The Mathematics of Success: an AMSI Intern journey

Written by Laura Watson
AMSI Media and Communications Officer

First published in the Business / Higher Education Round Table Newsletter, Issue 34 (November 2015)

As a child pouring over her favourite mathematics workbooks, in the same way her children devour Harry Potter, Dr Milica Ng never imagined her love for numbers would one day save lives.

Growing up in a mathematically minded family – her father and uncle are engineers – it was perhaps inevitable Milica (pronounced Millitsa) would follow in their footsteps. As a school student in Yugoslavia, she was encouraged by her ‘quirky’ and ‘entertaining’ teachers to join the school mathematics team from an early age. It was not, however, until much later that she realised it could be a career.

‘I just saw maths, computing and physics as fun. I liked the challenge of solving problems and being on the school maths team. It never occurred to me these skills could turn into a job, let alone a career. I didn’t understand how broadly they could be applied or the scope for personal development.’

Following the outbreak of civil war in the early 1990s, Milica left Yugoslavia to begin a new life in Australia. Settling in Adelaide, the then recent high school graduate decided to pursue further study.

‘My university application was originally rejected, as they were not familiar with my high school and had no idea how to interpret my perfect score. After much persistence on my part, I was finally admitted to the Bachelor of Engineer (Computer Systems) course . I was awarded a postgraduate scholarship and went on to complete a Masters of Engineering (ICT), during which I also studied most of an MBA.’

The Mathematics of Success: an AMSI Intern journey
Timing, opportunity and hard work pay off

She has since gone on to enjoy a busy and varied career including roles in IT, business and now bioinformatics. While acknowledging the advantages of specialising in an area with such wide-ranging applications, she credits much of her success to timing and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities. ‘Nothing I have done has been firmly planned, I have just been very fortunate with my timing and background. Early on in my career, I was able to take full advantage of the IT boom to launch an international consulting career. Now with international travel no longer an option, I have been able to take advantage of the biotech industry expansion.’

Now a Bioinformatics Research Scientist at global therapeutics company, CSL, the former AMSI Intern PhD student is using her mathematics, computing and engineering expertise to improve quality of life and treatments for patients with rare life-threatening conditions such as haemophilia.

Relishing the challenge of this latest career chapter, Milica is working alongside biologists to use bioinformatics analysis and systems pharmacology to identify new therapeutic targets and confirm effectiveness of existing therapies. With targeted treatments now a focus, she also helps identify those likely to respond best to new therapies. Milica has thrived in this ever-changing landscape, driven by the challenge of rapidly advancing research technologies and the need to work with increasing volumes of data. ‘I definitely enjoy the dynamic nature of the field. It is exciting to see the role of mathematical and other quantitative sciences evolve in medical and biological research with the rapid development of measuring platforms and technologies.’

Fast tracking a promising career

Milica first joined CSL in 2013, after catching the eye of the global therapeutics leader with her mix of mathematics and computer science. At the time they were working with AMSI Intern to recruit a postgraduate student with the skills to help overhaul their data storage and analysis systems. It did not take long for Milica to impress during her internship, with her work transforming CSL’s ability to quickly and accurately mine and analyse the large volumes of gene-sequencing data. This is becoming critical to CSL’s capacity to identify new drug targets and improve treatments for a range conditions including coagulation disorders (such as haemophilia) as well as neurological disorders.

Milica is thankful to AMSI Intern and the head start it gave her career. Not only did the program give her the chance to work on a real life industry project within her chosen field, but also the access to develop academic and industry connections she still considers mentors. People she credits with helping her achieve early success, including her academic mentor, Dr Matt Ritchie and her PhD supervisor, Professor Malcolm McConville.

‘AMSI Internship was a fantastic opportunity. At CSL I was able to work alongside high calibre medical researchers and increase my understanding of the field. At the same time I was getting real industry experience on a project with real impact and insight into the possibilities of informatics.’

As Australia’s leading postgraduate internship program, AMSI Intern provides a vital link between universities and industry. It has placed over 120 student interns across all sectors of industry, with many securing ongoing employment. Also a win for industry partners, its short-term project model has proven effective in providing research solutions to address current challenges. For Milica, it is this understanding of both academia and industry and unmatched access to multiskilled and speciality graduates that makes the program a stand out.

‘AMSI Intern is responsive to the challenges and needs of both academia and industry. It is not only helping close short and long-term skill gaps, but also continues to be instrumental in the creation of a much-needed pool of industry-ready Australian postgraduate students.’

The national program places post-graduates from across all disciplines within AMSI’s member institutions. In 2015, a new partnership strengthened links with eight leading Australian universities, six in Melbourne and two in Sydney. With a four-fold growth in activity, it is projected that annual placements will reach 1,000 interns by 2020.

The circle of life: from Intern to Supervisor

Milica is one of the program’s success stories, with her short-term internship turning into a successful first year at CSL and a bourgeoning bioinformatics career. A positive experience that, with the company keen to repeat the exercise, has opened the door for other students. Now employed full-time at CSL, Milica’s relationship with the program continues with the once intern now taking on the role of Industry Supervisor. For this challenge, she has drawn on her own intern experience and mentors as inspiration as she works to develop new talent.

‘I was very fortunate to have truly inspirational academic and industry mentors during my internship. I continue to learn a great deal about leadership from them, something that is invaluable as I take on this important role for other students.’

Now with experience on the other side of the fence, Milica is full of praise as she lists the many advantages the program has for industry. ‘When it comes to hiring researchers, such as bioinformaticians, AMSI Intern offers access to skillsets needed for the team. It is invaluable to have the opportunity to mentor students and ensure they are equipped to drive future innovation.’

The program also provides opportunity to focus on developing soft skills in candidates such as the capacity to work in multi-disciplinary teams – a critical priority for organisations such as CSL. ‘My team works alongside over 80 biological researchers, soft skills are as vital as expertise for the work we do. We need to know our researchers have the ability to communicate across disciplines, for example with biologists, so they can manage and progress projects.’

Given her positive experience as an intern and supervisor, it is not surprising Milica is keen to recommend AMSI as a safe and supportive space for PhD students to develop skills for the future.

‘An AMSI Intern placement offers great benefits for students regardless of whether they plan to pursue academia or an alternative career path through industry. To be able to broaden your skills while contributing to real projects that have impact for industry and communities, while also networking with industry and academic leaders is invaluable.’

A bright future but still no finish line

As well as the importance of opportunity and timing, Milica’s story highlights the many doors mathematics and other STEM studies can open for students. Her journey demonstrates the power of programs such as AMSI Intern, which create career pathways and bridge the divide between academia and industry. It also reminds us of the enormous contribution women have to make within mathematics, IT and science. With the number of girls and women pursuing high-level mathematics still trailing their male counterparts, role models such as Milica are more vital than ever.

When asked about the legacy she hopes to leave, Milica is adamant it is too early in her career to give an answer. At this stage she is still content embracing the challenges and opportunities that have accompanied her move to bioinformatics. She is quick, however, to point to the careers and legacy of those she finds inspirational.

‘It is definitely too early to think about a legacy at this stage of my career. I do, however, find inspiration from the careers of other researchers. For example, Terry Speed’s work at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute is very inspiring, both what he has done within bioinformatics and more broadly. I am still at a very early stage of my career, perhaps in 20 or 30 years I will be in a position to answer this question.’

As Australia’s leading postgraduate internship program, AMSI Intern provides a vital link between universities and industry. It has placed over 120 student interns across all sectors of industry, with many securing ongoing employment. Also a win for industry partners, its short-term project model has proven effective in providing research solutions to address current challenges. For Milica, it is this understanding of both academia and industry and unmatched access to multi-skilled and speciality graduates that makes the program a stand-out.