School of Biomedical Sciences (QUT)
Genomics and mental health 

Are you eligible for Breaking Barriers Category:

SUMMARY

The rise of stress-related mental health issues in Australia has become a matter of public health concern. Although it is well-known that genetics and stress are risk factors in the development of mental illness, little is known about epigenetics. Epigenetic biomarkers act like ‘light switches’ that turn gene function on and off. Basically, these epigenetic biomarkers are chemical changes that happen above the DNA helix without changing the ‘genetic’ code of the DNA - hence the prefix ‘epi’ which means ‘above the genetic code’. These changes are important because they switch genes on and off, resulting in changes in proteins essential for brain biology, ultimately affecting mental health. Besides epigenetic and genetic risk factors, I also investigate the role of protective factors like social support and belongingness in mental health. I use a multidisciplinary (combination of techniques in psychology, genomics, and biostatistics) approach to better understand the complexities of mental health. 

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

The impact of my mental health research is multifold. In the short term, it can be published in higher education research journals and used to inform teaching/learning units to better understand the mental health issues of university students. In the long term, this research has implications for changes in university policy to embed mental well-being skills to create more inclusive, more supportive university curricula. A better understanding of the genomics of mental health can be transferred to better understand the mental health of other at-risk populations, besides university students. My Ph.D. project is fully funded by the Australian government’s Research Training Program (RTP) scholarship, which means that all my research is the intellectual property of my university (in Queensland) and will remain in the public domain. I support my research team members as we progress in our research. I network with researchers in other research institutes throughout Queensland and collaborate with them for research. By serving on the university student committees, I work with fellow researchers - men and women - to create supportive workspaces in STEM for our dedicated Queensland researchers. This should contribute to strengthening Queensland’s position not only as an international education hub but also as a world-class center for research. My university is the only university in Queensland that provides a non-partisan ‘Political pathways for women’ program, which I would like to attend after I complete my Ph.D. Women continue to be underrepresented not only in STEM but also in politics, which in turn, affects women (and men and children), STEM, university funding, and research funding - all of which I am passionate about. Queensland has provided me with the opportunity to pursue my Ph.D. dream as a mature-age student and a single mother of two children. I would like to give back to Queensland by doing everything I can to support my community.

As declared in March 2022,  through the 10-year Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) plan, the Australian Government is investing $28.1 million to establish a new agency, Genomics Australia, to integrate genomic medicine as a standard of healthcare in Australia. Through my own research and through collaboration with the premier research institutes in Queensland, I hope to ensure that Queensland researchers are very much part of Genomics Australia. It's quite inspiring that the chair of Genomics Australia, Prof North (a woman) is a pioneer in genomic medicine, the future of precision healthcare. 

ROLE MODEL – Why do you think you are a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM? (max 500 words)
The ‘leaky pipeline’ of STEM is a metaphor used to describe the ‘cracks’ through which women fall, when trying to pursue education or careers in STEM (making them ‘women outside STEM’?). While this may not adequately describe the gender biases that permeate not only STEM but also our society in general, the ‘leaky pipeline’ metaphor is one way to understand the barriers that women face in STEM. For example, when I competed in the annual PhD scholarship round and secured my Ph.D. scholarship, there were other women who applied for scholarship like me but did not get past the stringent selection process. Those women were, therefore, not able to commence their Ph.D. because they had no scholarship funding. I was happy to be part of a research team which has flexible work arrangements so that parents like me can continue to work in research, but a dear friend of mine dropped out of the Ph.D. program in her second year because she was unable to find the work-life balance that she needed. This inability to retain brilliant women in STEM fields is another common theme in STEM fields. Together, these barriers that prevent women from entering or persisting in STEM are the ‘cracks’ in the leaky pipeline (along with the loneliness of being the only woman in men-only STEM teams or on men-only committees, the lack of promotion of women into leadership roles, the bullying and the sexual harassment, along with self-inflicted ‘cracks’ like the imposter sydrome). 

Personally, I am fortunate to be mentored by a statistical geneticist (a woman) who reports to the Director of the Centre of genomics (another woman) who is a Distinguished Professor. However, I do recognise my ‘survivor bias’. Survivor bias is the logical error of overlooking people who did not make it past some selection process, because of their lack of visibility - these ‘invisible women’ who have no voice, include my friend who dropped out of her PhD and those women who did not get scholarship funding for their PhD proposals. I’m a good role model because I recognise my survivor bias, as a researcher who is able to persist in STEM because I have women mentors and women leaders in STEM to look up to, because I belong to a supportive gender-diverse research group, because I have the social support I need to be able to set my parenting worries aside and focus on my research. I’m a good role model because I understand that it is just as important to understand the biases and barriers that keep women outside STEM, as it is to celebrate the women who persist in STEM. I’m a good role model because I work towards and advocate for creating supportive, inclusive workspaces for women and men, in and outside 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)

In the first year of my PhD, I received the judges commendations for my three minute speech in the ‘Three minute thesis 2021’ competition as well as the one-minute video (both were on epigenetics and mental health) I created for the ‘Visualise Your Thesis 2021’ competition. I enjoyed participating in the contests because they challenged me to break down complex concepts in genetics into a narrative that would be palatable to a general audience. This gave me a chance to talk about my research to people who had never heard of genomics. The presentation “Biopsychosocial factors associated with stress among first-year university students” that I made on my research at the HDR (higher degree by research) symposium at QUT was an opportunity to discuss my research with other PhD researchers like me. I was able to answer their questions and receive good feedback when discussing my study protocol. When I distribute flyers to encourage participation in my research, I encourage questions and enjoy discussing the various aspects of my research protocol. I constantly learn from engaging with others on my research team as well as from receiving feedback from my mentors. I fell in love with R programming when I began my PhD and so I joined the R ladies, Brisbane chapter to network with like-minded people who use the software R for their research.  Along with the other ‘R ladies’, I celebrate the open-access philosophy of R that supports world-wide dissemination of a coding software that would have been worth a fortune if the originators had decided to license it privately. I also took up a part-time job as a coding instructor in Junior Engineers in Brisbane so that I could teach coding to budding young minds. Hopefully, the little girls and boys who learn coding with me will appreciate that coders come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colours.( When I buy birthday gifts for little girls, I buy them Lego Mechanix and 101 Science experiments books in the hope that this will spark a love for STEM in them. I encourage kids to use technology to enhance their STEM learning using sites like Mathletics and junior coding sites like juniorscratch.com).

My circles of friends - including my friends at the Brisbane Tamil school- and professional collaborators are my strengths. My research group, which is a culturally and gender-diverse group, creates a supportive workspace for me, fully understanding my limitations as a parent and supporting me through the Ph.D. journey. I am dedicated to passing this nurturing spirit forward so that women, no matter their family circumstances/race/age/financial circumstances, are able to pursue the STEM careers of their choice. 

VIDEO