Mummies can be scientists: Meet Dr Elizabeth Boakes

Dr Elizabeth Boakes (@BoakesE ) is a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at UCL. She took part in Soapbox Art & Science London 2017 where she gave a presentation alongside Danica Desilva entitled: “Mind the Gap… in the ecosystem”






I have a vivid memory of herding my children out of the house one summer afternoon in 2011, en route to the first Soapbox Science event.  We met our neighbour on the doorstep who politely enquired where we were going.  My daughter, ever keen for an opportunity to chatter, explained in detail about Soapbox Science finishing up by announcing proudly, ‘My Mummy is a scientist.’  These words have stayed with me.


Soapbox Science speakers never fail to awe me and that first event certainly set the bar high.  I remember my then PI, Professor Georgina Mace, gamely dealing with audience heckling whilst discussing consumption versus population.  One speaker held aloft a knitted breast, another explained the science behind pruning plants.  Most impressive of all, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock gave her talk holding her toddler on her hip!  I was blown away by the scientific competence and confident engagement styles exhibited by all the speakers.  However, rather than being inspired to emulate them it just deepened the gap I felt between their brilliance and my mediocrity.  Never could I follow them onto a soapbox.


(photo: Lizzie at Soapbox Art & Science London)


Yet one summer afternoon in 2017 I found myself herding my children out of the house to another Soapbox event, this time as a speaker.  Admittedly I was sick with nerves and it was only the heavy giant Jenga that I was lugging along that prevented me from running fast in the opposite direction.  What had happened in those intervening years to persuade me to put my unconfident self through this?  Well, my daughter’s words had resonated with me.  I wanted to show other girls that Mummies can be scientists.  To my surprise it was actually quite fun.  And like Dr Alderin-Pocock I managed it all with my son on my hip!  So if you are thinking of becoming a speaker, or becoming a scientist, or simply considering studying science, please please go for it.  Take it one step at a time and you can reach the Soapbox!

(photo: Painting by Danica Desilva)

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Ask as many questions as you can: Meet Helen Hugh-Jones and Rehemat Bhatia

Helen Hugh-Jones (left) (@nells_originals), Nell’s Originals, &  Rehemat Bhatia (right) (@rehemat_), University College London are taking part in Soapbox Art & Science  in Thamesmead, London on 16th September 2017. You can catch them giving a presentation called: “Fossil plankton and the big climate stories they have to tell!” Here we catch up with them about what they have been working on together.


SS: How did you get to your current positions?

Rehemat Bhatia: I completed my undergraduate MSci Geoscience degree at Royal Holloway (University of London). Alongside my undergraduate degree I also volunteered at the Natural History Museum in London, with a volunteer scheme called V Factor, which at that point was collaborating with an EU funded paleoclimate research project called Throughflow. This research project introduced me to the world of palaeoclimate and made me realise I could apply my favourite geological facet (geochemistry) to fossil archives. I subsequently interned with another Throughflow researcher in Kiel who was working on plankton geochemistry during the summer of 2012, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to apply for a PhD with a similar focus

Helen Hugh-Jones: By a rather roundabout loop really! I read Classics at Cambridge, then an MA in the history of 15th century Florentine art at the Courtauld – so I don’t actually have any fine art or illustration training. I was continually drawing though: if you look at my old homework or lecture notes, they’re covered in sketches. My Latin teacher at school used to give me bonus marks for illustrating my translations! It was only when I had a few weeks off between jobs that I started drawing properly again, and I now split my time between an interior design firm and doing freelance illustration. I’m currently working on a few children’s books by different authors, and have just completed a big re-branding for an international music school.


SS: What, or who, inspired your career choices?

RB: I was always fascinated by the natural world growing up, whether it was seeing mountains on trips to visit family in Canada or hanging at the beach and looking in rock pools. I guess it wasn’t until I was a teenager that my interest really started to develop. My geography and geology teachers at school were always really enthusiastic and I was captivated by all the concepts they taught me. They also made me realise that geology was something I could turn into a career.  The Throughflow researchers who I volunteered and interned with as an undergraduate were also incredibly encouraging and supportive, and great mentors too.

HHJ: I first really started using watercolours in earnest when I was about 15. My teachers were very supportive and encouraged us to use the art rooms whenever we wanted. I was very inspired by artists like Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

RB: I work on fossil plankton made from calcium carbonate, called foraminifera, which live in the oceans all around the world. The chemistry of foraminifera skeletons record the environmental and seawater conditions that were around them at the time they lived. We can use these chemical signatures to reconstruct past climate conditions like sea surface temperature and continental ice volume. The fact that a single celled organism that’s really no bigger than a sand grain can record all of this is something that never fails to amaze me. (Pic: a species of planktonic foraminifera under a light microscope. credit Rebecca Brownlow (RHUL))

HHJ: I love seeing how commissions come to life. People sometimes have quite a set idea of what they want from me, whether it is a book or a painting or a logo: this can be hard to meet their wavelength, but it’s incredibly satisfying when they’re really pleased. On the other hand, some people have no idea what they want, and offer a completely blank slate. It really helps to have a good relationship with the client. I love how calm drawing and painting makes me feel, especially if I feel secure in the scope of the project, and how I can while away hours without really noticing. And then when something is printed or created with my designs or drawings on it – the feeling is amazing!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?

RB: I really enjoy taking part in science outreach events, and Soapbox Science is one event which really helps to tackle some of the biggest problems in the geosciences – the lack of women and diversity. There are many conferences I’ve been to during my PhD where you see so few women and the environments aren’t super multicultural either. Being a woman of colour I feel like it’s crucial to be an advocate for both of these causes, and I hope the amount of exposure that Soapbox gets will help to contribute towards them and inspire more young people.  Being able to showcase the world of microfossils to the general public through artistic means is also awesome – they’re so beautiful and definitely deserve more exposure!

HHJ: I think it’s incredibly important that we start to see the Arts & Sciences as integral, complementary skills, not antagonistic fields that have nothing to do with each other. Historically, you could happily be a person of Science and of Art  – yet nowadays there seems to be little crossover. Soapbox tackles many different issues, from outreach to gender equality, never mind the fascinating work that will be presented, and I’m glad I can contribute to its ongoing work in the community.


SS: What ideas are you working on together?

HHJ: Rehemat’s PhD focuses on tiny tiny fossilized organisms called foraminifera. We thought it might be fun to bring these to the big page. Using her scanning electron microscope images, I then sketched them out and worked up a sort of storyboard that would illustrate some of the things she wanted to say in the talk. We’ve touched on a few different aspects of the history of these fossils: the story of the great explorer ship HMS Challenger; the wonderful Scientist-Artist Ernst Haeckel; and how scientists today use them to show the story of climate change.

RB: As Ernst Haeckel is a SciArt micropalaeontology icon, I was super keen for our presentation to include his artistic style. Microfossils from all groups are stunning, but I decided to focus my presentation around foraminifera as these are the group I research. Helen has produced some fantastic sketches based on the ideas we discussed together – I can’t wait for everyone to see them!




SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

RB: Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re researching and look after yourself. Practice your writing skills regularly throughout your PhD too – it’s really hard to get back into this if you have had a long break from it. But most importantly, in your final year, don’t lose that enthusiasm that you first had when you started your PhD – you set out to do cool and exciting science and if you’ve made it this far, you can totally do it!

HHJ: (I’ll change this slightly – I don’t have a PhD!) Work hard, persevere and be persistent at what you’re [drawing] and look after yourself – this all echoes perfectly with what I would recommend to young illustrators. You have to really love it and to throw yourself in, to open yourself to new ideas and techniques, try new things, read around the subject, talk to people, write stories, read stories, go to exhibitions… For me it’s perfect as I can work on my creative side parallel to my work in the office – it can get lonely by yourself too!



SS: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?

RB: Definitely give it a try! By collaborating with researchers in different disciplines, you can broaden your knowledge and learn how to explain scientific concepts in ways you’ve probably never considered before. Helen has definitely asked me some questions that I had previously never thought of, which is great prep for my PhD viva!

HHJ: It’s fascinating! This is one the first projects I’ve done on a subject I know so little about beforehand, and I feel I’ve learnt so much from it. The nature of Rehemat’s work has also made me study other artists who’ve worked on similar scientific projects, which has opened my eyes to new and exciting ways of depiction – not to mention the science itself. It’s definitely worth asking as many questions as you can, and getting to know the subject on more than just a superficial, visual level: not only does it help form your images better, but the act of drawing also becomes more engaged and interesting too.



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It’s important to embrace a different perspective: Amy Knight and Sophia Goldberg in conversation with Overleaf

Soapbox Art & Science London 2017 is being sponsored by Overleaf. Here they catch up with two of the speakers from the event- artist Amy Knight (left) and scientist Sophia Goldberg (right), who will be giving a presentation together entitled: “How does Einstein’s v Newton’s gravity effect structure on the largest scales: from clusters of galaxies to the universe” on Saturday 16th September in Thamesmead as part of Thamesmead Festival.


Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.
Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research. Read our interview with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien to find out more!


Overleaf: Thank you Sophia and Amy for answering these questions for us! First of all, how did you get your current positions?

Sophia Goldberg: I’ve always been passionate about Physics and Mathematics, so when it came to choosing what to study at university Theoretical Physics was the natural choice for me. It was great being able to study one of the most fundamental sciences. My masters thesis was in complex networks, which was really interesting but I felt that I had unfinished business with Theoretical Physics. I loved studying General Relativity – the maths behind it was elegant and beautiful – and understanding our Universe, how it works and evolves, has always fascinated me so I decided to specialise in cosmology and gravitation at Queen Mary University of London, where I’ve been studying for my PhD.

Amy Knight: I am currently studying MA Art and science at Central Saint Martins, I came to do this after studying an Undergraduate in Mathematics at King’s College London and a Foundation in Art. The MA combines my lifelong artistic endeavour with my natural ability for scientific thinking.


O: What, or who, inspired your career choices?

AK: Whilst studying for my A levels, I read a book by Alex Bellos called ‘Alex’s adventures in numberland.’ It was whilst reading that I was able to visualise Mathematics as beautiful images within my mind and appreciate it with a logical and aesthetic viewpoint -this encouraged me to study math at a higher level. It was then, in my first term at University where a professor exclaimed ‘Mathematics is Art, if you don’t believe that you should leave now’ that I realized I could marry my interest in Art with my scientific thinking together and go on to pursue the connection of Art and Science on into my MA.

SG: I shared a love of all-things-science with my parents growing up! I’m very fortunate to have parents who encouraged me to pursue my passion in STEM subjects: getting me maths books and taking me to the Science Museum on countless occasions. My mum’s a strong role model for me: she’s taught me resilience – something you need lots of in research. Over the years my supervisors, teachers, colleagues and friends have also been a great source of inspiration for me, showing the diverse and exciting paths a STEM career can lead to. The great motivator for me though, has to be an ever-curious itch of wanting to know how stuff works, not always being satisfied with the first answer that comes my way, and being my own hardest customer to convince.


O: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SG: We’re living in a fascinating era in theoretical cosmology where we’re not only asking interesting and important fundamental questions, but it’s also necessary that we find the answers to them for observations. It’s at this intersection where my research sits: how does Einstein’s general relativity affect the largest structures we see in our Universe, like clusters of galaxies? Creating a mathematical framework which formalises this regime is exactly what I’ve been doing during my PhD. With ever-increasing technical advances in observational cosmology, it’s pressing to characterise the effects of Einstein’s general relativity, rather than just Newton’s theory of gravity, for up-coming high-precision observations. (Pic: Me on a deserted train in Uyuni, Bolivia, with Einstein’s field equations graffitied onto them. These are the equations I use every day!)

AK: The most fascinating aspect of my work as an Artist is being able to choose the topic that I wish to research and develop into a physical piece. I can carefully attack topics that may be a larger issue and in doing so, raise an awareness to a group of people who may not access this information by themselves; this includes the ideas of science. It’s about communicating and being the mediator between two realms that do not usually integrate.


O: What attracted you to Soapbox Art & Science in the first place?

AK: I was attracted to Soapbox because I wanted to get a more scientific grounding within my Art Practice. I also wanted the opportunity to raise the profile of Art and Science as a subject of its own – it is my intention to persuade as many people as possible that they are not so different disciplines. It has offered me a fantastic opportunity to be inspired by real scientific research which will continue within my MA and art career.

SG: I’ve been so lucky to have such great support in pursuing a STEM career but I know that’s not the case for everyone; I’m hoping to reach out to people who think: ‘it’s not for me’. I think exciting public talks on science, where you can keep the content and drop the jargon, can be really effective at communicating difficult scientific concepts. However, everyone thinks and learns differently, and I think that including art with Amy will help bring complex ideas home and allow people to understand scientific ideas in a new way. Additionally, including art in Soapbox Science will hopefully mean that a more diverse set of people will come to the events. (Pic: Me recording for an outreach video I made on explaining integration by parts!)


O: What ideas are you working on together?

SG: Amy’s idea is to use audience participation, so she’s making a piece that’s hands-on. Two (lucky) people will represent our Solar System and galaxy, the Milky Way, by wearing hi-vis jackets and helmets (with our Sun and galaxy printed on it). We’ll then ‘build’ a Solar System from planets, and a galaxy from stars, which we’ll stick onto the hi-vis jackets. This should be fun for the kids (and grown-up kids!), but also should help me explain the vast array of gravitationally bound structures that exist in our Universe on gigantic astronomical scales.


O: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

AK: As someone who is yet to reach this level but certainly aspires to it, I would say, choose a subject which you know you can sustain interest in; truly love what you are researching.

SG: My advice is: you belong in this space, so if you want to pursue an academic career, go for it! Surround yourself with role models, people who do things the way you want to do them and to whom you can relate. Join your local women in STEM group too, it’s great for support and inspiration!


O: Overleaf is a champion of collaborative writing – in your opinion, why is it important to have collaboration as a part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who are looking to increase collaboration?

SG: Collaboration is key in science for several reasons. Firstly, everyone brings different knowledge and skills to the research problem at hand, so a once unsolvable problem can quickly turn into a solvable one. A diverse collaboration should mean that although your skills may be similar (e.g. all experts in differential geometry and gravitation), your experiences and ways of problem-solving may be different, leading to really original ideas and results. Finally, working on a project alone can be pretty solitary, but also ineffective: with two people working on a project the time taken to do the research is often cut by more than a half. For researchers who want to increase collaboration I’d encourage them to attend workshops, meetings and conferences that interest them: it’s a great way to meet other researchers and, followed up with an email, often leads to new collaborations.

AK: I second Sophia!


O: What would be your recommendation for working with people from other subjects and disciplines?

SG: There is normally some overlap material in different fields for interdisciplinary collaborations. When approaching a problem I’d recommend first covering some commonalities before diving into the complex intricacies relevant to individual fields.

AK: I would highly recommend interdisciplinary work, it is something that feeds a lot of my research and ideas. It is important to embrace a different perspective and to be well informed and this can be achieved by meeting and working with people from other fields of research. (Pic: My with piece ‘Mr Higgs Hat Stand’ – it’s inspired by CERN)






Since 2014, our overall whole initiative is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council. We are very grateful for their financial support of the new Soapbox Art & Science projects.

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Soapbox Art & Science London is being sponsored by Overleaf: We catch up with Software Developer Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.

Soapbox Art & Science London is being generously sponsored by Overleaf. We catch up with one of their Software Developers, Hugh O’Brien about supporting science outreach.


Overleaf is a London-based startup, supported by Digital Science and Bethnal Green Ventures, and founded by two mathematicians who were inspired by their own experiences in academia to create a better solution for scientific collaboration and communication.

Overleaf is building ‘Google Docs for Science’, making science and R&D faster, more open and more transparent by bringing the whole scientific process into the cloud, from idea to writing to review to publication. Overleaf has 750,000 users who’ve created more than 10 million documents, and is being used in hundreds of universities worldwide for teaching and research.



Hugh, what is your background and how did you come to join Overleaf?


I’ve had a somewhat indirect route to Overleaf. I have a BA in psychology from Trinity College Dublin, with the original intention of working in clinical practice in some capacity. While there I got involved in publishing the Irish Student Psychology Journal. There we published peer reviewed research and reviews from psychology students across Ireland. The interest in publishing lead me to try a career in publishing. I worked at at PLOS for 2 years on their Biology and Medicine flagship journals. The consistent push inside the company to use technology to simplify academic publishing and improve scholarly communication increased my interest in what other paths I could take. It became increasingly clear that was the direction the industry was moving in. After spending a couple of years learning to code outside of work I left publishing for an MSc in computer science at Imperial College London. While working on my masters research I started working part time at Overleaf, went full time when I finished and haven’t left since. Being a pretty heavy user of the platform during my masters and seeing how the company operated it seemed like a good way to bring together my interest in scientific communication and my new skills.



What attracted Overleaf to Soapbox Art & Science?


Overleaf is always looking for fun ways to interact with and reach out to the scientific community. Soapbox Art and Science is a great way to do that! Bringing together women scientists and the community in a fun and interactive way. We’re very happy to support your mission “to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists.”




Why is it important for researchers and companies to make their work accessible to the public?


There are so many good reasons but let’s just name a few obvious ones.

For a start, people will be interested if you give them the chance. At public science events, I’ve always found the unexpected bits of research the most interesting. Things that have made me go, “oh, I didn’t realise anyone was working on that!”. A well curated explanation can really catch peoples’ imaginations. This is especially necessary for publicly funded research where, to be fair, they paid for it; however, let’s not forget the marketing opportunity from making what you do sound cool. Certainly this can be easier or harder depending on the field, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying to explain their work.

It’s also a great opportunity to re-assess your own work. Tunnel vision can be a real problem in science (and software development for that matter). Having to re-explain your work to someone other than the editor and expert reviewer at a journal has a value. It forces you to take a step back and see a bigger picture once in a while.

The public can also be a good collaborator in some cases. In the same way it can be good to get input from other fields, a new perspective or opportunity could come from a source you haven’t thought about yet. You won’t know until you get your research out there in a different way.



Overleaf is making it easier and quicker to collaborate, write and publish academic papers. If you could change one other thing about academic culture what would it be?


From working in the industry and from talking to active scientists it would have to be the peer review process. There’s a lot of interesting innovation going on and people experimenting with different ways you could change it. Post publication peer review, publishing the reviews and commenting systems are all steps in the right direction I think.

A lot of work needs to be done and there’s probably no one easy fix, but I find that to be a common issue stakeholders have with the current publishing system. The right combination of solutions is probably the one we haven’t thought of yet.


The London event will see art mix together with science and Overleaf champions collaborative writing. Why is it important to have collaboration as such an integral part of your work and have you got any advice for researchers who want to work with people from other disciplines?


Collaboration is really at the core of what Overleaf does. In my experience the best parts of the platform are the ones that have had insights from different parts of the team. We have a team with a lot of different backgrounds. I’ve found it does mean you have to work more on communication but the end product is generally improved. Having completely switched academic disciplines myself I think the biggest challenge is knowing how to explain your point of view to those with a completely different background. Getting this right is also probably the most important step for collaborating with different disciplines in research. Think about how to explain your research to those without a deep prior knowledge, understanding is the first step to collaboration.


And finally, if you were stood on a Soapbox telling people about your what Overleaf does, what is the one thing you would hope they would take away with them?


Overleaf aims to ease a common pain point in science: writing collaboratively. The science itself should be hard, everything else is a problem waiting to be solved.


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Science can take you to unexpected places: Meet Millie Watts

Millie Watts completed a geosciences degree with the Open University whilst qualifying as a teacher, followed by a MSc in Environmental Dynamics and Climate Change at Swansea University. She has been doing her PhD since 2013 at the National Oceanography Center, focusing on dating prehistoric underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf, specifically the Storegga Region. She will be giving a talk at Soapbox Science Brighton on Saturday 29th July called: Will climate change cause more tsunamis in the UK?” 



SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

MW: My research has focussed on accurately dating a series of massive underwater landslides from the Norwegian continental shelf. The reason this is interesting, is that these landslides are capable of generating tsunamis that can reach the UK. We know that the most recent of these slides, the Storegga Landslide, which occurred 8200 years ago created a wave that was over 25 m high in the Shetland Islands, and still 5 m high around Scotland. Not only is this a fascinating field to work in, but it also involves a wide range of field and lab work that has revealed some fascinating new information about these slides. The sediment cores I work on, were collected during a month-long expedition to the Nordic Seas, and document a history of these landslides over the last 125,000 years. Through understanding the timing of these slides, and the conditions within the ocean at the time they were triggered, we can estimate the future risk to the UK population.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

MW: My mum: she taught me that I could do anything I wanted and always encouraged me to pursue my interests. She taught me to work hard at school, and how to handle difficult subjects, and study effectively. I am forever grateful that she made learning fun when I was young, and that I have been able to pursue a PhD because of her continued support.


SS: How did you get to your current position?

MW: My route to a PhD was far from traditional. I did very well at school, and started a degree at university when I was 18, but had to drop out before finishing. I found a teaching role at a local college, and finished the last two years of my degree at home through the Open University, I studied hard, and finished two years of study in under 18 months, at the same time as completing a part time teaching degree with Plymouth University, and teaching A-Level geography and Geology full time. It was a very challenging two years, but I had huge support from my mum, and my employer, and I really wanted to finish my first degree and go on to get a PhD. Whilst I was teaching, we had visitors from a number of universities come in to speak to the students who were applying through UCAS, and one of them was Dr. Geraint Owen from Swansea, we were chatting and he encouraged me to apply for an EU funded Masters at Swansea. I was fortunate enough to be offered the Masters and the funding, and once I returned to studying, I was even more convinced that a PhD was the right path for me. I started looking early, and one came up working on the Arctic Landslide Tsunami Project. Natural disasters have always been a particular area of interest for me, and this PhD was focussed on Quaternary dating methods applied to the risk of tsunamis affecting the UK. It is a fascinating topic, and one with a significant real world application, and that is what has kept me interested throughout the course.


SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work? In particular, how does maths play a role in your research?

MW: My PhD has been very multidisciplinary, the wider project is led by my supervisor, Professor Peter Talling, a sedimentologist, but crosses the fields of civil engineering, risk management, marine geology, palaeoclimatology, ocean modelling and geophysics. My background is geology and Quaternary science, but through my research group I have learnt a lot about modelling, fluid dynamics and statistics. Maths, in particular statistics has been a key component of my work, I use statistics to show that my conclusions are robust and significant. My personal research makes use of a variety of methods for dating sediments, radiocarbon, tephrochronology and biostratigraphy, and each of those dating methods has a different estimate of uncertainty. The use of Bayesian statistics takes my collection of data points, and combines them to form a meaningful conclusion. In this case, being able to accurately date natural disasters that happened thousands of years ago, and use that date to understand what may have caused them.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton? 

MW: I enjoy outreach, I think it is an essential component of research, and more PhD students should engage with events like this. Being able to justify your research and give interesting presentations to your peers is an essential skill. But it is not the same as being able to enthuse younger students, or the general public about your work. Both types of communication are important, and both take practice. I have been fortunate to have been generously sponsored by the school of Ocean and Earth Science, and given some time to develop a new activity, that should be a lot of fun – just hoping it doesn’t rain!


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

MW: Thrill.


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

MW: More post-doc opportunities with longer term contracts. Short term roles are the norm for the first few post doc positions, and it can be hard to manage relocating every year or two.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

MW: Find something you love, and will continue to excite and interest you. Build a suitable network amongst colleagues and supervisors, and use the resources and opportunities available to you at the university. Whether it is additional training, demonstrating for undergraduate modules, accompanying fieldtrips or organising conferences. Experiences are valuable, and will help you develop a broad skills base during your PhD.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

MW: Science is fun, it is surprising, it takes you all over the world to unexpected places. Science isn’t just maths, physics and chemistry, science is also icebergs, fossils, mud, volcanoes, and helping people understand the planet we live on, and how to adjust to a changing environment.

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Make your ideas stronger by talking about them: Meet Bridget Penman

Dr Bridget Penman is an assistant professor at the University of Warwick. She has a DPhil from the University of Oxford Department of Zoology and a BA in Biological Sciences from the University of Oxford, and was previously a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford. She studies the co-evolution of humans with parasites, viruses and bacteria in order to help us understand infection and combat disease. She is taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

BP: Why does one person get sick from a virus, whilst another doesn’t notice they’re infected?  The answer may well be in their DNA.

I try to understand these differences in susceptibility to disease, and how we can use this information to better fight infections in the future. To do this, I study how human genes have evolved in response to infectious diseases. I get to think about the most fundamental process in biology: evolution by natural selection.  I also think a lot about human health, which it’s hard not to find fascinating!

My day to day research involves using computers to simulate human populations living with infections. If you’ve ever enjoyed playing a simulation-based computer game (e.g. SimCity), you’ll know how quickly you can become absorbed in a simulated system, making changes that you think will have one effect, and being surprised when something else happens.  My research is full of similar moments.  I test whether the biological processes I have simulated give rise to the patterns I expect, or something even more exciting.


SS: How did you get to your current position, and what inspired you to pursue a career in science?

BP: When I was studying biology at university, I met Professor Sunetra Gupta, who uses mathematical models to understand infectious diseases.  Sunetra is a hugely inspiring scientist, who gave me the chance to do a PhD in a diverse team of biologists, mathematicians and computer scientists.  I am now working at the University of Warwick, in a similarly interdisciplinary environment at the Zeeman Institute

For me, being able to apply mathematical techniques to biological questions was just as important as my interest in human disease in leading me to where I am today.  However important the scientific question, it helps if you enjoy the techniques you are applying as well, and can take pleasure in developing and excelling at those skills.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place? 

BP: Challenging stereotypical ideas about who scientists are and what they do is a great idea, and I think it’s wonderful that the event has become such a success over the past few years.  Even though the thought of getting on the soapbox is daunting, I also want to see what sorts of questions people ask on the day, which I hope will help me understand how best to communicate my own scientific ideas to the widest possible audience.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day

BP: Adrenaline!


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia or research?

BP: Take up every opportunity you can to present your research to others: volunteer to give a lab meeting talk; apply for an oral presentation rather than a poster presentation at a conference.  I had to be encouraged to do those things myself, but I’m so glad that I received that extra push.  Every time you have to talk about your ideas, you have to refine them – so your ideas get stronger, and each time you present your work, you build up the confidence you will need to successfully apply for grants and jobs.


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Be passionate, work hard and persevere: Meet Pallavi Anand

Dr Pallavi Anand is a Lecturer in Oceanography at the Open University, Milton Keynes. She is an ocean geochemist, who enjoys looking at plankton shells and thinking about new ways to use locked chemicals in shells and sediments to unravel past climate. She is also interested in investigating the impact of increase ocean acidity on plankton’s ability to make shells in the present environment. Here she talks about her inspiration and passion for science. She is taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.


SS: Pallavi, how did you get to your current position?

PA: I finished my university education and was lucky to get a PhD fellowship in Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, India. There, I was fortunate to receive a Nehru Fellowship for doing a PhD at Cambridge. Following on from my PhD, I did my first postdoctoral research at Free University, Amsterdam and had my first child. I took a short break and then was successful in getting a part-time research position at the Open University. My advisor moved to another institute, which meant that there was a vacancy at the OU and I got the job.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

PA: If I think about it then first point of inspiration came from my surrounding environment and friends in India. As a little kid I was wowed by functioning world around me. I asked a lot of questions (my mum says). What is going on inside living creatures including plants? What makes them grow and how? When and how did it all start? As a result: more I thought, more I asked and more I heard, more I was amazed!

Other than my own curiosity, I was lucky that my parents gave me the freedom to choose where and what to study – this may sound alien in the western world but there are many, especially girls, in this world who do not have choices. I will give you one example that springs to my mind. I took an exam to get a University place in India and my score gave me two choices: I could study botany, zoology and chemistry at the Women’s College or at the Faculty of Science I could study geology, geography and chemistry, with was considered a less prestigious combination of subjects but at a co-educational institutional (both men and women). My dad strongly encouraged me to go to the Faculty of Science and I chose that path. Though my favourite subject was originally chemistry, I fell in love with geology in my first two years and decided to pursue it for my final year. My decision was enthusiastically supported by my close friends and some professors, which gave me much needed encouragement as I was going to be the only girl in the year group studying geology. My parents were surprised but happy with my decision to pursue geology. My dad’s initial encouragement meant that I tried a new subject and made a career in it.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

PA: It is amazing that how much variety we have in everyday life at work. No two days or even two half’s of the day are same – thanks to emails. Every piece of research that we do throws so many unknowns and surprises – it is fascinating! I get to meet people and learn every day, opportunity to inspire and mentor next generation of scientists and pass on the knowledge I have through my experience or gather every day.

I was thrilled to find out last year that I will be working as part of the OU team of academic advisors with the BBC in the making of the “Blue Plant II”. This gave me the opportunity to share my research and knowledge about Oceans to wider public through this programme. Keep an eye for the amazing series of the “Blue Plant II” to be aired in autumn.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

PA: Soapbox Science offers the opportunity to connect to the public to share our enthusiasm of science and hopefully inspire someone. We all are naturally a scientist but we do not realise it. Soapbox Science allows us to talk to people and make everyone realise their hidden interest in science. I want everyone to know how fascinating oceans are in that they are not only responsible for regulating our planet’s natural system but also responsible for every second breath we take. Isn’t this mind-blowing?

We scientists, have to remember to reach out to people and it reminds me of the quote from Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne): “You cannot stay in your corner of the Forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.” I suppose, through Soapbox science I will come out of my corner of the forest


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

PA: Fun!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

PA: Freedom to innovate and discover rather than demand for publication numbers.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

PA: Be passionate, work hard and persevere.

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Give yourself the chance and who knows where it might take you: Meet Stacy Phillips

Stacy Phillips (@shtacy_phillips) is a 1st year PhD student at The Open University, Milton Keynes. Stacy is a geologist and geochemist who is investigating granites in the Himalaya, trying to find out how these rocks formed and what that can tell us about how the Himalayan mountain chain came to be. This is a photo of her carrying out fieldwork in May 2017 in eastern Bhutan. Come along to her Soapbox Science talk in Milton Keynes on 29th July 2017 to find out “How to make a mountain”.





SS: Stacy, how did you get to your current position? 

SP: After doing my BSc. at the University of St Andrews I ended up on the other side of the Atlantic studying for my MSc. at Memorial University of Newfoundland, where I was looking at the formation of granites in the Mojave Desert, California. I returned to the UK and worked as a Data Analyst, monitoring petrol tanks for leaks, but the call to research was too strong to ignore and I applied for a fantastic project at The Open University, where I started in October 2016.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

SP: I’m a naturally curious person so I’ve always been attracted to science. Understanding the natural processes that shape our landscape initially drove me towards physical geography. I was then lucky enough to go to a college that taught A-Level Geology, and it was that course that got me hooked! And then it was during my undergraduate studies that I found out about all the weird and wonderful places you can travel being a geologist and I knew that it was the career for me.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work? 

SP: I find it incredible that I can take a fist-sized sample of rock, crush it down into fine pieces, extract tiny minerals that are smaller than a grain of sand, look at the chemistry of those minerals and be able to understand how an entire mountain belt forms. Being able to investigate processes across all of those scales is pretty mind-blowing really!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place? 

SP: I love talking about my work, partly so I can drop into the conversation that I’ve been to the Himalaya! But mainly I enjoy the challenge of convincing people that rocks are cool an interesting! I want people to feel as passionately about geology as I do. I also think that geology can come across as a bit dry and unimportant to the general public. But in reality, if you can’t grow something you have to dig that material up out of the ground, so if we’re using the earth’s natural resources then rocks should be really important to the general public. And that is a point I hope I can get across from atop my soapbox.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day 

SP: Excitement (+ a tinge of fear!)


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

SP: The prospect of having to work in a “Publish or Perish” culture where papers are the currency is really daunting. I know that in order to have a chance of getting a post-doc I’m going to need to have published by the time I finish my PhD. Although this would obviously be the goal anyway, the pressure is going to start very early on my career, and is only going to get worse as (or if!) I progress.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia or research? 

SP: I don’t have anything specific to women, as gender shouldn’t matter in academia (although unfortunately it often still does). But my advice to anyone pursuing research is to try for everything that you can, just give it a go! A funding proposal, a training opportunity, job applications, you just have to go for it. Even if you think you’re underqualified or you won’t get it, what is the harm in trying? You definitely won’t get it if you don’t try at all. I’ve had my fair share of rejections for jobs and positions already, but I kept going and eventually I ended up landing my dream project. Give yourself the chance and who knows where it might take you! The Himalayan mountains maybe?!

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Understanding chemistry and contaminated land: Meet Sabrina Cipullo

Sabrina Cipullo is a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher in Environmental Science at Cranfield University. She has a Masters of Environmental Science and Biotechnology from the University of Milan, and a BSc in Biotechnology. Her PhD focuses on environmental chemistry and toxicological approaches to site assessments. Her research focuses on better understanding the sources of pollution and the environmental fate of complex chemical mixtures.  Meet Sabrina at Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Sat 29th July, 12-3pm talking about soil science, contaminated land, and the Chuck Norris Effect.


Soil Science, Contaminated land – Detoxified!

What do you do with your plastic bottle or soda can when you’re finished with it? Do you throw it in the trash bin, recycle it, or simply drop it on the ground? Trash is one of many ways to pollute earth. Soil is contaminated when harmful, unwanted materials (pollutants) are added to it. Even if we cannot always see the pollution, it can have negative effects on living things and the environment. Did you know that soil contamination is one of the leading causes of water pollution around the world? Remediation can reduce contaminants to lower levels, and in particular, bioremediation uses microorganisms, fungi and plants to clean the environment. But, how do regulators (and scientists) assess the risk and establish “how clean” is clean” after remediation?

At Soapbox Science, I will be talking about the main contaminants affecting soil and how they behave in the environment. I will talk about methods for how to find, manage and clean soil contamination (but do not try this at home!) Secrets will be revealed, about how scientists study the effects of this contamination (toxicity) to protect both people and the environment. And of course, you’ll also find out how to prevent soil contamination and what you can do to make a difference.


My superheroes


I never imagined myself doing a PhD. I grew up in a family with two sisters and all of us were meant to take over our father’s building company once grown up. The Italian side of my family has its origins in the south of Italy, where traditionally the man (my grandfather) was the ruler of the family, while the female (my grandmother) took care of the day–to–day operations and mostly acted as child carer and housewife. My grandmother, for example, took her driving licence at the late age of 50, after my grandfather passed away. Before that, she was not expected to drive or have any need to leave the house. Fortunately that changed rapidly, in only one generation!

My mother had a regular job and always participated actively in every aspect of economic and social life. However it is true that there can still be a tendency to expect women to perform the majority of the domestic tasks they did in the past, in addition to new responsibilities. For this reason, I have always been inspired by these superheroes, who are intelligent and loving mothers, but also strong and motivated women. Somehow I knew one day I would be like my mother.

From when I was very young I was interested in art and science. I still remember at the age of 7 preparing chlorophyll extracts (a very secret recipe, which only my sister is aware of) and selling it to the neighbours for a few liras (former Italian currency) to make their plants grow healthier and stronger. For a long time I actually believed I was making the miracle happen. It was only later on that my father admitted he would secretly substitute my test-plant, overnight, with a much bigger one, so that the following day I believed the chlorophyll extract was working. To be honest I believed it, and it was probably the best self-confidence booster, and helped me build my motivation.

As a child, every day was a new discovery, and I became passionate about entomology (the study of insects) as well. For my 10th birthday I received a book about insect classification. Luckily, I lived in the countryside, and the fields were my lab. Me and my sister, Valentina, would spend endless days (and sometimes evenings), crawling around the fields in search of small insects, or jumping with our butterfly nets. I must say it was not always satisfying, and we often finished empty-handed, but it was worth the wait. When we finally caught something, we both screamed with joy, and of course fear!  The following day we would prepare and carefully pin the little insect’s legs, and add a tag with the information and name of the catcher. That was great fun!

I always felt the most boyish of the three sisters. Don’t get me wrong, I had my Barbie dolls and a pink bike, but I always enjoyed challenging myself, and of course, the boys, in both sports and science. I always had quite a strong personality and somehow it helped me to be respected. I never struggled or suffered in my childhood over gender differences. At school I was a good student (very talkative at times, some would say…) always fascinated and curious about everything new, especially in biology. I was unsure about what to choose for my undergraduate studies; it is difficult to make such important choices at a young age.

However, I now realise that in reality things can be flexible and scientific disciplines cross and interlace. Plants and the environment always fascinated me (and still do), so my undergraduate studies were focused on green biotechnology. Unfortunately at that time I was a little stubborn, and I wanted to work and study at the same time, so I couldn’t follow the regular lectures. I was pretty much on my own, since all the rest of my classmates had already made friends and study groups. Luckily I found a group of mechanical engineering students, always studying at the library until late, and we became a study group, but most importantly friends. Needless to say, the group was male dominated, with only two females. The competition amongst us was fierce, and even though we were all friends you could read between the lines that we (the girls) were  considered to be less capable. I really struggled to finish my course in the three prescribed years (due to the time I dedicated to work), and that really hurt my pride. I started asking myself if I was good enough, or whether there was someone still swapping the “small plant” with the “grown up plant” to make me believe that I could make it.

Luckily I always had very supportive parents, a stubborn mind, and thick skin. After a career break in Australia (where I worked as a waitress in two different places with a 20 hours/day shift), I thought about becoming an architect, but then went back to my roots and enrolled for a Masters in Environmental Biotech at the University of Milan. Once again the gender ratio was shockingly unbalanced (and not in my favour), but I found my way and graduated with the best grades and honours. This journey was short and intense, and my colleagues were always helpful and encouraging.  I shared the most interesting scientific (and non-scientific) conversations with them, and I made good friends for life.  I have to say I always felt treated well and respected by all my male colleagues. I would not have a career in science if it were not for them. My colleagues, and most importantly friends, have supported and encouraged me to complete my undergraduate study, do postgraduate study, and still support me every day during my PhD.

Finally, I would not be who I am if my mother had not been brave enough (and crazy enough!) to send me travelling around the world at a very young age. She also taught me a great deal about how to work towards my own goals. I am incredibly grateful for her support and encouragement. All this has helped me a lot during my PhD journey in which, like insect hunting, some days you end up empty handed, but on other days it is extremely rewarding. I like the challenges that come with the PhD and the excitement of doing new things, and constantly learning. There are many ups and downs, it feels a lot like an emotional roller coaster, but I am sure that one day I will look back and miss these moments.

I am very passionate about communicating my science and showcasing my work and I recently became a STEM ambassador to inspire and engage young people about science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I have been involved in outreach activities and have taken part in different events to help people better understand chemistry and contaminated land. I am really looking forward to participating in Soapbox Science!





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Ten things I wish people knew about autism : Meet Rachel Moseley

Dr Rachel Moseley is a lecturer at Bournemouth University, a researcher in cognitive neuroscience, and a keen advocate of public engagement in science. She feels passionately about working to improve understanding and compassion for people on the autism spectrum and those who live with mental health issues, and about embracing neurodiversity in all its forms. She will be taking part in Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on Saturday 29th July 2017.


Ten things I wish people knew about autism

By Dr Rachel Moseley

I’m counting down the days until the 29th of July… my day at Soapbox Science. I’m both terrified and exhilarated. I’m not completely new to Soapbox Science, having spoken last year in Bristol. I’m going to be talking a bit about the brain in general, but this year I also really want to take the opportunity to give a voice and dispel some myths that plague one group of vulnerable people in our society: people with autism spectrum conditions (ASC).  (Note: some people prefer identity-first language, i.e. ‘autistic person’. I use both interchangeably but respect the right of individuals to use the format they prefer).

Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition with strong genetic contributions, which means that an individual sets off down a different developmental trajectory from the start regarding brain development (Hazlett et al, 2017). It will always be a part of that person; even if their symptoms change with their ability to adapt, their autism is written into their biology. You might have heard of Asperger syndrome, which is just one form of autism. When people talk about Asperger syndrome they tend to mean autistic people whose IQ is in the average to high range, and this is the group that I particularly work with.

I’m a cognitive neuroscientist by trade, which means that I study the brain basis of thoughts, emotions and behaviour. My particular interest in this field is in how autistic and non-autistic people differ. I’ve been looking at various things, like how the brain works during language processing, thinking about others, daydreaming and performing visual-spatial tasks. I’ve also been branching into other areas of autism research, such as sex differences and mental health in autism.

Autistic people and their families suffer a lot of stigma from some of the misconceptions floating around about autism. I feel passionately about trying to help increase understanding and compassion for those on the spectrum, so here are ten things I wish people knew about autism. I hope you’ll enjoy learning more and that you’ll come chat to me on the 29th in Milton Keynes


1. Rain Man and Sheldon Cooper (Big Bang Theory) are just cardboard cut-outs.


Stereotypes are very useful things in a complex social world. They simplify basic facts about a group of people in a way that allows us to identify and group them easily. We all know, however, how damaging stereotypes can be in that they reduce a mass of individuals into a homogenous group who are defined by few simple, broadly generalized features that are used as ‘rules of thumb’ for identifying them and making judgements. That’s just so with Sheldon and Rain Man.  These guys are stereotypes which greatly simplify some basic facts about autism, for example the fact that autism is characterized by social difficulties and problems making relationships with others. Stereotypes are useful in some respects: they tap into a shared cultural idea of what autism is, and it’s helpful to bring everyone together to a common ground before trying to flesh out the reality of autism. The problems come when we start expecting to see Sheldon or Rain Man as soon as we know someone is autistic. Once we start looking at the real autism, throw away your stereotypes because autistic people are every bit as diverse as non-autistic people. Having autism is having a brain that works differently to those of non-autistic people – it’s a simple analogy, but a bit like different kind of operating system, like Windows to Macs. However, people with autism are exactly that – people, foremost, with autism just one element of who they are. Who they are as people you have to find out with respect and compassion.


2. ‘Unempathetic’ doesn’t mean cold and uncaring


A lot of people believe that autistic people don’t have any empathy. It’s well documented that where non-autistic children are disturbed or upset by an adult’s pain and seek to comfort them, children with autism are less likely to respond and may continue playing with no concern. Likewise, autistic people may sometimes say things that come across as rude or harsh or insensitive and may not take the hint when someone gets upset. This apparent lack of concern for others has been interpreted as a lack of the ability to emphasise with them; to feel what they are feeling, to care. But this idea doesn’t sit well with new scientific evidence. One study found autistic children actually showed a heightened stress response to images of people in distress and some had to cover their eyes (Blair, 1999). Reports from people on the spectrum and practioners who work closely with them reveal that indeed, autistic people are often painfully upset by the problems of others (Smith, 2009). And as scientists now believe that emotions and empathy are necessary to develop a sense of morality (Prinz, 2006; Aaltola, 2013), how can we explain the fact that people with autism often have more keenly and strongly-held senses of morality if they lack these prerequisites? (De Vignemont et al, 2008). Perhaps it is our idea of ‘empathy’ that needs to be reconsidered: we need a model which recognizes that people may struggle to recognize the feelings of others but are capable of caring about them when they do (Baron-Cohem, 2009; Uzefovsky et al, 2015). When emotional information is explicitly presented to autistic people so that they don’t have to guess what the other person is feeling and why, they’re just as concerned and emotionally-affected as non-autistic people (Jones et al, 2010).


3. People with autism have emotions.


This one seems so basic that I hate to write it, but sadly it’s quite a common myth. It might stem from the fact that it’s sometimes quite hard to identify what people with autism are feeling. Some autistic people show very little change in emotional expression. Others have a normal amount of emotional expression in their face but the quality of it is odd, not the kind of expression you might expect for an emotion like ‘sad’ or ‘happy’ (McDonald et al, 1989; Moody et al, 2007). So not only is it hard for autistic people to recognize what others are feeling, but it’s also hard for non-autistic people to recognize what autistic people are feeling! It’s also extremely common for people with autism to experience alexithymia, a difficulty identifying and understanding how they feel (Bird and Cook, 2013). With alexithymia, one might feel the physiological ‘symptoms’ of fear – for example, sweating, heart pounding, nausea – but can’t put the emotional label on it. Therefore sometimes people with autism can’t express their emotions on their faces or in words. As you can imagine, this can be extremely difficult. Autistic people often struggle to express extreme emotions (Samson et al, 2012). This can result in what is known as a ‘shut down’ (sort of blocking everything out, literally shutting down: for example, clamping one’s hands over one’s ears, curling up, squeezing eyes shut and not responding) or, alternatively, in a ‘melt down’ (emotions exploding outwards in tears, shouting or screaming). Autistic people are sometimes aware what’s happening during a shut down or melt down, but not always. It can be an awful experience which is difficult to recover from.


4. People with autism aren’t loners who don’t want friends.


You definitely get a Sheldon vibe here, don’t you? But this stereotype belies the truth of what I mentioned above… that people with autism are every bit as diverse as non-autistic people, that autism is a part of who they are but only one part of their personality. Two psychologists in the 1970s found that there were huge differences in the sociability of autistic children. Wing and Gould (1979) found some children with severe intellectual disability who were pretty sociable and some who were not. In children without intellectual disability (who would therefore be classified as ‘high-functioning autistic’ or ‘Asperger syndrome’), they noticed that some children were ‘aloof’: they were pretty indifferent to the presence of others, especially other kids, and just approached others to get physical needs gratified. Others were ‘passive’: children who didn’t initiate social contact but were fine with other people approaching them and who were often brought into other childrens’ games. The last group, perhaps the saddest in a way, were ‘active but odd’: this was the group who really wanted social interaction and so constantly approached others with no idea how to interact with them. Their interactions were inappropriate because they were unaware of the feelings and interests of their interaction partner; they didn’t adapt their approach to the context or the identify of the other person and would often go on and on about their own interests. Autistic adults show similar diversity, and some are actually incredible social chameleons who figure out rules for how to interact with people in a positive way – they can be the life and soul of the party and may have an excellent sense of humour. Others are less able to modify their behavior so might still remain off-putting to others. This is extremely sad, because studies show that many autistic people are desperately lonely and would love to have friends (Bauminger and Kasari, 2000; Mazurek, 2014).


5. Autistic people are not all geniuses and they don’t all have special abilities.


It’s kind of a shame this one isn’t true, because who wouldn’t like to have an awesome party trick? It’s commonly assumed that autistic people will be geniuses in a particular field or have exceptional, extraordinary powers in art, music, memory, or so forth. Some do, certainly. There is a phenomenon called ‘savant syndrome’ which describes having an exceptional talent in the presence of a low IQ (Treffert, 2012). Rain Man is actually based on the real life case of a man with an encyclopedic memory of geography, music, literature, history, sports and other areas he’d read about (Peek and Hanson, 2008). This individual had memorized over 6000 books and had the incredibly useful ability to scan one page with one eye, the other page with the other – incredible! There’s some idea that perhaps 1 in 10 autistic people show some degree of savant skill (Treffert, 2012) – so still, even if it’s more common than in non-autistic people, it’s a very small minority. Likewise, autistic people exist who do have exceptional intelligence and prowess in a particular field (Fitzgerald, 2002; Boso et al, 2010). In many ways, the features of autism lend themselves to art, science, music or maths: specifically, the archetypal intense focus that people with autism show to their particular interests. This is known as ‘repetitive and restricted interests’ among scientists and clinicians, and describes the fact that people with autism will tend to get extremely interested, to an atypical degree, in particular subjects or objects. They then find it very easy to focus and involve themselves in that thing to the exclusion of all else. In many ways, research is the perfect environment for an autistic person! Ultimately, though, intelligence varies in autistic people just as it does in people without autism.


6. Girls and women can have autism too… but it looks very different.


For many years, autism was believed to be restricted to males only; it’s only recently that research attention has focused on autistic girls and women, and uncovered a whole population who’ve been suffering in silence. Problematically, it’s much harder for young girls to be diagnosed with autism (Lai et al, 2015): they need to have substantially more severe symptoms, and they tend to be diagnosed much later. In part this may be because gender stereotypes cast socially-impaired girls as ‘shy’ and socially-impaired boys as ‘unresponsive’ (Goldman, 2013). It can also be because autistic little girls are less likely to show disruptive behaviour. Whilst they have the typical autistic ‘restricted interests’, they tend to have special interests that are less eccentric and actually appropriate for their age and gender (for example, animals, boybands, soaps on TV). They are often exceptionally good mimics and do a great job of learning how to manage social interaction with studied strategies – underneath, though, they’re often highly anxious and have the same core problems with social understanding (Gould and Ashton-Smith, 2011). Quite often, autistic girls and women come to the attention of professionals when they come along with comorbid mental health problems, which are very common – depression, anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, substance abuse, personality disorders… it’s very common for autistic women (and indeed, higher-functioning autistic men) to accrue an impressive list of diagnoses before they’re finally identified as autistic. Unfortunately, professionals are just unaware of how differently autism presents in females, and it’s desperately important that we learn more about autistic girls and women, what they’re like and how to recognise them so that they get the support they need. This is one area in which my research focuses.


7. Autistic children become autistic adults.


This sounds really silly, but somehow, policy-makers and professionals seem to forget that autism is a neurodevelopmental condition which does not go away. Support services for autistic individuals dramatically drop off when they turn 18 (Gernhardt and Lainer, 2011), leaving them and their families in limbo without appropriate social or medical support. This group have a higher than normal rate of mental illnesses, yet we know very little about appropriate psychological treatments to help them (Bishop-Fitzpatrick et al, 2014). The National Autistic Society reported that in 2016, only 16% of autistic adults were in full-time paid employment, though 32% were in some kind of paid work. In 2012, only 10% of autistic adults were receiving any kind of support to find employment! Many autistic adults end up extremely isolated, with few or no friends, and many remain with their parents or families, unable to live independently. About 1.1% of the English population have an autism spectrum condition (Brugha et al, 2012: study funded by the Department of Health). This means that over 695,000 people will grow up with uncertain likelihood of receiving the support that would allow them to lead happy and fulfilled lives.


8. Parents: autism isn’t something you did wrong.


There have been some awful ideas about the cause of autism. The worst, in my view, was from Bruno Bettleheim, who published a book called ‘The Empty Fortress’ in 1967. In it, he suggested that autism was caused by cold and rejecting parenting, particularly from mothers. Tragically, so many parents suffered under this mantle of blame for a long time. We now know that autism has an extremely strong genetic basis. Literally hundreds of genetic mutations have been linked to increased risk of autism (De Rubeis et al, 2014), and these genes all do slightly different things; some of them affect the most basic way that brain cells function. Nonetheless, these studies show how difficult it is to pinpoint a genetic cause for autism: they show that there are many routes to the person’s end state as ‘autistic’, which may explain the huge diversity of autism. Autism is a condition rooted in biology and the brain – not in bad parenting. I want to mention, here, the recent emergence of anxiety about vaccinations and autism. This rumour causes untold damage not only to children who contract easily preventable diseases, but also to families with autistic children. Meta-analyses (e.g. Taylor et al, 2014) and autism experts have thoroughly debunked the original article linking autism and vaccinations – it was actually withdrawn due to the poor, inaccurate science that led to these claims. Let’s hope that this incredibly destructive myth is put to ground as fast as possible.



9. People with autism aren’t “making a fuss” or “making things up” 


This one is really important. The brain seems to develop differently from the very beginning of life in autistic individuals (Hazlett et al, 2017). This isn’t a bad thing – remember the analogy above about different operating systems? – but since all of our behaviour, thoughts and emotions originate in the brain, we can expect autistic people to differ from non-autistic people. For example, it’s quite common for people with autism to be under-responsive to some sensations whereas others can be painfully heightened; a whisper can come across as a shout, unimportant sounds like the ticking of the clock can be impossible to block out whilst trying to attend to a lesson. Green et al (2013) exposed autistic and non-autistic teenagers to mildly aversive stimuli (a spinning colour wheel, increasingly loud white noise) whilst scanning their brains. Interestingly, the sensory parts of autistic teenagers’ brains showed increased activity to sensory stimulation, and this was related to their levels of anxiety and distressing sensory symptoms. What’s more, parts of the brain related to emotion and memory – the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex – were also more active in the autistic teenagers. Some scientists suggest that the amygdala is like the brain’s early warning system; it detects threat in the environment, and makes sure that we remember it for future occasions. This implies that autistic individuals experienced these sensations as much more aversive and upsetting than non-autistic people. Social difficulties, difficulties with planning and decision-making, and other autistic symptomatology are linked with differences in brain connectivity and structure (Ameis and Catani, 2015;  Keown et al, 2013; Hazlett et al, 2017) – mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, which are common in autism, are also rooted in differences in the chemicals and activity of the brain. For this reason, it’s so important to recognise that no one wants a mental illness and people who have one aren’t ‘giving in’ or being weak… mental illnesses are illnesses of the brain in the same way as tuberculosis is an illness of the lungs.


10. Autism isn’t necessarily something we should strive to eradicate.


Many people see autism as a disease to be cured. There are people who are so debilitated by their autistic symptoms that they would welcome the existence of a cure. There are families who find it exceptionally difficult to live with the challenges of autism. I believe that so long as a perspective does not harm others it must be given full credence, weight and respect, and the experiences of people with this perspective are valid and must be heard and held compassionately. I suppose what I have become very aware of, in my time researching in this field, is that this narrative is not the *only* one out there.  Another perspective focuses on autistic people having brains that work differently from most people; brains that are different from the statistical average (literally, being in the minority). Asperger himself, who identified this syndrome, wrote: “Not everything that steps out of line, and thus ‘abnormal’, must necessarily be ‘inferior’”. This approach, in my view, recognizes the many strengths of autistic people and the contributions they can make to society, if supported to do so. Let’s think, for example, of the autistic eye for detail and single-minded focus. There’s been some speculation that Einstein had autism; although we can’t verify this, studies have shown that having a greater number of autistic traits is indeed linked with careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Ruzich et al, 2015), and that students with autism are disproportionately likely to end up in these fields (Wei et al, 2013). For many autistic people, it would be impossible to extract their ‘autisticness’ without losing part of who they are: their kindness, their quirkiness, their honesty, and so forth; many lovely people would cease to exist. “Neurodiversity” is a frequently-touted word on the internet which, in my understanding, encapsulates this spirit of embracing, respecting, even celebrating the variety of human brain architecture which cause differences in thought, emotion and behaviour. This is not to undermine the real difficulties that autistic people experience living in a non-autistic world. I think this approach is *not* incompatible with research attempting to respectfully understand these differences and offer ways to alleviate the difficulties that can arise through problematic symptoms, helping the person to exist happily as they are, with their autism, rather than take it away (if such a thing was possible).


I feel that it’s really important that this second narrative is heard and respected just as much as the first. It’s important for the self-respect, self-esteem and dignity of autistic people. It’s important for non-autistic people, too, who may otherwise be blind to the many exceptional qualities and skills of people on the spectrum. Professor Tony Attwood, a renowned expert in Asperger Syndrome, called autistic people “bright threads in the tapestry of life”. If we ‘cured’ autism, how much we might be missing out on? Moreover, in a more inclusive society with greater support for autistic people as they grow into adulthood, who knows what we could stand to gain?






Thank you so much for reading this piece. Please come down and chat to me at Milton Keynes on the 29th of July, where I’d love to talk to you about autism and about the brain. 


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