In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Rachel Laattoe

Rachel Laattoe

Flinders University

I enrolled in Bachelor of Science majoring in biology after completing my high school education through a pre-professional ballet company. Upon completion of my undergraduate science degree I enrolled in a graduate degree in Psychological Science (whilst having children), which culminated in a first-class honours. I am presently a PhD candidate under the supervision of Assoc Prof Sarah Cohen-Woods within the Behavioural Genomic and Environmental Mechanisms Lab at Flinders University, South Australia. My research focuses on gene associations, expression and environmental interactions in inflammation-related psychiatric disorders, specifically depression. I am primarily interested in developing methods for data extraction from large biobanks, interpreting sequencing output and statistical models based on complex biological systems and pathways. I am mother to two beautiful girls (aged seven and ten) whom I cherish above all else including my husband. In my spare time I enjoy running, playing boardgames and spending time with my family.

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

Approximately one third of individuals with depression do not respond to antidepressants. There is also a large body of evidence to suggest that many individuals with depression have elevated inflammatory profiles. I use advanced statistical techniques to investigate genetic and environmental risk factors and biological pathways contributing to inflammation in depression. This includes techniques that use multi-omic (e.g. genome-wide and gene expression) data and environmental measures to gain a more holistic understanding of immune-related depression.

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

Ballet dancer. I completed my year 11 and 12 education whilst training full-time at a pre-professional ballet institute.

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 was a unique opportunity to learn from leading experts across a broad range of bioinformatic disciplines. As a PhD candidate and early career researcher, this was a great opportunity to enhance my knowledge and applied skills in bioinformatics, which are fundamental to my research in psychiatric genomics. The skills and techniques imparted through the R and Bioconductor workshops were directly applicable and offer immediate benefit to my current research, while the talks provided insight into industry and research at the forefront of bioinformatics.

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

The experience improved my understanding of bioinformatics within the field of genomics and enriched my statistical analysis skillset. It also provided me the opportunity to network with fellow researchers in this rapidly expanding field.

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

Ideally, I would like to pursue a career in academia with a focus on developing statistical methods for research in psychiatric genomics. However, I would also like to develop the bioinformatic skills required to ensure I am competitive for industry opportunities.

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

The COMBINE careers evening was a fantastic introduction to the range of bioinformatic industry opportunities available, and the skills and experience necessary to be competitive in this field.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

My husband, a loving partner, father and brilliant scientist who is highly successful in his field despite facing and overcoming many obstacles on the path to success. He inspires and motivates me everyday to strive for more and become the best version of myself…and he makes me laugh (even when I don’t want to).

My supervisor, Assoc Prof Sarah Cohen-Woods, a wonderful mother, and highly successful researcher in the field of psychiatric genomics. She is the epitome of what women/mothers can achieve and is a brilliant mentor to all her students.

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?

My University offers very little financial support for graduate students travelling to attend conferences etc. In my current situation, the AMSI BioInfoSummer would have been financially unfeasible were it not for the CHOOSEMATHS grant and my supervisor Assoc Prof Sarah Cohen-Woods who made me aware of it.

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?

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants provide a fantastic opportunity for more women to attend career and networking opportunities within the mathematical sciences as evidenced by 50/50 turnout of men and women at the 2019 AMSI BioInfoSummer. The CHOOSEMATHS travel grant provided me the opportunity to attend the AMSI BioInfoSummer event, which would have otherwise been financially inaccessible.

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?

More consideration should be given to the way maths is taught and delivered in schools (e.g. preference to applied approaches) so that students are aware of how maths is applicable to a wide range of career options. We also need women working in mathematical sciences to provide mentorship for young females and challenge stereotypes that remain salient in modern society.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

…Stop worrying about what others think of you … they have their own crap to worry about…

…Write something every day….

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

Fantastic opportunity to network with leaders in the field of bioinformatics and exposure to research and methodologies at the forefront of the discipline.

Looking forward to BioInfoSummer 2020!