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A chance discovery leads to a lifelong career

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program uncovers new paths for talented young students

Despite having dedicated his career to bioinformatics for more than a decade now, as an undergraduate mathematics and statistics student, Dr Peter Hickey had never even heard of this area of research.

Dr Peter Hickey ©  Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research

Given the bioinformatics field combines his two interests of biology and statistics, Dr Hickey is confident he has stumbled upon his dream career. “I’ve not really sought out other careers beyond bioinformatics, because I’ve really found that’s what I enjoy,” he says.

Dr Hickey has been a trailblazer throughout his education and working life. He was the first in his family to attend university and so had little idea of where his degree would lead professionally. He was also among the first students to undertake a computational placement through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program, also known as UROP, at the country’s oldest medical research institute, WEHI. The institute has played a major role in his study and work over the years: he did his honours and PhD there, and returned again to work in 2018, remaining ever since.

Through UROP, talented young scholars have the opportunity to undertake student placements in biomedical research. The chance to be immersed in real-life research scenarios under the supervision of a research scientist gives students a head start in their further education and subsequent work opportunities.

UROP is where Dr Hickey first learnt about the bioinformatics science sub-discipline. He discovered that the field offered a compelling mix of statistical work, opportunities to learn about other areas of science, and prioritised collaboration over individual pursuits. He found this unique combination appealed to him and played to his strengths.

The salary afforded to him by UROP meant he could quit his retail job stacking shelves and instead do paid work that was aligned to his education and future career aspirations. This ability to focus so intensely on science led to excellent opportunities: he moved to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, USA to complete a Post Doctorate Fellowship.

Dr Hickey is now Senior Research Officer at WEHI, leading their bioinformatics team for single-cell genomics and spatial transcriptomics in the Advanced Genomics Facility. In short, he provides hundreds of scientists with the sophisticated technologies they need to understand genomics data - that is, information hidden in DNA sequences. His job is to help design experiments and then to analyse and help interpret large datasets. He also develops statistical methods and software to summarise and understand genomics data.

Dr Hickey has participated in UROP on both sides of the equation: he says applying to be a UROP supervisor was a fantastic opportunity to help upskill an undergraduate student. “I knew that I’d like to repay the favour of having a UROP student come through, because of how important it had been to me.”

His career satisfaction is at an all time high, and he has no plans of changing it up anytime soon. “I still really love it; I could be doing it for another 10 or 15 years.”

“My favourite part of my job can be summarised in a quote by the great statistician John Tukey: The best thing about being a statistician [or bioinformatician] is that you get to play in everyone’s backyard.”

Participating in UROP is a fantastic way to discover your dream career path. It is open to high-performing undergraduate science students who are interested in fast-tracking their education and work opportunities.

Find out more about applying to the program.

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