Meet Melinda Ashcroft, a Computational Microbiologist interested in scicomm!

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

When I was in year 11, I heard about stem cells and how they could potentially be used to treat so many diseases and disorders, I was so fascinated and this really triggered my interest in biology. I then had a fantastic biology teacher who had a Ph.D. and he was instrumental in nurturing that interest. Thank you, Mr. Skye!

What is your scientific background?

I did a Bachelor of Applied Science (Biotechnology) and graduated in 2004. I then spent 7 years in a non-scientific, customer focused role before returning to postgraduate study in 2011 at the University of Queensland and obtaining a Master of Biotechnology. During my master’s degree, I did a number of short research projects both in microbiology and in melanoma genetics and realized that not only was computational biology possible but that I was also good at it. In 2014 I started a Ph.D. at the University of Queensland in computational microbiology where I work on bacteria that cause urinary tract infections.

Do you come from an academic family?

I am the first person in my family to go to university and the first person in my family to obtain a graduate level degree. I grew up quite poor, but had a lot of support from my family and school and actually originally entered university through an alternate pathway that was aimed at students in low-income families.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I have a number of projects as part of my thesis, but the overall topic is the genomics and epigenomics (DNA methylation) of uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) to define their virulence and antimicrobial resistance mechanisms. The lab I work with is primarily focused on UPEC, however, I am one of few in my lab to also focus on epigenomics. I chose this topic as it is a newly emerging field due to recent advances in sequencing technologies that have allowed us for the first time to define the methylation status of every single nucleotide in a bacterial genome. Using this information we hope to understand how methylation affects gene regulation – particularly that of virulence and resistance genes, where this research may one day lead to therapeutics targeting methylation in bacteria.

What is a typical day like for you?

Every day is different and it really depends on what stage of each project I am working on. However, I spend most of my days in front of the computer. I sometimes write code (in Python or R) to analyze or visualize some data, I’ll set up experiments to analyze my data. I do a lot of reading of journal articles related to my research and a lot of writing of manuscripts. I also regularly tutor subjects in bioinformatics, genetics, and microbiology.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome?

Like a large number of Ph.D. students, I suffer from mental health issues, particularly depression and anxiety. Some of this has been driven by the perfectionist in me, some from personal issues and some from the academic culture. On top of all of this, I regularly suffer from imposter syndrome. I realized that hiding my mental health issues was not the answer and so I am open about my problems and I am in therapy and on medication. Sometimes we all need to unplug, look after ourselves and take each hour, each day, each week as they come.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

In Australia, huge numbers of women undertake undergraduate and graduate degrees in biology, however, there is still a huge gap in the number of women in mid-career and late career scientific pathways. I have recently however seen an increase in the number of ways this is being addressed: through supporting families, women mentors, seminars and networking sessions for women in science and increased awareness of women in science on social media platforms. While this is mostly being driven by women, more and more men are actively and vocally supporting women in science and the many challenges we face. More education, government support and active support from academia and industry are needed to keep women in science.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

You are not only highly intelligent but very capable and able to learn anything you set your heart to. Don’t limit yourself and be kind to yourself. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health.


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