2020-21 Australian Science Policy Fellow: Åsa

Headshot of Asa Perez-Bercoff

 Åsa, Department of Education, Skills and Employment

What were you researching before you started as a Science Policy Fellow?

I was a research bioinformatician* working on a project funded through an ARC Linkage Grant for a collaborative project between researchers at the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of New South Wales and a Sydney-based yeast biotechnology company called Microbiogen Pty Ltd. We were studying the evolution of novel metabolic functions in yeast to understand which genes and other parts of the genome were involved in growth on xylose as the sole carbon source, with the aim of enhancing biofuel production without genetically modifying the yeast.

* Bioinformatics can be summarised as data science applied to solving biological problems and research questions. It involves the intersection of mathematics, statistics, computer science and engineering with biology, genomics and genetics.

What policy area are you working on through the Science Policy Fellowship Program?

I am working as a data analyst in a data science team at the Forecasting, Skills and Analysis branch of the National Skills Commission. It is a newly formed commission in the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. We work closely with teams involved in nowcasting and forecasting as well as policy development. Together our work contributes to form evidence-based policies. Specifically, the team I am part of works on bridging the gap between jobs, skills and education by trying to identify new and emerging jobs and the skills and education necessary for them. We have also been analysing the job market during the COVID-19 pandemic.

How has your research background helped you contribute to policy development?

My current work isn’t much different to what I was doing as a researcher, although the field and aims are new to me. I’m still doing data analysis and data science; and working in collaboration with other people with various educational backgrounds. I am still writing reports, reading research articles and working on research projects. The field has changed from evolutionary biology and genomics to the economy and job market. However, my bioinformatics research background is very useful for contributing to critical thinking, analysis and collaboration. I already knew several programming languages and how to work with big data and use computing clusters. It’s interesting to apply this knowledge in a public policy context: our team interrogates the department’s large datasets, extracts and quality controls data and then refines this into information that is passed to teams that develop evidence-based policies. The department can be confident about the integrity of the evidence base, as it’s reliably and carefully assessed by the data and statistical specialists in my team who have a remarkable depth of knowledge and experience, and many have research backgrounds. I am excited that my skills are contributing to this endeavour and I feel right at home in the team.

How has the program changed your career aspirations?

This Science Policy Fellowship Program is exceeding my expectations. We are provided with mentors at various stages in their Australian Public Service (APS) career. That is, we get a peer-mentor who is a Science Policy Fellow from the year before, as well as a mentor who is a higher-level manager. I am privileged to have three mentors who engage in very helpful discussions and are inspiring me to build a career as an APS data scientist, specifically in machine learning. If you had asked me a few years ago I would never have thought working the APS was even a career option for my skill set. As a relatively new arrival to Australia, and a new citizen, I never imagined my background in genomics and computing could be applied to achieving positive public policy outcomes of national significance. I’m highly motivated to do my best for Australia through my work.  

What is your favourite part about working in a policy role in the Australian Public Service?

My favourite part is working with wonderfully talented colleagues who are friendly and helpful, and who really care about their work in providing better services for the Australian public. I am also excited by the opportunities for self-improvement and career development.