In CHOOSEMATHS grant winner profiles
CHOOSEMATHS Grant recipient profile: Veronika Petrova

Veronika Petrova

The University of Sydney

I am in the final year of the Master of Biostatistics program at the University of Sydney. The field of Biostatistics is a career change for me as I hold a Bachelor degree majoring in Economics and Finance and previously worked in the financial sector. My interest in the biomedical research prompted me to make the change. Having previous experience of working with data and the foundations in mathematics and statistics, Biostatistics seemed like a good fit for me.
Currently I work on a research project at the Centenary Institute that aims to investigate possible associations between various epigenetic modifications and the intron retention, a form of the alternative splicing. Analyses of such associations may assist in understanding of regulatory mechanism behind the intron retention which plays important role in gene regulation and disease pathogenesis.
After completion of my Masters I intend to start a PhD and continue to gain knowledge and skills in the data analysis techniques that help us to understand the biological function of the living organisms.

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

As I’m majoring in Biostatistics, most of my time is devoted to studying probability theory and statistics (both of those disciplines are from the applied branch of mathematics). Probability theory allows us to hypothesise about the frequency of the event occurrence and its underlying distribution. We can then choose a statistical model that allows us to evaluate the parameter that influence that event of interest. Given the prefix “bio”, the techniques that I study are more tailored to answering the research questions in the fields of public health, medicine and biology. The results of biostatistical analyses have a wide-spread impact as they provide answers to important questions regarding the population’s health, such as risk factors or genetic variants to certain diseases or an evaluation of a drug efficiency.

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?

I liked the diverse program of the conference. Bioinformatics is a very broad discipline and I haven’t been exposed to many of its areas or techniques as yet. BioInfoSummer provided an opportunity for me to be introduced to such fields like metabolomics, single cell omics, cloud computing to name a few. That helped me to form a bigger picture of the bioinformatics and how different techniques can be used study biological function and disease pathogenesis. The networking opportunities also played an important role in my decision to attend this event. From this point of view, the career session was one of the highlights. During the session I learned about Apr.Intern, the AMSI initiative for PhD industry placements – something that I will consider in future.

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

I used the conference as a platform to prepare my first ever poster presentation to introduce my research and the progress I’ve made so far. This was a great way to practice my communication skills as well as an opportunity to receive a feedback from the experts on my approach and methodology and discuss some challenges specific to my project. That helped me to identify how my question of interest ties up with the research previously done in the area and the opportunities for improvement.

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?

Receiving this grant was crucial for my attendance of the BioInfoSummer. As a student I live on a tight budget that does not leave room for travel. The fact that I did not have to worry about the travel and accommodation costs provided a piece of mind and allowed me to fully enjoy this learning experience. I heard about the grant from my project supervisor.

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 Grants make scientific meetings accessible to a broader cohort of researchers, especially to those who are in the early stages in their careers. Conference attendance is one of the major learning avenues for many of us as it provides us with the access to the new ideas, knowledge and especially networking with the industry experts.

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

Attendance at BioInfoSummer allowed me to set a benchmark for myself. Meeting other students and professionals in my field of interest helped me to get to know what they are up to and what direction they take in their research, more importantly how they do it, i.e what tools and resources they use. Through the discussion I identified the areas to focus on in the next year and set clear study goals.

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?

I think one of the main challenges that exists is the general view that maths education overseas is better than the one in Australia. Australian maths professionals across the board have to work in an environment where their achievements are compared with those made in Europe or North America. It is not that Australia is short of a home grown talent, however it seems that their achievements are less celebrated.

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

Looking back at my school years, I enjoyed the maths classes and wanted to have a job involving the elements of analysis. I did not initially consider computationally demanding careers and settled for a “safer option”, my Bachelor major was in Finance and Economics. Some years later I realised that I haven’t been fully using my abilities and set myself a challenge of establishing an academic career in biostatistics. I have met many wonderful people who have been very supportive and helpful during this journey. Their advice and guidance give me reassurance that I’m on the right track.

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

Since I’m in a very early stages of my studies, the road ahead looks very promising. I want to continue to work on establishing my research profile and hope to be involved in the projects that use mathematical methodology to further advance our knowledge about biological processes and function. I hope to have completed a PhD in five years time from now.

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

As I mentioned already, the COMBINE career session was one of the highlights of the BioInfoSummer for me. I was pleased to learn about APR.Intern, AMSI’s initiative to place PhD students with industry partners to help them to gain work-ready skills. Talking to the researchers who already have established their careers was also a very positive experience. I got to know that there is rarely a pre-determined pathways on how to become successful in the field. Each of them had their own unique journey to share which was very inspiring to hear about. One of the pathways mentioned was the state government-sponsored PhD programs.

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

BioInfoSummer is a good reflection of the bioinformatics as a discipline. It covers a great variety of topics on the fields under the bioinformatics umbrella, including the different –omic technologies and techniques for analysis of different data types. If you wish to understand which branch of the bioinformatics is more closely aligned to your personal interests or to receive a gentle introduction into the area you have interest in, I highly recommend to attend this conference.