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18 Dec 2020

Meet the team: Bioinformatician Priyanka Pillai works with data to prepare for infectious disease emergencies

Ms Priyanka Pillai, Health informatics specialist from the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Disease (APPRISE) at the Doherty Institute

Can you introduce yourself and your role at the Doherty Institute?

I’m a bioinformatician with a background in software programming and computer science. I moved to Melbourne to study my master’s degree in bioinformatics, and one of the projects that I was completing as a part of my master was to investigate the onset of bacterial vaginosis and its impact on women's sexual health. As a bioinformatician, you generally don't get to focus on one area unless you pick a project like that. Working on that project made me realize that I really like infectious diseases, which is a funny thing to say.

While I was a student, I walked into the Doherty Institute building and always wanted to work here, however it didn’t happen right away - I moved to Adelaide for an internship in cancer bioinformatics before the health informatics specialist role became available at APPRISE. I was interested immediately because I hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was a cross disciplinary and I thought there would be a fair bit of learning through the position, which excited me. I applied, thinking: “Well, let's see what happens.”

I got the position and three years later, I’m still here and I’m still learning. There is a lot to explore in this space. My first two years here were focused on pandemic preparedness. When 2020 arrived, it changed things a bit, moving us from preparedness to response mode.

How has your work shifted to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

I've been involved in the First Few X (FFX) study as a data specialist, where the ‘X’ represents early cases of COVID-19. Funded by the Australian Government Department of Health, the project was set up to provide public health units across Australia with critical information to assist with early case and contact management for COVID-19. I’m essentially the data steward for that project. My role involves looking at the existing systems and processes for data collection and then trying to set up new systems - where needed - to capture the data for the project, making sure the data moves properly and all the ethical, legal and governance requirements are met to ensure the data is available for researchers. From here, it can then be used for modelling and other purposes.

The study has received $1.5 million in funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Partnership Projects scheme, and leverages an existing short-term study so that Australian and global public health units will have more information about the ongoing impacts of pandemic ‘waves’ of COVID-19. This space is really important and this project has been an excellent example of why public health and research should go hand in hand.

Can you provide an example of what your role does in this space?

My role involves finding out the national standards and national harmonised information and then making sure that all of the different types of data capture the same thing from different jurisdictions and can be integrated. Often, different states capture the data differently. My role is involved in normalising the data to ensure the different sources can come together. I also draft policies and processes for data release. I investigate what legislation applies, what levels of approvals apply and then a range of potential scenarios. I also design the end system. So, if we are getting all this data, what does the repository look like? What are the requirements? Essentially, data stewardship covers an end-to-end spectrum of information flow by providing inputs on informatics and data management.

What lessons have you learned along the way?

With our focus on pandemic preparedness and response, some of the concepts that we were working on were abstract. This year, everything has become a reality. I’ve been working with Professor Jodie McVernon and have seen the benefit of relationships that have been built over the years with decision makers and policy makers and their understanding of the value of research. This has been an excellent experience. It’s been so invaluable to work closely with her on a project like the First Few X study and see the management of public health and research.

You’ve recently been named one of Australia’s official Superstars of STEM for 2021-2022. Congratulations! Can you tell us more?

I'm super excited about the program. Superstars of STEM is an acclaimed national program that aims to equip women in STEM with advanced communication skills, providing them with genuine opportunities to use these skills in media, on the stage and speaking with decision makers, and I’m one of 60 women who’ve been selected for 2021-2022.

My career pathway has been quite untraditional - for instance, I don't even have a PhD – however I’ve gained hands-on experience and have learned a lot along the way. This opportunity highlights to others that there are untraditional academic pathways out there that are really important. I'm excited about that. I am very excited about engaging with local schools as a part of the program.

Do you have any thoughts or advice for somebody wanting to build a career in science?

I’d like to share a story about this. I work with a very talented colleague in one of my other roles, and this colleague is brilliant. I think she's a lot smarter than I am, I have no doubt about that. She's a programmer and she's also from a migrant community. When I saw the Superstars of STEM program, I told her that this should apply. She said: “No, I don't think I'm there yet. You should apply for that program.” I said: “No, I don't think I'm there yet. You should apply.” The conversation went on for a few minutes back and forth like that until we both stopped and said: “Hang on, probably a lot of women like us are holding themselves back thinking that they're not good enough for a program like that.” I decided to go ahead and apply for the program anyway, but I wonder how many women were holding themself back?

My advice is: Do not shy away from the learning process. Be open to the possibilities. I think being open to learning just makes life so much more interesting, because people are happy to teach you. I've also been lucky to find great mentors at different stages of their career and peer mentors as well.

Can you share a piece of work that you’re proud of?

I serve as one of the chairs for a Research Data Alliance (RDA) working group that was convened by the European Commission to develop guidelines and recommendations for data sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Australian Research Data Commons (ARDC), which is essentially the Australian version of the RDA, ran a story on me about the Australian research data and then another story after the work was formalized that was sent to all the decision makers, researchers, public health practitioners, and everybody who's associated with the response.

I’m proud of this work because of I was able to give significant input on an important piece of work that reached a huge number of funders, researchers and policymakers. It was also a humbling experience to connect with data experts all over the world who were essentially wanting the same things on a principle. It was comforting to know that even if we are all far apart, we are all in this together.

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