With a Direct Line into your brain, Emma Burrows Joins RealScientists!

emma-burrowsThis week we have Emma Burrows from The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, in Australia. Emma normally tweets @embws, and sent us a wee blurb in addition to answering our usual incoming curator questions, so I’ll let her take it away!

Dr Emma Burrows leads a multidisciplinary research programme at The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health which aims to understand neurobiological mechanisms involved in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Since completing her PhD in 2011, a key objective of Emma’s research has been to develop novel and innovative technologies for characterizing preclinical animal models of ASD. This is a critical step in improving translation of findings from basic science to the clinic. Emma travelled on a Victoria Fellowship in 2013 to work with Professors Bussey and Saksida and their team in Cambridge, UK. There she gained expertise in developing novel cognitive tests for rodents using touchscreen technology. Emma has since established this research in Australia and through collaborations with the Bussey-Saksida Lab and locally, psychiatrists and neuropsychologists who specialise in ASD, is currently designing novel tasks for assessing cognitive inflexibility in mouse models containing ASD-associated mutations. Once established, this testing platform will be translated from mice to human ASD patients using iPad interfaces. Furthermore, Emma has successfully seed funded a project investigating communication in ASD mouse models, with a team of engineers, psychologist and behavioral neuroscientists. This project involves automatic classification of mouse ultrasonic vocalizations using human speech recognition software and represents the first attempt to do this at this level of sophistication.

Why/How did you end up in science?

My first memory is of conducting a scientific experiment. I was 3 & watching ants sip sugar water I had dropped near their nest. I have always had many questions & now that I’m a scientist I can spend all my time trying to answer them.

Why did you choose your current field/what keeps you there?

What makes us different, how do we learn, do people see the world differently? These questions & more led me to study neuroscience. There is so much to learn about the brain. I wonder if we’ll ever work it out?

Tell us about your work?

I am hoping to understand how gene mutations associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can lead to changes in behaviour. I am hoping to understand how some people with ASD have difficulty with language & attention. If we can figure out how these gene mutations cause behavioural impairments we can begin to develop new therapies to improve quality of life for people affected by ASD.

How am I doing this?

My work involves training mice to play attention games on touch sensitive computer screens. They are like iPads for mice. Using touchscreens we can investigate how well our mice learn & pay attention. Mice are genetically similar to humans, and use the same brain areas for attention & memory as we do. I work with mice that have been modified to contain a gene mutation that has been identified in human studies. Our mice learn to chose between two pictures on the screen and get a shot of strawberry milkshake when they get it right. These games are similar to those being used to assess memory & attention in people.

Did you know that mice have a secret language? Mice communicate with each other using a bird like song 10x higher than our audible hearing range. First I record mouse songs using specialized microphones. I am working with a team of engineers & physicists to design a new computer program to detect mouse calls. Its similar to the speech recognition software that Telstra use. We use this computer program to decipher the sounds in the recordings of mouse songs. This is the first time we have a program to help us understand what they are saying. The genetically modified mice that I am listening in on are showing very interesting calls. We are just uncovering them now after a year of hard work. Follow me this week to find out more.

Motivation: why should the lay public care about your research/work?

It’s likely you know someone with Autism. Having problems with attention & language means that you might not be able to work, or go to school and you might struggle with basic tasks like going to the supermarket. This causes a lot of distress, not only to people living with ASD but also to their families and friends.

Do you have any interesting external/extracurricular obligations?

I am part of a very important conversation, women in science, and the difficulties we face sustaining a career over our working lives. While many of PhD students in science are women, men take on the majority of the senior roles.

Taking time off to have a family, and being unable to keep up with current literature, often prevent women from returning to their career in science. It’s a very competitive field and one that moves quickly. Other issues such as lack of confidence, the need to spend time away from family to train overseas, and not seeing appropriate role models, are also cited as reasons for this disparity.

I co-chair our institutes gender equity committee & am part of a bigger collaboration between 4 of Australia’s largest medical research institutes championing change in the area.

Any interesting hobbies you’d like to share?

I was born in Tasmania & visit my family & island home as much as I can. There are still so many places I am yet to explore. A group of us flew to the south west on a tiny airplane to walk for 6 days to the most untouched & spectacular area I’ve ever seen. I am an explorer outside of Australia too. I’ve travelled all over the world from NYC to Burma.

How would you describe your ideal day off?

I love to sail. It’s one of the only places I can truly stop because we are always moving.

Ok, firstly – I love a good strawberry milkshake; I volunteer now for when you want to move to human trials. Secondly – I’m looking forward to hearing more about your work, and about your experiences with the woman-in-science campaign, and the discussions that are sure to eventuate amongst our brilliant RS followers.

So – a massive, milkshake-fuelled welcome to RealScientists for Emma Burrows!


Sarah Morgan

I'm a Research Fellow at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. I work in the meld space between compulsory education and tertiary scientific research; we develop teaching modules using the real research stories around us in the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease field. Engagement is the name of the game - creating opportunities for teachers, students and scientists to interact, and enrich learning on all sides. Scicomm is my passion, though I come from a molecular genetics research background.

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