Organization for Computational Neuroscience (OCNS)
Computational modelling of complex living systems

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:

SUMMARY

Have you ever heard of flight simulators? Pilots use them to learn how to fly an aircraft and learn how they may need to react in the event of an emergency. What I do is very similar, only that instead of flight simulators, I write scientific software to simulate human brains that misbehave, or epidemic outbreaks triggered by new variants of concern before they happen.  The advantage of this computational modelling is that I can perform an unlimited number of 'virtual experiments' and predict the outcome of different interventions -- think drug delivery in the brain or lockdowns in Queensland.  I can also determine what is the best course of action. Doing such experiments in real life is simply not feasible. Through my work I have been able to help the research community to make discoveries faster and better; and, assist governments to make informed decisions that concern public health.

BENEFIT – A description of the benefit of your work to Queensland (max 500 words)

In 2020, due to the increased demand in understanding several dimensions of the coronavirus pandemic, I refocused my broad mathematical and computational modelling expertise to make a positive impact on our society. After obtaining funding (as Chief Investigator) from Queensland Health’s Health Innovation Research Office, I developed a Queensland specific computational model of COVID-19. Part of this results have been published in international scientific journals, and additional results will be soon published in including Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. This is the world's longest-running scientific journal. Through this work I have shared Queensland's unique experience with COVID-19 with the international research community, and have contributed to the evidence-based understanding of this pandemic. In the words of a reviewer "I think this is particularly interesting given the study setting because it was one of the few places with low naturally-acquired immunity at the arrival of Omicron". 

Perhaps the most outstanding benefit of my work to Queensland were the covid-19 modelling reports (one of them publicaly available on the state government website) of studies commisioned by Queensland State Government. 
Following our state-level modelling of reopening scenarios in the presence of the delta variant, we also modelled potential outbreaks in each Hospital and Health Service (HHS). We examined scenarios after reopening borders on 17 December 2021, approximately upon reaching the double-vaccinated coverage target of 80% of the 16+ population. From the simulations we estimate trajectories of cases, hospitalisations, ICU requirements, and deaths, as a function of age. This enabled the Covid-19 response team in Queensland Health to assess the need and timeframe available for expanding ICU capacity in each HHS.  

Additional benefits of my work include the establishment of new national collaborations (Burnet Institute, Melbourne), and international collaborations (Institute for Disease Modeling, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Health Division, US; and University of Copenhagen, Denmark).

During my time at QIMR Berghofer, I have supervised and trained students and research assistants in (i) modelling of disease, and (ii) brain modelling. In doing so I have equipped QIMR and Queensland with human resources who have highly-specialised computational modelling skills that are extremely rare. These are skills that are needed now and will certainly be needed in the future


ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)

Throughout my career in STEM, I have not only demonstrated the technical management skills to coordinate and lead projects with varied requirements in terms of milestones and time constraints, but also the ability to engage and communicate with researchers (in multiple languages), public officers and health professionals, across multiple career stages, and from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds. I have also had a very rich and diverse research trajectory in terms of geographic locations, and that has given me perspective, strength, and resilience. 

I come from Argentina, a low-income country in South America, where strong gender stereotypes are still pervasive. My own mum tried to discourage me from studying engineering because she thought I was signing up for a difficult life and female engineers did not get as many opportunities as men. She was not wrong about the inequality, I was discriminated for being a woman in a male dominated field more times than I care to count, but I took those problems as an invitation to shake the ground, and not to walk away. And I went on to become the first biomedical engineer of The National University of Córdoba (UNC), Argentina, which is the third oldest university of the Americas. 

From every adversity I have had to go under, around or through, I have learnt new ways to help others in similar situations. For instance, I used tools and resources from my own experience with workplace bullying to help my sister, who lives 12,000km away, with a situation of domestic abuse and violence.   

When I became a mentor of (female) early career researchers I understood that by being visible in senior positions, and being available for a chat sometimes, it encourages them to continue pursuing their passion, simply because they know they are not alone in their successes and in their struggles.     

Because I am an introvert, and the pandemic has only accentuated this trait, I have always struggled with public speaking roles. However, I now know, thanks to my mentees, that every time I take a leading role in an executive position, I speak at a conference, I show my face in a video, it is not only a personal success, but a wider success for the female community in STEM. 
I believe that my experiences, background, and determination will resonate with many other women and girls of this outstanding multicultural country that is Australia. And because of that, I think I can be a good role model for those people who identify as females and are aspiring to work in STEM. 

ENGAGEMENT – Describe any STEM promotion or engagement activities that you have undertaken, including both scientific and non-scientific audiences, particularly with women and girls (maximum 500 words)

I actively participate in high-level service roles in the research community. The position with broadest scope is my role as the current (2021-2023) Deputy Chair of the international program committee of the Organization for Computational Neuroscience (OCNS) – the largest society for computational neuroscience worldwide. I joined this position via a direct invitation from the vice-president of the board after voicing concerns about the lack of representation of female speakers,  and other underrepresented minorities in STEM. As Deputy Chair I have worked with the committee to develop criteria that will enable us to improve representation. For instance, I proposed something as simple as enabling community members to self-identify with the labels they prefer, and using those labels to foster diversity of representation, rather than having the members of the program committee guessing what a speaker’s identity may be based on name or home country. 
I am currently a mentor of the Australian Chapter of the Organisation for Human Brain Mapping. Three of my four mentees are women, and I must admit they chose me as their mentor. I believe that simply undertaking this type of activities is an act of encouragement. Indeed, this program’s main goal is for mentees to understand what life and career paths may look like by choosing mentors they identify with.  
As a non-native English speaker, I engage in activities that help me hone my communication skills, both written and oral. For instance, in 2018 I was part of a group of 30 female STEM ECR (selected out of 120 applicants across Australia) to participate in the Mentoring and Guidance in Careers (MAGIC) workshop, held in Canberra (Australian National University), where I received training in mentoring skills to empower other women in science, training in science communication, public speaking and building collaboration and networks from the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. This program includes a voluntary 3 year follow-up period, of which I participate, to provide feedback to the organisers on the impact of the workshops, and to become a new pool of potential mentors for future instances of MAGIC.
I have also volunteered my time, beyond my employment, to engage with the non-scientific community in general in the following roles: 
+ Invited program committee member, and an organiser and curator for the Data and Science stream at PyConAU 2017, 2019 & 2020, the national conference for the Python programming language, which is used across industry, government and academia. 
+ Organiser of PyLadies Brisbane, a local chapter of the international mentorship group with a focus on helping more women become active participants and leaders in the open-source community (and programming in Python). 
+ Volunteer/Mentor of high-school students through the Girls Programming Network (Sydney) where we taught computer science, IT & career development skills.
My participation in these events exhibits my recognition, willingness to be and engage as a role model for underrepresented minorities in science and technology within and outside the sphere of academia.

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