Name: Jody Fisher
Degree & graduating year: B.Sc.Hons (Mathematics) 2015, PhD 2021
Current position & organisation: Flinders University, postdoctoral research associate
Nationality/cultural identity: Australian
Country you now live in: Australia
Motto you live or work by: Be kind and try your best
Why did you choose to study Maths at Flinders University? What attracted you to Maths?
I’ve always enjoyed mathematics. I had an interest in ecological modelling, particularly within marine systems, and Flinders had a strong marine sciences programme as well as the mathematics degree so it was a natural fit. I started in a general science degree, but decided to specialise in mathematics by the end of my first semester. Over time it was clear that the stronger my mathematical skills were, and the more knowledge I had across different areas of mathematics, the better off I would be. Of course the more I learned, the more I appreciated the elegance of mathematics, and the more I wanted to learn!
What is your favourite memory from your time at Flinders, or your favourite lecturer, and why?
My two favourite lecturers ended up becoming my PhD supervisors: Jim Mitchell from biology, and Jerzy Filar from mathematics. Jim could always see the big picture and his ability to find links between ideas inspired my passion for science. Jerzy could always break a problem down and methodically work through to a solution and, with a cheeky glint in his eye, would throw in a subtle joke whenever we were stuck on a challenging detail. I still remember the content of both of their classes many years after graduating because they were simply great fun to be a part of.
What did you do in the year immediately after graduating?
I worked as a research assistant for a few months before starting a PhD in mathematical biology with Jim and Jerzy as my supervisors. Ultimately, I picked up a third supervisor in Boston, Nima Dehmamy, who is a physicist! I was fortunate to receive a range of scholarships, from Fulbright, the Australian Government, the Playford Trust, the Australian and New Zealand Applied Mathematics Society as well as Flinders University. The first year of my PhD involved a lot of travel to conferences and time visiting research groups all around the world.
How did your Flinders Maths degree prepare you for your current role?
I am now a postdoctoral research associate in the Flinders Accelerator for Microbiome Exploration (FAME) laboratory, led by Professors Elizabeth Dinsdale and Rob Edwards. The maths degree gave me quantitative and technical skills which directly map to my current work – developing models of microbial systems. However, it also taught me how to be methodical and patient when tackling difficult problems.
How do you use Maths in your job? Do you find that you still apply your learning at work?
I use it every day. Some of what I do is statistical analysis of data, but I also work with researchers in the mathematics department on theoretical problems. Ecological systems are complex systems, which makes them difficult to understand. We study microbial communities through genomics data, and I work with ecologists and computational biologists to get an understanding of how these systems behave in the real world. Then, I liaise with mathematicians about ways to make our theoretical models more biologically realistic. It would be impossible to do my job without a mathematics degree.
What would you say to someone who is considering maths or is not sure maths is for them?
It’s a great degree to have. Mathematics degrees give skill sets which are highly valued in research or industry even if you don’t end up working as a mathematician. It opens doors because not many people have the degree but it is useful in multiple industries – I am frequently contacted by recruiters. Even if you aren’t sure, commencing a maths degree shouldn’t limit you because first year maths topics are useful for any area of STEM, and you have space for electives. So, there is nothing to lose by giving it a go, but there is a lot you might gain for the future.
How does your current career compare to the career/job aspirations you had as a child?
That is a difficult question because my aspirations changed week to week! I always enjoyed learning new things, problem solving, various creative endeavours like music and drawing, and had an interest in the natural world. Working in an interdisciplinary research area ticks all of those boxes, even though I never would have thought about it as a career when I was young.
How did your time at Flinders University change you both professionally and personally?
I was fortunate to have a lot of opportunities which allowed me to travel to different countries for conferences and research placements; travel is great to get a better understanding of and appreciation for other cultures and perspectives. I am still in touch with friends all around the world. Obviously, my quantitative and problem solving skills have improved, which has given me the chance to pursue a career in science.
What has been the greatest accomplishment of your career to date?
Forming meaningful collaborations which link specialists from mathematics and biology.
Who has inspired you the most in life – personally or professionally?
My older sister – I could not have had a better role model growing up.
What are your future goals and plans?
Stay curious, keep learning, and do my best. With that approach, I have found that it is easier to come up with new ideas, which is critical for my work, as well as be open to opportunities that might not fit with more traditional career planning.
What does being a Flinders University alumnus/alumna mean to you?
I had no hesitation in taking a job as a research associate after my degree, because I have so many positive associations from my time studying here. I had extraordinary mentors who have shaped my thinking and development not only as a scientist but as a person. It has been a real privilege to start sharing my training and experience with the next generation of students coming through, some of whom like me love mathematics but are interested in using their mathematical skills within non-traditional research areas.