Please tell us about yourself

Irene was well advanced in her Biomedical Science Honours degree when she encountered the field of bioinformatics. This is an area of research that applies computational and statistical techniques to biological data such as genetic data.

“Data produced from biological research requires innovative algorithms and good computational power to process. Imagine all the raw biological data being dumped into a funnel with processed data coming out the other end, and the diameter of the bottom of the funnel is being controlled by computational techniques. The better the computation, the greater the diameter and the more raw data can be interpreted into usable data to drive research.”

Irene’s eyes were opened to the possibilities of Computer Science, and she decided to add some new capabilities to her skillset.

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How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

“Studying a Graduate Diploma in Science in Computer Science was a no-brainer for me after finishing my Honours programme. It offered me the type of skills I needed to pursue a career in bioinformatics.”

After graduating, it was time to look at the employment market. Irene found her Computer Science background made her much more attractive to employers.

“Having a degree in Computer Science opened many more doors compared to having a degree in Biomedical Science only. Knowing how to program and understanding computing principles really put me at a competitive advantage.”

What do you do?

Today, Irene is working with a leader in New Zealand’s biological science and agri-technology sectors – LIC. Their vision is simple: To improve the prosperity and productivity of our farmers.

The Research and Development group at LIC, where Irene works, is specifically focused on using science and technology to come up with innovative solutions for LIC’s customers. The research is computationally intensive and requires the collaborative effort of computer scientists, biologists, statisticians and mathematicians.

The group aims to improve the accuracy of genomic selection in dairy cattle. This is accomplished by using associations between variations in DNA and traits of economic value to farmers. They’re also looking at developing new models for interpreting data on-farm, which will help farmers do their jobs more easily and efficiently.

“I love working in a team of accomplished scientists where we share ideas and stimulate each other’s thinking,” says Irene. “We tackle interesting bioinformatics problems; it feels like I’m solving novel puzzles every day. Also, being able to contribute to the dairy industry in New Zealand is pretty neat!”

Irene is excited by the way Biology and Computer Science are continuously working together to open up new possibilities. For example, advances in technology have greatly reduced the time and cost needed for genome sequencing. This means scientists are able to collect sequence data for more and more individuals, which leads to higher accuracy and more predictive power.

How does your work benefit the community?

“Having an abundance of sequence data from both diseased and healthy individuals can help scientists better understand diseases and find variations in the genome that cause diseases. An application in human genetics is personalised medicine, where therapeutics can be targeted to an individual based on genomic data.”

Your advice to students?

If you’re contemplating a career in Computer Science, Irene has some advice.

“Develop a passion for learning; keeping up with the latest developments is important in the ever-changing world of science and technology. Engage with lecturers and students and make good use of all the resources offered.”

“Given the pervasiveness of computer science technology in society today, I believe that there are excellent opportunities for Computer Science applications in many disciplines – and especially in the science sector.”

“Be curious, be creative, and you might be surprised where a degree in Computer Science can take you.”