Peter Hickey: “If it weren’t for my placement, I don’t think I would be doing research today”

Peter Hickey majored in Mathematics and Statistics from the University of Melbourne in 2009. Up until UROP, he was not sure about where his Bachelor’s degree would lead him. Ten years after his UROP placement, Peter reflects on what it meant for him and how UROP influenced his career.

Why did you apply for the UROP program?

A university friend had just done a UROP placement and said it was great, so I decided to apply. The fact that it was a paid placement was also very important for me, because I was supporting myself through university. Also, getting paid for your work makes you feel valued.

At that stage I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do. In fact, I nearly didn’t even go to university at all. I was considering studying music or joining the police force. I only started Mathematics and Statistics at university after a family friend encouraged me to. And although I was enjoying my degree, I didn’t really know what I would do with it at the end. It was thanks to UROP that this changed!

How was your UROP experience?

I did my UROP placement at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI). As soon as I started I was immediately working on a real project, mapping genes that were involved in rare Mendelian diseases and trying to understand what mutation in the genome was causing the diseases. I really appreciated that it wasn’t a toy problem, it was a real dataset, which made it very exciting and relevant.

But I had quite a bit to learn when I started! I was a Maths and Stats undergrad, so my Biology and Genetics knowledge was rather limited. I taught myself some concepts and I also received a lot of help from my lab colleagues. Most of them were from a similar background to me, so it was a great environment because we had a comparable process of learning.

The supervisor-student relationship is, for me,
the most important element for a great placement.

How was the relationship with your supervisor?

My relationship with Melanie Bahlo was fantastic. Melanie was very happy for me to knock on her door and have a chat whenever I got stuck – which happened a lot when I started! She understood that I wasn’t used to working with high-performance computing and was very patient and supportive. I appreciated that she took a lot of time to involve me in the the project but also in the whole lab so that I felt part of the research group. Since my UROP placement, Melanie has continued to play a very important role in my career and today is still a mentor of mine.

What was a highlight of your UROP experience?

At the end of my UROP I went to the 7th GeneMappers Conference in the Blue Mountains. I had never been to a scientific conference to present my results, so it was an amazing experience to conclude my placement.

Another highlight during my placement was the chance I got to present my results to clinicians, neurologists and people from other backgrounds, which gave me a priceless experience in explaining statistical research to non-statistical scientists.

How has UROP influenced your scientific career?

Doing UROP meant that now I have a scientific career. If it weren’t for my placement, I don’t think I would be doing research today. UROP was very influential and a real pathway for me.

My placement was so successful that I decided to stay in that lab and do honours in Statistics with Melanie. I then went on to do a PhD, also at WEHI. After my PhD, I moved to the US for a post-doc position at the Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, where I spent two and a half years working in a great environment, professionally and socially. After my time at the Johns Hopkins University I came back to Melbourne. Nowadays I work at WEHI in a service role within a multidisciplinary team where I can move between Statistics and Biology, a combination I started to discover during my UROP placement as an undergrad.

What do you think is the key to a successful UROP placement?

In my opinion, the key for a successful placement is having a good supervisor. In any lab there is a lot to learn so students need someone who is willing to dedicate some hours answering questions and guiding them. The supervisor-student relationship is, for me, the most important element for a great placement.

Would you like to become a UROP supervisor?

I would love to have a UROP student one day, it would be a way of paying it forward. I would like to give the same opportunity I had to a new person. And I would be inclusive, meaning that I would want to bring into research more women, minority groups from Australia and people from non-scientific families. I don’t have a lot of power to change the whole system but supervising UROP students can be good way to contribute to make science more inclusive.


Read more about the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) here.