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Ruby Dawnes

AMSI Vacation Research Scholar 2017-18

What is your role in the Mathematical Sciences?

I’m a postdoctoral bioinformatician in the Computational Rare Disease Genomics Group at Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford. My research focuses on deciphering the contribution of regulatory regions of the genome to human health and disease. These days, we are generating so much genomics data from human populations, robust modelling and statistics are required to analyse these data properly and understand their impact on human health and disease. My work right now is done using the UK Biobank, which includes Whole Genome Sequencing data from 500,000 people- almost 4 Petabytes worth!


As an AMSI alumnus, how did participating in AMSI programs support your career trajectory?

I took part in the VRS program right before my final year of my undergraduate maths degree. It allowed me to build confidence and a sense of independence applying the mathematical skills I’d learned to real research questions, which was invaluable as I went into my honours year at USYD and later on my PhD.


You are currently at the University of Oxford as a postdoctoral researcher and have previously attended Yale University as a Fulbright Scholar. Could you tell us a little bit about both experiences and how international study has propelled your career? 

My time doing research at Yale was transformative, especially after the difficulties and isolation of Covid lockdowns in Sydney. The Fulbright commission encourage using the time on the scholarship to travel and network, so it was a total 180 after doing the majority of my PhD research sitting alone in my bedroom! I visited researchers in Boston, Cambridge and Oxford, went to a conference in Colorado, and probably my favourite experience, attended the Yale Genetics Retreat.

I think the main thing the experience taught me was the importance and challenges of communication-be that communicating your research results, ideas, or aspirations. Now as I’m progressing in my career while at Oxford I’ve been coming to appreciate how crucial and foundational that experience was to push me out of my comfort zone and show me that at the end of the day you need the support and attention of others if you want to do impactful research. I think it’s an area I’ll have to keep working on for my whole career!


The AMSI Discipline Profile Report (releasing soon) mentions that the enjoyment of and engagement with mathematics matters, and mathematical achievement improves with students’ satisfaction with the subject. Unfortunately, by the time female students reach Year 8 in secondary school, no less than 57 per cent have developed a dislike for mathematics. What are some words of advice you would give high school students to encourage them to continue mathematics study?

I was very lucky in high school to have great maths teachers who made the subject accessible and enjoyable. Though I enjoyed maths in high school, especially the camaraderie of the small cohort from my year that did Maths extension 2 in the HSC, I was still totally undecided on what degree I wanted to do until I went to open day at University of Sydney. Dr Clio Cresswell gave a talk and sold me on mathematics instantly. Looking back it seems my choice to study mathematics at university came down to the chance impressions made on me by a handful of charismatic and intelligent women! I was sold on the degree based mainly on my natural proclivities but had no idea what I’d eventually do with it.

During my undergrad studies I gradually realised it was possible to make a career out of seeking knowledge and truths no one had pieced together yet, something that wasn’t even on my radar when filling out the form to enter university. I certainly didn’t know about the field of bioinformatics and genomics, which is in such an exciting place right now, and now I couldn’t imagine having ended up anywhere more interesting.

In retrospect, I would have loved to do more coding at university, as it’s something I enjoy immensely and is crucial in my field. I hadn’t even considered it at the time, and now I can’t think of why I didn’t, other than an implicit feeling that it ‘wasn’t something girls did’. Now I’m surrounded every day my super intelligent women coding and analysing big data, so that was clearly a very silly way to feel! These ideas and feelings are so pernicious and sometimes you can’t even name them. I just kept stumbling on and so far it’s been an exciting and fulfilling ride which I feel so privileged to be on- and I’m just getting started! You never know where mathematics will take you, and I think it’s crucial when you’re in high school and starting university to allow yourself to follow your curiosity and not worry too much about having it all figured out- you have time!


What do you hope for the future of mathematics in Australia and globally?

I think this question is a little above my pay grade- the only thing I can think of is I hope my little 13 year old cousin takes my advice and does her working out on paper, but I don’t think that’s what you’re getting at!

I do know in my field it still sometimes feels there’s a disconnect between people whose primary interest in biology and disease, and people whose primary interest is modelling/statistics itself. If I had to pick one that I’d say motivates me at the end of the day, I’d pick biology. But with the scale of the data we’re collecting and the questions we’re asking now, one can’t really be done without the other. I hope moving forward mathematics starts to feel more necessarily embedded in biology (sort of like physics)- to encourage the sort of rigorous dual training that is really required to tackle the big research questions of the era!


What are your hobbies or interests outside of work? 

I love reading novels, in particular the classics, and I try to keep up with playing the piano. I also love to try my hand at life drawing and since moving to Oxford I’ve taken up rowing with the Oxford Amateur Rowing Club- it’s great fun!

This interview is part of our AMSI alumni Series. If you’re an AMSI alumni, we would love to hear what you have been up to! Tag us in your posts on LinkedIn and X @DiscoverAMSI so we can share your achievements. Please contact us if you would like to be featured in our monthly newsletter:


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