Science writing


MakerGames2017-136Find Your Future Careers with STEM

Today’s high school and uni students can expect to have many different jobs in their lifetimes. But switching careers and leaping from one industry to another can be a pretty daunting prospect. This is where Find Your Future comes in. It’s a prototype careers app built by UNSW Sydney students Fiona Dao, Oliver Dolk, Evelyn Foster, Zoe Marandos, Gaurav Sapre, and Linda Zhang. The students were taking part in the Maker Games, a new competition run by the School of Engineering at UNSW. Competing teams linked up with industry partners to solve tricky real world problems. We talked to the students about the Find Your Future app and their experience of the Maker Games.


Business woman versus man corporate ladder career concept vector illustration. Gender inequality issue with different opportunities for males and females.

Study highlights gender imbalance in peer review Nature Index

For established scientists, reviewing the work of their peers is an important but largely unrewarded duty. But for early career researchers like Amalie Dyda, an epidemiologist at the Australian Institute of Health Innovation, opportunities to take part in the peer review process are an essential part of professional development. “It’s a really big learning experience,” she explains. “It helps you develop your skills as a scientist.” Recent studies suggest that, as in many other aspects of science, peer review is subject to gender imbalance, with women participating less than men…



Future Earth Careers with STEM

What do Australian kids think about the future of the planet? What are the global challenges that worry them? What technologies excite them? Some answers to these questions come from the 84 essays submitted to the UNSW Bragg student science writing prize by high school kids from across Australia. The theme this year was Future Earth: creating a more sustainable planet by 2030. Most students were concerned about the environment they are growing up in. There were essays on water pollution, destruction of rainforests, and loss of biodiversity, as well as more specific concerns like the impact of flying drones on birds of prey…



Is your iPhone bad for your mental health? Careers with STEM

“I’d love to be able to use my phone less”, says Marcela, a 21-year-old student at the University of Sydney. “But I don’t think it would be possible.” Marcela’s iPhone is her alarm clock. It’s her music player on the way to and from uni. It’s how she stays up to date on soccer news. Most importantly, it’s her connection via Facebook and Snapchat to family and friends. But she’s wary of her iPhone dependence. She hates how phones intrude on her conversations with friends. And she worries about young kids growing up with smartphones, never knowing anything different…



Future World. Careers with STEM

Making friends at Facebook. Hanging out at Google. Catching a ride to Uber HQ. Just some of the activities for a group of Māori students on a whirlwind visit to California. The trip was the centrepiece of Āmua Ao or “Future World” – a program designed to inspire Māori students and show them where their STEM studies could take them. Fourteen year old Tremaine Hughes, a Ngāti Maniapoto boy from Te Kuiti, south of Hamilton, was initially nervous about taking part in the program. But an introductory workshop in Auckland changed his mind…



Misinformation and alternative facts. Inspiring Australia

We live, we are told, in a “post truth” world where scientific evidence competes with “alternative facts” and everyone is well and truly “sick of experts”. But is this a recent phenomenon? Or have new modes of communication made the problem worse? If so, what should scientists do about it? These were some of the questions considered during a recent workshop at Macquarie University which brought together science communicators and researchers from a wide range of disciplines to discuss the challenge of translating evidence into scientifically informed decision making…


20170511-BrockViewpoint1120Virtual reality may reveal new clues about autism social difficulties. Scientific American

You’re walking down a narrow corridor. Someone is walking toward you, so you step to one side. But in that moment, they step to the same side. You make eye contact, grin awkwardly and then, without a word, negotiate a way around each other. Our lives are full of these delicate social dances. Whether we’re having a conversation, playing a game or trying to avoid collisions with passersby, our social interactions are reciprocal. My behavior affects your behavior, which in turn affects my behavior. But until the past few years, research into social cognition — the psychology of human interaction — has been decidedly non-interactive. Participants looked at images of faces, read short stories about social scenarios, or watched videos of other people interacting. They didn’t actually interact with another person…



Autism diagnosis by brain scan? It’s time for a reality check. The Guardian

What if I told you that we can now identify babies who are going to develop autism based on a simple brain scan? This, in essence, is the seductive pitch for a study published last week in the journal Nature, and making headlines around the world. Early identification and diagnosis is one of the major goals of autism research. By definition, people with autism have difficulties with social interaction and communication. But these skills take many years to develop, even in typically developing (i.e., non-autistic) children. Potential early signs of autism are extremely difficult to pick out amidst the natural variation in behaviour and temperament that exists between all babies. A brain scan for autism would be a major step forward. But is the hype justified?


animation_render_002Quest for autism biomarkers faces steep statistical challenges. Spectrum News

Every week, scientists publish new studies reporting differences between people with and without autism. Many of these studies involve some form of biological test — for example, a brain scan, a blood test or a measure of eye movements. Coverage of these studies in academia and the popular media often suggests that the test in question could serve as a ‘biomarker’ for autism — an objective way of determining whether someone has the condition. The hope is that biomarkers could one day allow clinicians to identify people with autism earlier, more accurately and more efficiently than is currently possible. These are noble objectives. But with any potential biomarker, finding a difference, on average, between people with and without autism is only the first small step toward clinical utility…



Combining the old and the new The Psychologist

Mark Rimland was not like other babies. As his father, Bernard, later recalled, ‘Mark was a screaming, implacable infant who resisted being cuddled and struggled against being picked up’. The paediatricians were baffled, and it was only after his mother, Gloria, remembered reading about Leo Kanner’s description of ‘autism’ in a psychology textbook that a diagnosis was eventually made. Today, autism is considered to be a neurodevelopmental disorder arising from the complex interplay of genetics and environmental factors during pre- and early post-natal development. However, in 1958, when Mark was first diagnosed, it was generally regarded as the child’s reaction to a lack of maternal affection – the infamous ‘refrigerator mother’ hypothesis. Bernard knew that this was nonsense and set out to determine the real cause of his son’s difficulties…



MEG for kids: listening to your brain with super-cool SQUIDs. Frontiers for Young Minds

Inside your brain, you have over 80 billion neurons – tiny brain cells, all working together to make you the person you are. Neurons talk to each other by sending electrical messages. Each message creates a tiny magnetic field. If enough neurons are talking together, we can listen in on their conversations by measuring the magnetic field around your head. We call this MEG, which stands for magnetoencephalography…



The elusive essence of autism. Spectrum News

…One of the key challenges facing autism research is the heterogeneity within the condition. No two people with autism are alike, and apart from their diagnostic label, they may have little if anything in common. This heterogeneity is widely acknowledged by researchers. And yet autism research still focuses on the label itself, considering whether on average, people with autism are different from people who don’t have that diagnostic label. Underlying this approach is what philosophers would call an “essentialist” view of autism — somehow, beneath all the variation, people with autism share some essential property that sets them apart from those without a diagnosis…



Does psychology belong in the science club? The Conversation

…From genetics to climate change, building, testing, and improving models of reality is an entirely legitimate way of doing science – and that’s precisely how psychology works. We can’t measure memories, beliefs or attitudes directly. But we can measure behaviour. And we can use those measurements to test the predictions of our psychological theories – our models of the mind. Psychology is a science. But the connection goes far deeper…


Significant-othersRegistered reports. Spectrum News

These are fast-moving times for autism research. Every week brings a new swath of research findings that promise fresh insights into the causes of autism, its diagnosis and treatment. Yet, beneath the flurry of publications, the reality is that progress has been painstakingly slow. One reason, unfortunately, is that many published studies contain results that turn out not to be true. This isn’t because scientists are lying or fabricating their data. It is a consequence of the way science is done and the pressures on researchers to produce results…


B0009489 Nerve fibres in a healthy adult human brain, MRISix questions for connectivity theory research. Spectrum News

The idea that autism is a disorder of brain connectivity is not new. But it has only become a testable proposition in the past decade, with the development of a range of new neuroimaging techniques and analyses. Today, ‘underconnectivity’ is considered one of the best-supported theories for the neural basis of autism. But many questions still remain unanswered…



presentation1Perfect match. Spectrum News

…Control groups are an essential part of autism research, providing a benchmark against which to assess those with autism. Finding, for instance, that participants with autism score an average of 68 percent on a test is meaningless if you don’t know how people who don’t have autism do on the same test. A control group can also be used to try and rule out alternative and perhaps uninteresting explanations for group differences. The logic is simple: If two groups are matched on one measure, such as intelligence or age, then this can’t explain differences on another measure, such as performance on an emotion recognition test, that is under investigation…



Redefining autism in the DSM-5. The Conversation

For autistic people and their families, getting an autism diagnosis is just the first step in a long struggle to access much-needed intervention, support, and appropriate education. In Australia, as in many countries, autism diagnoses are made according to criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). The latest update to the manual, the DSM-5, is due for publication in May 2013 and will bring significant changes to the definition and diagnosis of autism…



PDD-NOS and DSM-5 The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism

Some cases of autism are obvious. Anyone who knew anything about autism would agree that the child or adult in question was autistic. Other cases are less clear cut. Indeed, the term “autism spectrum” implies the existence of a continuum that fades gradually into what we think of as the “normal” population. Somewhere a line has to be drawn and where exactly we choose to draw that line defines what we mean by autism. It determines who is eligible to take part in autism-related research and this in turn influences the development of theories of autism. Eventually, this feeds back to our evolving definitions and cut-offs for autism. Most importantly when it comes to immediate real-world consequences, the diagnostic boundaries specify who is labeled “autistic” and, ultimately, who gains access to interventions and support…


Cracking the Enigma (selected blogposts)

Clouds cloudcatcherOne of my favourite bits about being a dad is, every now and then, just casually blowing my little boy’s mind – with science. Last weekend, for example, we were out for a stroll when he paused, looked up at the sky, and came out with “I wish I had a rocket so I could go and stand on a cloud”. Sensing an opening, I explained that clouds were made of tiny droplets of water that hang in the air, so you wouldn’t ever be able to stand on one. But that, when it’s misty, that’s just a cloud that’s really low down on the ground, so it’s actually very easy to stand inside a cloud. That pleased him, as he acknowledged his chances of owning a rocket any time soon were marginal at best…

Book Illustration Depicting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a Train CabinThe curious case of the reversed pronoun “You made a circle”, exclaimed Ethan, looking up from his drawing. “You did make a circle”, his mum acknowledged, ignoring the fact that, not for the first time, Ethan had reversed the pronoun, saying “you” when he should have said “I”. Ethan was one of six children from Providence, Rhode Island taking part in a study of child language development. Every couple of weeks, a researcher from Brown University would visit him and his mum at home, record, and then transcribe their conversations in painstaking detail. The transcriptions would show that Ethan was a prolific reverser of pronouns; frequently saying “you” when he meant “I” and “your” instead of “my” or “mine”. This curious habit began as soon as pronouns entered his vocabulary and he was still reversing pronouns when, just before his third birthday, the study came to an end…

NPG x82217; Alan Mathison Turing by Elliott & FryDid Alan Turing have Asperger syndrome? It’s no exaggeration to say that Alan Turing was one of the most influential figures of the 20th century. Regarded as the father of computer science and artificial intelligence, he also made ground-breaking contributions to the fields of mathematics, chemistry, and biology. Most famously, during World War II, he played a crucial role in cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code. He was also, it’s argued, a person with Asperger syndrome. There’s something of a cottage industry in “outing” historical figures with autism or Asperger syndrome. Candidates include Mozart, Einstein, Isaac Newton, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Thomas Jefferson, Andy Warhol. In many cases, it seems, being brilliant at something and having a reputation for social awkwardness is all that it takes for a “diagnosis”. In Turing’s case, there is at least some more concrete evidence to go on…

800px-san_sebastian_kursaal_nocheTransforming autism research: Reflections on IMFAR, RDoC, and DSM-5 …Since Kanner, the idea of a discrete condition, “autism”, has made intuitive sense to researchers and clinicians alike. We could metaphorically throw a wide range of people into that group because, although they were different from one another in many ways, they seemed to have something essential in common. What was learned about one sample of autistic people could, we assumed be generalised to others. However, as more evidence has come in, the concept of autism as a coherent entity has been found wanting. This is the “validity” issue that so undermines the DSM. Insel’s bet is that the “domains” of RDoC do have validity, that they will map better onto underlying biological mechanisms and, crucially, that they will provide clearer insights into appropriate treatments and interventions for individuals. RDoC represents an alternative “ordering” of the human mind. But like the DSM, it needs to be empirically tested, refined, and, if necessary, rejected…

Theories of autism – lessons from Dr House

The common sense of science

Autism and the art of campervan maintenance

The many faces of autism

Does a baby’s eye gaze really predict future autism?

The messy science behind The Autism Enigma

Networks in the autistic brain – insights from graph theory

Of autistic mice and men

Using eye-tracking to investigate language comprehension in autism

The adventures of DataThief

Autismo Diario (Spanish translation)

Las pruebas de campo del DSM-5 dejan muchas preguntas sin respuesta

Adiós TGD-ne, bienvenido SCD

Cerebros con Autismo: ¿Sub o Hiper Conectados?