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Trinity Fellows receive New Year Honours

Trinity Fellows have been honoured in the Queen’s New Year Honours: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen has been knighted ‘for services to Autism Research and Autistic People’ and Professor Valerie Gibson has been made OBE ‘for services to Science, Women in Science and Public Engagement.’

Professor Valerie Gibson. Photo: University of Cambridge

Professor Gibson, Head of the High Energy Physics Research Group at the Cavendish Laboratory and the University’s Gender Equality Champion for STEMM, said:

I am so thrilled to receive this award – it is recognition not only of my research in high energy particle physics, but also of my commitment to disseminating my research to the general public, and to enabling women scientists and those of diverse backgrounds to flourish at all levels of their education and careers.

The honour will provide me with a platform and voice for promoting science and tackling the issues related to diversity and inclusion within the University and more widely.

Professor Baron-Cohen, Director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, said:

This honour came as a complete surprise, and I accept it on behalf of the talented team of scientists at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, and on behalf of the Autism Research Trust, the charity that has supported us. The basic needs and human rights of autistic people and their families are still not being met by statutory services, due to insufficient funding, so we are creating a new charity, the Autism Centre of Excellence, to address this gap.

Simon Baron-Cohen is a Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the British Psychological Society. He served as Chair of the NICE Guidelines for autism, was President of the International Society for Autism Research and is Vice President of the National Autistic Society. Professor Baron-Cohen created the first clinic worldwide to diagnose autism in adults and championed the human rights of autistic people at the UN. He is author of The Essential Difference, Zero Degrees of Empathy, and The Pattern Seekers: A New Theory of Human Invention.

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Photo: Brian Harris

As Director of Cambridge’s Autism Research Centre, Professor Baron-Cohen leads a multidisciplinary scientific team studying autism from the molecular to the behavioural levels and conducting clinical research. His hyper-systemizing theory of autism proposes that ‘systemizing’ – the drive to find lawful patterns in data – lies on a bell curve in the population, and that, for reasons of shared biology, autistic people and those talented in STEM lie at the extreme on this distribution. He has tested the theory in different ways.

First, he led a study of autism prevalence in three Dutch cities, where his prediction that there would be higher rates of autism in Eindhoven, where one third of jobs are in STEM, compared to rates of autism in two other Dutch cities of equivalent size and demographics but which are not STEM regions, was robustly confirmed. This suggests that the genes associated with autism may overlap with the genes associated with systemizing or STEM aptitude.

A second test of the theory was his study of the rate of autism among the siblings of mathematicians vs non-mathematicians, where he found gifted mathematicians had a more than two-fold increase in autism rates among their first-degree relatives. A third test was his study of the rate of fathers and grandfathers of autistic children working in STEM. Of 1000 autistic children, fathers and grandfathers were more than twice as likely to work in STEM.

Professor Baron-Cohen has led a big data study of the STEM effect in 600,000 typical individuals, showing that systemizing does indeed lie on a bell curve in the population, and those working in STEM have more autistic traits than those not working in STEM.

His lab is also unique worldwide in studying prenatal hormones, particularly the sex steroids such as androgens and estrogens, as another cause of autism, given that these neurosteroid hormones ‘masculinize’ the body, including the brain. His 2004 book Prenatal Testosterone in Mind (MIT Press) put forward the prenatal sex steroid theory of autism to understand why autism is more common in males.

To really test the theory Professor Baron-Cohen needed a large sample since autism only occurs in 1% of the population. In 2015, he set up a collaboration with the Danish Biobank that has stored more than 20,000 amniotic fluid samples, which he linked to later diagnosis of autism via the Danish Psychiatric Register. He tested the prenatal androgens and found that children later diagnosed as autistic were exposed to elevated levels of prenatal testosterone, and the sex steroid precursors to prenatal testosterone. And in 2019 he tested the same cohort’s levels of exposure to prenatal estrogens and again found these were elevated in pregnancies that resulted in autism. These novel studies provide proof of the role of prenatal hormones, interacting with genetic predisposition, in the cause of autism.

Professor Baron-Cohen’s lab strives to balance basic and applied research. For example, through clinical trials he showed that children with autism can be taught to ‘mindread’, and that emotion recognition can be taught via specialist educational software/DVDs, nominated for BAFTA awards. His Autism Spectrum Quotient (AQ) in a short form was recommended by NICE as a ‘red flag’ screening instrument for autism. His Checklist for Autism in Toddlers (CHAT) has formed the basis of most early detection screening methods of autism internationally. Professor Baron-Cohen is also an advocate for neurodiversity and the need for greater inclusion for autistic people in society.

Valerie Gibson discussing her research at CERN

Professor Gibson has a long research career at CERN near Geneva, where she studies why the Universe is made of matter (and not anti-matter) and searches for new phenomena at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). She is actively involved in the direction of the project, including four years as UK Spokesperson for the LHCb experiment and four years as Chair of the international governing board.

Professor Gibson is also a founding member of the newly-funded Atom Interferometric Observatory and Network (AION) project, a national interdisciplinary effort that will use ultracold atom interferometry to search for ultra-light dark matter and detect gravitational waves in an, as yet, unexplored frequency range.

With her passion for public engagement, Professor Gibson has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time four times to discuss antimatter, the neutron, the life and work of Paul Dirac, and theories of everything. She is a Patron of the Gravity Fields Festival, a biennial festival for the science and arts held in honour of Sir Isaac Newton in Grantham, her home-town, and nearby Woolsthorpe Manor, the birthplace of Newton, where he lived during the great plague of 1665-66.

Professor Gibson with students attending a Women in STEMM residential at Trinity

Alongside her research and teaching commitments – she is a Director of Studies in Physics at Trinity – Professor Gibson has worked tirelessly to attract more girls into science and enable more women scientists to flourish at Cambridge at levels of their education and careers, and has championed diversity and inclusion broadly.

She spearheaded the Cavendish Laboratory’s Athena SWAN process, leading to a Gold award in 2014. The Cavendish was the first – and remains the only – UK university physics department to achieve this coveted level of recognition of its development of employment practices that support and further the careers of women. Among Professor Gibson’s innovations are the introduction of high chairs in the Cavendish’s canteen, establishing a Research Staff Committee and events programme, and instigating research to understand and improve undergraduate women’s exam performance. She said:

Having led the Cavendish Laboratory’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion activities for many years, I have worked on many initiatives within Cambridge, including best practice in recruitment and promotion processes and most recently how to capture and take into account the effect of Covid-19 on peoples working lives. I have also addressed equality, diversity and inclusion on an international level at CERN and at a national level as Chair of the Institute of Physics Juno project.

At Trinity Professor Gibson regularly engages with prospective women science students through the College’s outreach programme.

In 2013 she received a Women in Science and Engineering Leader Award and in 2016 one of the inaugural Royal Society Athena Prizes for her activities to increase and advance women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

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