In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Tenielle Porter

Tenielle Porter

Edith Cowan University

I am a postdoctoral research fellow working in the Collaborative Genomics Group at Edith Cowan University. I completed my Bachelor of Science in Molecular Genetics and Biotechnology (Honours) at Curtin University. Following the competition of my undergraduate degree I was offered a PhD project at Edith Cowan University. During my PhD, I investigated the influence of genetic factors when predicting rates of cognitive decline in preclinical Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, I developed polygenic risk scores to estimate Alzheimer’s disease progression for use in early stage clinical trials. In addition to my research interests, throughout my PhD I developed an interest in the overall PhD experience and the mental health effects it can have on students. I have facilitated Write Smarter, Feel Better programs aiming to support the mental health of postgraduate students. I completed my PhD in 2018 and last year I was awarded a strategic research fellowship at Edith Cowan University to explore how genetics and lifestyle interact to reduce a person’s risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

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

The type of mathematics I undertake is statistical analysis and bioinformatics on large datasets. Specifically, I work with genetic data to determine differences at the DNA sequence level, between those people who have Alzheimer’s disease and those who do not. With the results of this analysis I aim to develop genetic tests for Alzheimer’s disease, and advance our understanding of the disease’s development through the identification of the genes and biological pathways involved.

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

I always wanted to work in biomedical research, 10-year-old Tenielle had lofty aspirations and planned on curing cancer. However, I planned on working in a wet lab and it’s only been since my PhD that I have moved into mathematics/statistics research.

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?

As my research transitions away from the wet lab and focuses more on statistics I was encouraged to attend this event by previous attendees. The main draw of the program was the combination of lectures by researchers in wide ranging fields, and hands-on workshops. I think these workshops, in addition to the opportunity for networking, was the most valuable part of AMSI BioInfoSummer for me.

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

This experience has resulted in me being more confident in my maths studies and my choice to move into this area of research. The event also led to a collaboration with a group whose research I had previously followed, and the recruitment of a post graduate student who will be starting a PhD with my group in July.

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

As an early career researcher, I believe mathematical sciences will allow me to better investigate the questions I will ask of the data available. In 5-10 years’ time I hope to be taking what I have learnt through my research and my data analysis skills and work with government to assist in informing health and education policy.

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

Whilst I didn’t learn about new career options, I was made aware of a number of research projects and analysis methodologies I hadn’t heard of prior to attending AMSI BioInfoSummer. As my main research focus is human health, it was interesting to learn about how mathematics is being used in environment and business disciplines.

Who are your mentors? Who do you admire?

My main mentor is my PhD supervisor Associate Professor Simon Laws. He’s never considered a question I’ve asked stupid and has always encouraged me to learn new things (“add another string to my bow” as he says). Simon’s trust and backing has allowed for my transition into mathematical sciences. The person who I admire most is my high school maths teacher, Mrs Cullen. She was one of the main reasons maths was my favourite subject during school and she constantly encouraged me to push myself further. I know like myself, there are many girls in Perth who pursued a career in maths and sciences thanks to her teaching and support.

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?

The CHOOSEMATHS grant was essential for my ability to attend BioInfoSummer. As I am located in Western Australia, this grant enabled my travel to Sydney and my accommodation while I was there. Additionally, through being able to stay at the University of Sydney campus I was able to meet the other conference participants.

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 initiatives such as the CHOOSEMATHS grants are very important in encouraging the participation of women in mathematics. Attending conferences, particularly in the early stages of our careers, is not always financially viable. The ability to attend the conference, and stay on campus, facilitated many networking opportunities between myself and in particular the other early career researchers.

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?

The biggest challenges I see facing maths in Australia for women include the lack of understanding of career options, not having visible female role models, and a lack of encouragement for young girls to enrol in maths/science subjects in school. I feel like students at all levels of education, particularly in lower SES areas, do not understand the broad ranging career options for maths graduates. A lack of female role models at high levels of academia specifically, makes it hard for young women to imagine career progression. Lastly, by only offering maths subjects in specific maths focused courses students are not exposed to the possibility of a maths career in their field of interest. I believe that maths should be better integrated in all science degrees, so that when a student does become interested, they are not required to undertake further study.

Best piece of advice you’ve received?

“Always keep learning” My Dad, who is always listening to some science podcast or uni lecture on YouTube.

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

I would definitely encourage any of my peers to attend this conference, no matter what their background in mathematics or bioinformatics. I would describe the conference as a unique combination of lectures and workshops which built up gradually allowing for everyone to learn something. Further, it was a very supportive environment with both the facilitators and fellow attendees willing to help if people needed it.

The entire BioInfoSummer event was exceedingly interesting and allowed me to meet so many researchers from different areas of STEMM.