In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Shanika Amarasinghe

Shanika Amarasinghe

The University of Melbourne

Shanika started as biology student in the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka and pursued a Hon’s degree in Bioinformatics. Working for a couple years in the field of bioinformatics afterwards, she started her PhD at the University of Adelaide in analysing plant transcriptomics. After completion of her PhD she is now working at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (Ritchie laboratory) in solving questions related to long read sequencing data and single cell data. Her expertise is in areas of bioinformatics such as gene expression analysis, regulatory network analysis, molecular phylogenetics and variant analysis.

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

I work with extra-long sequences and single-cell data. There are some aspects of these areas that are not fully resolved yet. If we were to understand them and address them, a good mathematical knowledge is required.

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?

The program was well designed and the content was very closely related to what I pursue as an early career researcher. I believe being efficient ad knowledgeable are the key to success in any field. AMSI BioInfoummer provided me the foundation to do just that.

Did this event lead to any new projects, collaborations? What were some outcomes in terms of your work?

As I said earlier, the program content was very close to what I pursue in my research. Getting to hear from experts, attend workshops and have direct communication lead to me being more confident in doing what I do.

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? How did you hear about the grant?

I heard about the grant from your website. My lab head encouraged us to apply as well. It was important for me as I would not be quite in my “right mind” if I had to leave my family, particularly my infant son, behind for a week. Furthermore, I would not be able to personally afford all the costs to take my family interstate as I have only just started working after my PhD.

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?

Initiatives such as CHOOSEMATHS encourage female scientists to improve their networking opportunities and I’m thankful for that. If I did not receive a CHOOSEMATHS grant I would not have been able to attend BioInfoSummer. I was impressed by the number of other female scientists at the conference who also received CHOOSEMATHS grants and presume that similarly if they did not receive a grant that would also not have been able to be involved.

In what ways has the experience impacted your maths studies? Has it influenced the direction of your research?

The lunch time CHOOSEMATHS event was very eye opening as we saw how maths can be feared and ignored by female students. This was personally my story as well. However, as a bioinformatician, working with mathematics for me is inevitable. I gained more confidence in tackling my maths problems and got to know how I could get help in doing so.

The CHOOSEMATHS Grants are part of a broader program being delivered by AMSI Schools with support from the 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?

It is the fear of maths. The more resources and support are available, the more this fear will reduce. It needs to start at a very young age. I believe building the confidence in girls is the way to go. I’d like to propose approaches such as having mandatory female participation in simple but enjoyable internship programs/summer schools designed for even primary and secondary school levels that would boost the confidence and “I can do it” attitude of girls towards maths.

Did you always want to pursue a career in maths? Were you encouraged to study these subjects at school?

I always wanted to avoid maths. I remember my teachers were saying that I was very good at it, but I did not believe them. It was my 9th grade teacher who systematically pointed out to all of us with simple on the spot “assignments” that everyone could do maths. I wish there was such a streamlined program that was available for us throughout our academic life from school to university to beyond.

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

I want to see myself leading a company in bioinformatics in another 10 years’ time. One aspect of that company will be to host programs to increase the levels of mathematical knowledge in biologists that would lead them to understand how to solve bioinformatics questions more thoroughly. In order to do this, my maths knowledge must be excellent. This is what I am aiming to achieve through being more involved in bioinformatic-based research.

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

It is a must attend because the program is timely and well-structured. Also there is a generous travel grant opportunity that would allow you to make the best out of the conference without trouble.