The University of Adelaide
Tahlia Perry is a PhD student at the University of Adelaide. She has always had a love for animals, fascinated with their biology and a passion for their conservation. Once Tahlia started her undergraduate degree in science, she also really enjoyed genetics, so through her studies she has been combining these two together. Tahlia acquired her first bioinformatics skills during her Honours degree where she analysed Next Generation Sequencing data from ancient DNA of an extinct mammal species. Now, during her PhD she is working on the iconic echidna, exploring many aspects of their genetics, such as reproduction and development, and developing tools to help with their conservation and captive breeding. As well as developing important laboratory and bioinformatics skills during her PhD, Tahlia has also created a citizen science project called EchidnaCSI, which has been hugely successful. She has also entered, and won, science communication competitions such as the 3 minute thesis and FameLab and had the opportunity to work with many media outlets including radio and television. Tahlia’s main aim in the future is to continue research that aids mammal conservation by bringing together fields of genetics, biochemistry and bioinformatics with ecology, conservation, and citizen science.
Can you give me a quick overview of the type of mathematics you are studying and its potential impacts for the broader community
For my PhD project I am working on our beloved echidnas, helping to understand more about their extraordinary biology, particularly their reproduction and development. One way in which I am doing this is by identifying the genes that are being turned on and off in the reproductive organs of adult echidnas compared to juveniles. By identifying these genes I can piece together the pathways that become active and control their reproduction and development.
In order for me to do this I have to analyse very large datasets and manipulate the programs that use complex mathematical models to accurately tell me which genes I should be focussing on based on how different they are in adults compared to juvenile echidnas.
By understanding echidna reproduction I can help inform the captive breeding programs here in Australia, which are becoming increasingly important as some populations of echidnas are endangered.
How important was receiving a CHOOSEMATHS grant in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017 sessions throughout the week?
Conferences are an essential part of a PhD, providing the opportunity to showcase and share your research, but they can be very expensive to attend. As I was travelling from interstate it was incredibly important to have the CHOOSEMATHS Grant to assist with both travel and accommodation and allowed me to fully attend BioInfoSummer.
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 think offering the CHOOSEMATHS Grants for women really helps to encourage our participation in usually male-dominated areas such as bioinformatics and computer science. It is incredibly important to get our name and faces known in order for future careers and partnerships. Therefore, attending events like BioInfoSummer is particularly crucial for young researchers to learn these sorts of skills.
I particularly enjoyed the women’s lunch that was held on the first day. This event was a great ice-breaker, allowed us to meet new people straight away as well as share our similar experiences in our field of study. I think more events like this would make a huge impact for women in STEM.
In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Has it influenced the direction of your research?
I am from a biology background and have had little training in bioinformatics and computer science, with the majority of my skills being self-taught. Attending BioInfoSummer helped immensely in giving direction to my research, as well as confirming that I am on the right track with my analyses. It also gave me a new found perspective on just how varied the field of bioinformatics is, with there being many people like myself who are from a biology background but also a significant amount of people who are from a pure maths background wanting to use their skills to solve biological problems. It really gave me an appreciation of how maths is really everywhere but in various forms.
What was the most valuable part of AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017 for you in terms of furthering your career in mathematical sciences?
When I was accepted for the CHOOSEMATHS grant, I then decided to make the most of the conference by presenting a poster. This required pushing myself to get as many results out during the weeks leading up to the conference, which was a great motivator. Presenting the poster allowed me to showcase my work and helped immensely with networking. Having this opportunity to share my research was incredibly powerful in terms of furthering my skills for a career in sciences. Winning the Best Poster Award also gave me great confidence that I am on the right path with both my science and communication skills.
A presentation on the AMSI Intern program was included as part of the Careers Session. One of the aims of the AMSI Intern program is to maximise employability and help prepare research graduates to drive industry/private sector research. Are you hoping to work with industry? How important is this experience for researchers? Particularly in terms of offering career flexibility for women?
I think it’s fantastic that there are more initiatives for PhD students to make contacts and work in industry, as it is well known that only a small percentage of postgraduate students actually continue with academic careers. Particularly for women, where research is still not as accommodating for those who choose to start a family, moving into private sectors or industry may offer more security. I, personally, am still interested in continuing a career in research but I am glad that these internships exist and I have the option to pursue them if I choose.
The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from BHP Billiton 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 maths, the same as many STEM subjects, lacks the encouragement of women to pursue these disciplines. It would be great to have more female role models for school age children as well as more information on where maths can lead to as a career. As we move up in our careers through PhD and beyond, I think the biggest problem is there needs to be a change in how females can balance work with lifestyle, especially when families are involved.
Did you always want to pursue a career in maths? Were you encouraged to study these subjects at school? Do any particular mentors come to mind? Any outstanding teachers?
I always loved maths growing up, I don’t know why but I always just got it and really enjoyed being able to solve problems. My teachers were always supportive and gave me extra work if I ever asked for it, which is likely what helped me to be top of my year 12 Maths Studies class by the end of high school. As I then pursued science through my undergraduate degree I am slightly disappointed that I didn’t continue to pursue maths subjects, as it was never encouraged. Maths and science go hand in hand and if I could go back and tell my past self anything, it would be to continue with maths, as it would help my current science research immensely.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years time?
I have approximately 12-18 months left of my PhD, after that I plan on finding a postdoctoral position somewhere overseas, likely USA or the UK. I would love to work somewhere where I can utilise all of my skills and passion in molecular biology, bioinformatics and science communication in order to help with conservation of threatened species.
Any other feedback/comments you would like to provide on the CHOOSEMATHS grant or AMSI BioInfoSummer 2017?
I would just like to again thank AMSI for the CHOOSEMATHS grant and the ability to attend BioInfoSummer. It was a great conference and I loved the experience.