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Crosstalk Debates and conversations about timely topics in autism.

New mission brings new challenges

by  /  8 August 2017

I enjoyed my work as a graduate student and postdoctoral fellow, studying at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where my work focused on social perception in autism and other conditions. I particularly liked designing experiments and analyzing data. But over time, I realized that even more than answering specific research questions, I wanted to ensure that autism research has an impact on people.

So when the role of director of science at Autistica, an autism research charity in the United Kingdom, came up, I saw it as an exciting and rare opportunity.

I’m responsible for designing and implementing Autistica’s science strategy. I spend a lot of time trying to understand the priorities of the people we serve and getting their feedback on potential research approaches. I work with academics to ensure that our thinking is at the cutting edge, and with my team at Autistica to ensure that our lobbying, fundraising and communications reflect what we want to achieve.

One thing I love at Autistica is working with a talented and heterogeneous team. Working outside of academia opens you up to a much more diverse group of people and skills.

My Ph.D. has helped me to write and think in a highly process-driven and analytical way and to think critically, making decisions based on evidence. My training has also given me knowledge of autism research, as well as a grounding in areas such as data science, research design and peer review. All of these skills are essential to my current role.

Compared with academia, a charity requires greater pragmatism, diplomacy, flexibility and compromise to achieve your objectives. In academia, there’s a tendency to believe and know why what you are saying is important, but you rarely consider whether it’s convincing to the wider public. Since coming to Autistica, I’ve learned a lot about how to make academic arguments compelling to the public. It’s important to be able to communicate with impact.

The role also brings new challenges. I feel enormous pressure to ensure that we spend our funds in the most impactful way possible. I have to be adaptable, willing to take on a broad range of tasks and work long hours. I also have to accept that I will receive criticism, often from people who don’t understand the context of my decisions.

For me, these challenges are easy to deal with because I am convinced by our new vision (to help people with autism and their families live long, healthy, happy lives), dedicated to our team and committed to the way we operate. Playing a role in Autistica’s achievements and shaping our future is hugely rewarding. It’s why making the switch from academia has been such a privilege.

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