Researcher in Spotlight – Bonnie Auyeung

In our website feature “Researcher in Spotlight” this month we ask our researcher Bonnie Auyeung to tell us a bit more about herself.

Could you give us a quick overview of your background and career so far?

After completing my undergraduate degree in Psychology in California, I joined UCLA where I focused on developing measures of attention in children with autism spectrum conditions. From there I came to the UK, where I completed a PhD examining biological factors affecting autism at the University of Cambridge. For several years I continued as a Senior Research Fellow at the Cambridge Autism Research Centre before joining the University of Edinburgh in 2013.

How did you become interested in your current field of research?

I have always been interested in the causes of neurodevelopmental disorders, but it was when working at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute that I really wanted to understand the challenges associated with autism, how these vary between individuals and what we could do to help.

What are you currently working on and what importance does your work have for autism research?

One topic I am working on is the effect of prenatal health on later development. This is a topic I have been interested in for several years. I am currently working with collaborators from Glasgow and Aberdeen as well as the NHS to conduct a study into how maternal health prior to birth affects developmental outcomes in their children, including the diagnosis of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders. This is exciting work, which I hope will offer practical steps in healthcare and policy to improve how we help avoid or mitigate risks during pregnancy, providing the best possible start for infants and children as they begin their developmental course.

What do you enjoy most about scientific research?

I really enjoy the challenge of finding out more about how we develop. To me, it is exciting that we can identify links between specific physical and environmental factors and outcomes in later life. By understanding more about what is helpful and what is harmful, we can help those who are affected by neurodevelopmental conditions as well as provide guidance to those responsible for healthcare and public policy. Whilst the steps are often small, they can be of enormous benefit to affected individuals and their families.

What do you like about the scientific community in Edinburgh?

Edinburgh is a leading university with world class capability in many disciplines. This makes it an exciting place to work, and provides great opportunities for collaboration with top researchers from other fields. For example, in my own work I have been able to form exciting collaborations with the engineering department to look at advanced signal processing of brain activity. In my teaching, I have been working with Geosciences to create new outreach opportunities where students can apply their knowledge alongside community partners.

What is your favourite high tech research tool?

We recently acquired a Near Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS) tool, which allows functional imaging of children’s brains using light. This technique is non-invasive and relatively low cost. Unlike MRI, it is also more tolerant to movement. fNIRS allows us to measure brain activity in populations such as young children when they are awake and engaging in tasks, which opens new opportunities for our research.

What is your favourite low tech research tool?

I really value behavioural observations. Whilst we now have some amazing technology for measuring biological responses such as brain activity, we are still a long way from being able to accurately measure many human behaviours. During my PhD, I worked with a group of researchers to standardise some of the behavioural observation measures we use in children. These kinds of tools help transfer observational findings from our research to quantitative measures where we can compare one set of data with another.

Where do you usually get the best ideas for your research?

I often think the best ideas come from discussion with colleagues. No matter how hard you think about a research challenge, talking it through with peers often allows you to take a fresh perspective. In Edinburgh we are very fortunate to have some great researchers to share ideas with.

What is your hidden talent?

I like to cook food from different places in the world. Also, having grown up in the southern US and now moved to Edinburgh, I do sometimes still like to have a taste of home!