Ballerina dreams dashed, she leaps into science

Q: Why did you decide to become a scientist?

When I was younger, I wanted to be a ballerina. Then my mumpointed out that I had never actually done ballet, which was going to put me at a disadvantage.

I later realised that science was my passion. You get to think of a question and then pursue it. If it's not a worthwhile question, you move on. I thought, this is what I should do - the pursuit of all this knowledge, an ever-changing job.

Q: Your research has focused on people with autism. What did you discover?

My work has been looking at the idea that people with autism might have increased perceptual capacity, that they can process more information at any one time. It sounds obvious given what we observe anecdotally, but very little research looks at "ability" in autism and no one had systematically demonstrated this increase in capacity.

The appealing thing about that hypothesis is that it can account for a lot of the superiorities that you see in people with autism, as well as the deficits. In some situations, being able to process more information is going to be an advantage. It might lead to the savant behaviour, where people can be flown over a cityscape for 10 minutes and then draw the whole thing from memory, or be responsible for the numerous incidents of perfect pitch in autism.

Q: What prompted your interest in researching autism?

I have a family friend whose brother has a condition on the autism spectrum. For a long time, I was aware of the sort of destructive impact it can have on the person and the family. What really made me go into that area of research was a realisation that it is so prevalent and yet we seem to know so little about it.

Q: When you're not teaching, researching or travelling the world presenting your research, what do you do in your spare time?

Dance is my great passion - salsa and Argentine tango. As a very awkward Brit, I decided I had to do something about it. I went to dance classes and absolutely loved it. Eventually I ended up teaching and competing.

We didn't win.

It's a great hobby. Wherever I am around the world - usually for a scientific conference - I find a salsa club and go social dancing.

Q: When you're not uncovering the nature of autism or dancing salsa, you run a start-up called MiniManuscript with another scientist, Dr Jake Fairnie. What is it?

It's like Wikipedia but for academic literature. We found that there is so much to read and it's an almost impossible task to keep up with the literature. Everybody is reading the same papers and not really getting anywhere.

We have created a platform where users can post a very objective summary of an article, and associated media content like press coverage, videos and podcasts, which means you can work out much more accurately whether you actually need to read that paper.

If you have only three hours to read papers on a topic then you have to make sure you're reading only the relevant ones. This can help students who want to go the extra mile with various assignments and add in evidence of background reading, and is particularly useful for those who speak English as a second language. We are not saying, "Don't read the full paper". We are saying, "Read only the papers that are relevant to you".

Q: Where did the idea for MiniManuscript come from?

It happened naturally. We were working in the same lab and realised we were doing a lot of the same reading. So we created a shared online document where we would post summarised versions of things that would be relevant to both of us. We realised we could cover the material in half the time and thought, "Why isn't everyone doing this?"

We also found that we really liked to link to other material that brings the topic to life. If you have a paper, it is nice to see the press coverage that came out with it or maybe a TED Talk that the author has given. (TED is a non-profit organisation bringing together people from technology, entertainment and design.) On MiniManuscript, you get a one-stop shop for everything related to the paper, as well as a discussion forum underneath. Q: Do you think you'll be the next Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook co-founder)?

Yes, we are going to take over the world (laughs). It is going well so far. We launched only a few months ago and we are working on building up the content. Hopefully it will massively increase efficiency across the scientific community.

At the moment, we have a few hundred papers that have been summarised. A lot of people are visiting the site. Now is the big push to get people to contribute content.

Q: So will you have to give up your day job?

MiniManuscript is not about the money - it is about getting everybody to work together. We just think it is really important that it exists. So I doubt that I'll be leaving autism research any time soon.

At the moment, it's science by day and MiniManuscript in the evenings and on weekends. Plus the odd dance.

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