A glitch in the matrix – meet Sara, the woman using maths to understand bacterial evolution

By Charlotte Beloe

Dr Sara Loo

Most of us have a preconceived idea of maths as a dry, difficult subject… but is it really? Not according to Sara Loo; Research Associate in the School of Biotechnical and Biomolecular Science (BABS) and one of our Early Career Researcher Champions.

Sara’s research is in mathematical evolutionary biology. “Though the emphasis is more on the maths,” she clarifies. “One of my current projects is looking into bacterial evolution, so how pathogens mutate during infections.”

So what does that mean? “When a person is sick they often are infected with a number of different strains of bacteria. But as the epidemic spreads from person to person we don’t often see as much variation as we do in individuals,” explains Sara. “I look at how selection pressures can act on pathogens and their ability to spread.”

Where does the maths come in? Well, Sara’s work is all theoretical and computer-based. “I work on simulations of what might happen under different circumstances,” says Sara. “I’ve been playing around with simulating a nucleotide sequence and [seeing] how it may change under different selection pressures,” she continues. “My work brings together mathematical and evolutionary techniques.”

Interestingly enough, science was not Sara’s intended career path growing up. “I always wanted to be a journalist,” she muses. Both her parents are journalists by trade and she admits this may have guided her ambitions. However, going through school Sara found that she was good at maths and in fact quite enjoyed the logic of it. Following her new-found passion, Sara did a degree in Medical Mathematics at the University of Wollongong. Her interest in how maths applied to sciences fuelled her desire to learn more and pursue her current career.

Through her education and research Sara has found maths to be rather different to what we might assume. “I think people don’t realise how creative [maths] can be,” says Sara. “It’s just about trying to solve problems in as simple a way as possible, and often that requires a lot of creativity.”

Sara’s five seconds of fame – getting her graph retweet by a Kardashian

So what is life like outside of work for Sara? Well she has quite a number of interests including listening to music, playing the piano, running, reading novels, thinking about culture and… data visualisation? “That’s actually my little claim to fame,” laughs Sara, and it’s true! She and her brother analysed Kanye West’s lyrics and links to spirituality… which was retweeted by none other than Kim Kardashian!

So what does the future hold for Sara? Well in the long-term her passion for journalism hasn’t left her. “I would really like to get into science communication; I really enjoy writing.” she says. It’s a pursuit she has already started on, being one of our program blog editors and writing a number of articles herself.

Sara’s enthusiasm for both maths and science communication is obvious as we chat. It is this passion for learning and teaching in people such as Sara that will encourage the next generation of mathematicians and help people understand how fun and creative maths can be.

Follow Sara on Twitter

Mad materials science

By Sara Loo

Caitlin Healy is a lecturer in Materials Sciences and one of our Early Career Researcher Champions. She remembers always being interested in science, and certain moments stick out for her as having cultivated this passion for science.

Thinking back on her days as a budding little investigator she says, “I have very vivid memories of sitting in class and making mazes out of aluminium foil and paper, and then you got a light bulb and a battery and connected it to each side until you found the right pathway.”

She recalls her Year 2 teacher who taught this electricity lesson as one who “just ran a whole bunch of science experiments.” Not only that, but “for some reason [her] tiny little school (that was Kindergarten to Year 2 [with] probably 30 kids in the entire school) got an outreach science program to come in. So [they] just had an entire day of science activities.” She says of those activities, “I think it brainwashed me.”

This excitement for discovery through science stuck with Caitlin throughout the years. While deciding what to do after high school, she attended the UNSW Open Day and it was there that her interest in engineering and materials sciences was sparked. “You can do everything from producing samurai swords to biological implants to surfboards.”

Throughout her undergraduate degree, she was a persistent and passionate learner, leading her to “bug [her] lecturer” for an honours project researching metals. Her research has since focused on high-entropy alloys. This is a new field of research where compositions of metals are close to equal concentrations. While initially thought to result in brittle, undesirable alloys, what results from these compositions is “very simple structures, solid solutions and… better properties; better corrosion resistance, better strength.”

One exciting discovery that has led to continuing research was one she happened upon by accident during her doctoral research. One day, while mixing some mostly silver elements, Caitlin’s alloy came out a surprising burnt-orange-golden colour. Since then, she has been trying to alter the colour of precious metals in a range of ways, and is now working on a colour palette for these alloys.

Caitlin working alongside one of her colleagues in the lab

There is a lot of interesting science behind the compositions of these alloys, and they may have a number of commercial and decorative purposes. In the field, research continues to try to understand the mechanical properties of these alloys. For example, can UV light reflect off these metals? One such fascinating example from the field involves forcing a metal alloy to have no structure by cooling it rapidly. This process turns it into a glass. While golf clubs have been made out of these metallic glasses to make golf balls go twice as far, don’t expect any winnings from this – they have been banned in competition.

This combination of mixing substances and contraband materials might conjure the image of Caitlin standing in her laboratory, lab coat on, surrounded by beakers and bubbling cauldrons of liquid metals. If it does, the Year 2 version of Caitlin who was captivated by batteries and aluminium foil might be beaming with pride – she has always “wanted to be a mad scientist.”

Though the madness is hidden during our casual chat over coffee, her enthusiasm for being a scientist is evident and infectious. It is this infectiousness I’m sure she will take to her students as she continues teaching, supervising and inspiring other budding (mad) scientists.


Follow Sara on Twitter