We absolutely love April’s story .. a truly remarkable woman! April has recently uprooted her life in the USA to follow her dream of being the first American player to be drafted to the AFLW. In her “daytime” role, she works as a bioinformatician at The University of Melbourne. She holds a Master of Science in bioinformatics and Bachelor of Science degrees in biology and microbiology. She also volunteers with Footys4All organisation which provides local and underprivileged youth opportunities in sport. #womeninsport #womeninSTEM

Introducing .. April

Name : April Lewis

Roles : Senior listed player, Essendon Football Club VFLW // Bioinformatician // Volunteer

April’s journey (as told by April) :

I am living in Australia, first as a footy player, second as a career bioinformatician, chasing the ultimate dream of being the first American player to be drafted to the AFLW.

Essendon Football Club, and the opportunity I have earned to play in the VFLW, is the reason I now live in the footy capital of the world, Melbourne. As a player, it’s my role to improve my individual skills as well as actively contribute back to the club with a team-first attitude and mentality. This comes in the form of working on my craft, maintaining elite physical fitness, abiding to high nutritional standards, mindfulness, and bringing my drive and passion through everyday actions. More specifically, athletics at this level requires preparation, taking care of physical needs, extra skills sessions, higher training intensity, strength and conditioning, good recovery habits, and a supportive mental health environment. Individual player responsibilities and self accountability allow a supportive team culture, where we can work together to reach a common goal.

After arriving in Melbourne, late in January 2019, I had to find a way to support my footy lifestyle, so I quickly found a job at the University of Melbourne. Researchers within the School of Computing and Information Systems were awarded an Australian Research Council project on analysis of biological database quality. Research in biomedicine is underpinned by massive biological databases containing billions of records. Data quality and curation, to date, is largely a manual process. Automated and efficient methods are critically needed. My role is to assist in research and the development of computational tools to assess biological data quality, utilizing network analysis and database record connectivity. The development of these tools will enable database users to make evidence-based decisions in biomedicine for more reliable inference. More simply, I combine efforts in coding, statistics, and biological knowledge to solve complex problems.

I’m a believer that it is not enough to just exist within a community. Right now, I’m a visitor in the country, however, I still think it is imperative to give back in a positive way. I contribute my time and support as a volunteer ambassador with the Footys4All organization, which provides local and underprivileged youth opportunities in sports.

What do you enjoy about playing elite level footy? What do you enjoy about your career in STEM?

I love playing footy because it challenges me, like no other sport ever has. It takes both brute strength and meticulous technique. Footy feels both raw and refined because it demands both physical and mental presence. Along my football journey, I have met some of the most caring and supportive individuals because the culture surrounding AFL is familial and inclusive for everyone. Playing footy has been an outlet that brings balance of sport and work into my life.

On the career front, I always loved both math and science. Being a successful bioinformatician requires a very unique combination of technical skills, knowledge across both subjects, and the ability to create efficient solutions to problems that arise with the advancements in technology. The most exciting part of my role is the problem solving. Bioinformatics is a field that allows for creativity and challenges the unknown.

Regardless of which hat I’m wearing, stagnancy in life is my biggest fear. Everyday is a new opportunity to learn, grow and challenge myself to reach new limits.

How did you get into STEM and being from the USA, how did you find out about AFL? :

After finishing undergraduate studies, I thought I had retired as a collegiate track athlete. I did not really have a clear life plan. At 22 years old, I was unable to find a job with B.Sc. degrees in biology and microbiology, and the opportunity for graduate school presented itself. The following two years I spent working on a M.Sc. degree in bioinformatics because I understood the future of science to be deeply rooted in technology. Learning to code was the absolute most valuable step I have taken toward career advancement. The skills acquired and coursework during my Master’s set me up for successful internship placement and afterward, a career in bioinformatics. I have held roles in industry, academia, and as an independent contractor.

It was only after I had finished school, and started working full time, that I found my passion for exercise again. Rather than going back to competitive running though, I started weight lifting. I had recently relocated to Seattle, Washington for a career opportunity in cancer research, and prioritized finding a new gym to lift. It was at this new gym, where a personal trainer introduced me to AFL, merely because I am tall and looked strong. At 27, I stumbled into the Seattle Grizzlies Australian Rules Football Club, as part of the United States Australian Football League (yes, the USA really has AFL!) and began my journey toward elite football!

Have you won any awards or have you earned any specific recognition? :

As one of the most decorated players in the United States AFL and British Columbia AFL, I have received several awards:

Essendon VFLW senior list
USAFL National Team list

USAFL Paul Roos Best and Fairest (Division I)
USAFL Western Regional Best and Fairest
CrossCoders International Rookie Camp Participant
AFLW Draft Nominee
Seattle Grizzlies National Tournament Most Valuable Player
Seattle Grizzlies Vice Captain

USAFL Western Regional Best and Fairest
Seattle Grizzlies Best and Fairest
Seattle Grizzlies Rookie of the Year
Seattle Grizzlies Most Courageous
Seattle Grizzlies Vice Captain
Stumptown Rookie of the Tournament

My career success is measurable based on publications and presentations. I have had the honor of speaking at several conferences, highlighted by two talks given at a biotechnology conference hosted by Los Alamos National Labs. I have also participated in the International Conference for High Performance Computing and various agricultural research conferences within the United States. Since 2015, I have been involved in 11 research publications, held speaking engagements, and sat on a university advisory board for biotechnology education programs. While in Seattle, I was an active member of the Association for Women in Computing. Even looking back to graduate school, I held a leadership role as the president of the bioinformatics club, where community engagement in science was a priority focus.

My two life passions are sports and science. When being recognized in either area, I feel it is vital to do what I can to encourage future generations. I plan to continue advocating for women in sports and women in STEM. At the end of this month, I will attend an event hosted by The University of Melbourne celebrating women in sport and science, “Change Our Game: levelling the playing field in sport”. Medical doctor and world champion cyclist, Dr. Bridie O’Donnell, will be the keynote speaker. Events like these, allow like minded women to network and support one another in future endeavours.

What advice would you give to other women wanting a career in STEM or competitive sport :

Being a footy player and bioinformatician is a unique life combination…however, if someone desired to follow in my footsteps, I would recommend reading as much as possible, studying hard and taking value in education, challenging oneself to learn new skills everyday, prioritizing health (both physical and mental), and after all the hard work remember to breathe and relax. Life really is what you make it. The more work you put into accomplishing something, the more enjoyable the successes. It is important to set goals, huge goals! It is also important to have realistic and measurable checkpoints along the way for self accountability. Unfortunately, failures will be a part of the process. Learning from those failures, and determination to overcome adversity will provide the strength required to reach new levels of success. When moments of success happen, it is so important to celebrate them!

Women are still wildly under-represented in both elite sport and STEM fields. I would encourage anyone with interest in either, to chase their dreams, because that is what having a fulfilling life means to me. Find things that inspire or invigorate passion, and then aim to be the best at those things.

Do you have a favourite saying or quote?

I have experienced many failures, trauma and loss, and disappointments in life. In those times of adversity, or when I need courage and strength I remember a D.H. Lawrence poem titled “Self-pity,” I first read in my 8th grade literature course.

“I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.

A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”

I have this tattooed on my inner bicep, and physically hold these words close. Regardless of things that happen in life, I need a reminder that sometimes circumstances are completely out of my control. My reaction in life is more important in defining my character. Having doubt and dwelling on past misfortune does not contribute to forward progress. The words are inspirational, and allow me to move forward, to be my own cheerleader and to be proud of my accomplishments despite life’s curveballs.

Any other comments you’d like to share.

One way I develop personal strength, is by learning to thrive in uncomfortable situations. Currently, I am living through one of the most difficult endeavours to date. I have uprooted my life in Seattle, moved to Melbourne without knowing anyone, all for a football dream. I have sacrificed everything that was familiar, including my family, partner, friends, dogs, job, and possessions. I am putting in the hard work, but the uncertainty of my football future is daunting. I look forward to the opportunities ahead, and everything Australia has to offer!

I’m sure you’ll all agree with us .. April is one inspiring woman!!!!!! x

(Image : Gallivant Photography)

Stacey Head