science to be recognised through AMSI CHOOSEMATHS grants and to be allowed to present my work in this conference, I hope to pay it forward by inspiring more students to take on this path.