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AMSI scholarship recipient profile: Malindrie Dharmaratne

Malindrie Dharmaratne

University of Queensland

Malindrie Dharmaratne received her Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Statistics from the University of Colombo (Sri Lanka). In April 2019, she commenced her PhD with Associate Professor Jessica Mar at the Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, University of Queensland. Her research is focused on developing bioinformatics methods for the analysis of large-scale single-cell transcriptomic data and the use of modern statistics tools to understand human disease.

Can you give me a quick overview of the type of mathematics you are studying and its potential applications or outcomes

My main PhD project focuses on developing advanced statistical models for single cell RNA-sequencing data. The novelty of this work is reflected in the modelling approaches I use which incorporate a range of statistical distributions for gene expression profiles rather than assume a uniform (e.g. Negative Binomial) distribution applies to all transcripts or genes in the transcriptome. The impact of this work in the field of computational biology is that more accurate modelling could be derived from sequencing data that is more attuned to estimating heterogeneity in the data. As genomics continues to be applied to increasingly complex samples – e.g. tumor biopsies, organoids, mosaic tissues – the kind of modelling approaches that I aim to develop during my PhD will be key to identifying biological signals amidst the increased levels of heterogeneity.

How did you get into the mathematical sciences/bioinformatics?

I have always loved mathematics back in school and had a knack for applying mathematical concepts to solve real world problems. So after completing my bachelor’s in Statistics I was inspired to go on to do a PhD in bioinformatics, where now I am able model biological data using advanced statistical models.

What advice would you give to your younger self or others wanting to studying the mathematical sciences?

I would advise my younger self to say “yes” more often to opportunities that come my way and not to be the person to wait for the opportunity for their turn to talk. This would be my advice for others wanting to study mathematical sciences as well.

What was your motivation for attending AMSI BioInfoSummer?

I heard about AMSI BioInfoSummer through my supervisor and I was motivated to attend it as I believed it would be a great platform for me to learn new developments in bioinformatics as well as to present my work and receive feedback.

You received an AMSI BioInfoSummer registration scholarship to attend AMSI BioInfoSummer. How important was this in terms of your ability to attend and fully participate in the sessions throughout the week?

Receiving the AMSI BioInfoSummer registration scholarship ensured that I would be able to fully participate in all of the sessions at the AMSI BioInfoSummer without any financial difficulty.

What was your main take away from AMSI BioInfoSummer?

My main highlight of AMSI BioInfoSummer was the opportunity to listen to some of my idols in the field of computational biology and also the opportunity to communicate with them (e.g. via Slack) even if the event was held virtually.

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

I would strongly recommend attending AMSI BioInfoSummer, especially if they are someone like me who is coming from a mathematics/statistics background, but is new to computational biology. As this would be a great platform to both learn and
make new connections with experts and like-minded students in the field.

AMSI BioInfoSummer is a well organised week of workshops and presentations. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to attend this excellent conference!

BioInfoSummer was held as a virtual event for the first time in 2020. What was the biggest positive from your point of view of holding it in this format and/or the biggest challenge?

I believe the biggest positive of holding this event virtually was that it saved costs on travelling inter-state and other expenses involved.

Where do you want the mathematical sciences to take you? Where do you see yourself in five or ten years’ time?

The most important thing that 2020 has taught me is that you can never predict the future and therefore I don’t have a specific goal in mind. However, I hope to strengthen my knowledge in mathematics/statistics and further my skills in
programming to become a better bioinformatician.

2020 has been a very unusual and challenging year. What is one thing you have learnt about yourself this year? Or a new skill you have developed?

2020 was a year that really pushed me to my limits but I was also able to achieve things which I never thought was possible. So the one thing that I learnt about myself the past year was that if I set my mind to it and do my best anything is possible.