02 December, 2010

A Diet of Worms

I was excited to spot Dorothy Bishop's article about the neuropsychological effects of neglected tropical diseases. I've been working in this field for 15 years now but really stumbled into it by chance. It is quite a good dinner party conversation piece (either that, or everyone's too polite to tell me to shut up - but they do generally ask) so I thought I'd share my almost certainly non-replicable path to this field. I'm writing more for a scientific reader but from a personal perspective - apologies for a few technical terms.

After I finished my undergraduate degree (in Neuroscience, if you're interested) I wanted to go and "save the world", as one does. A volunteer post teaching Biology in Zambia presented itself, so off I trotted.

I lived on the least money I have ever managed (stamps were a stretch), talked to my pupils about sex ("Alcohol causes HIV, madam" "Are you sure?" "Yes madam, when people get drunk they do not mind who they sleep with". Such wisdom from one so young...), learned a small amount about Bantu grammar (but no real conversation past How are you, Fine, and Thank you), and did a little bit of travelling into the bargain. I lost my passport and got it back twice, and crossed from Zimbabwe (at the time, the "rich" country where you could buy stuff and go to nice hotels) into Zambia on just an identity card.

Back to real life, and I started a PhD on motor abilities in language disorders, which I still also work on. In fact, not too surprisingly, it's what most people, if they've heard of my research, associate me with.

About a year before I was due to finish the PhD I spotted a job ad for a postdoc looking at the effects on cognitive development of parasitic infections in children in Tanzania. As the only applicant with my rather unusual combination of qualifications - experience in African schools and a PhD project in developmental cognitive neuropsychology - I wasn't hugely surprised to be offered the job. The other candidates also seemed intrepid, capable, and intelligent, but I got the impression they were grasping at straws when they shortlisted (one had worked on gorilla cognitive development but had had to leave Rwanda due to the war there, one worked on schizophrenia and had taught in a remote area of South America, a couple had been travelling in Africa). My only doubt was whether I would be finished with the PhD in time, and I remember my future boss sounding extremely stressed on the phone when I said I needed to think about it!

Nearly a year later, I'd submitted my thesis and was packing - we all went to the pub and everyone was asking me whether it was exciting to have finished - I was far more excited by my new Swiss Army knife. I flew off to Tanzania and spent the next two years running a huge project (after not too long my bosses saw sense and employed both an additional scientist and a very well qualified local administrator). We had a sample of 1000+ children, about 20 staff, a five room office that needed refurbishing (as did my flat upstairs), two 4WD vehicles, payday each month... I had only just finished my PhD and was used to my hand being held. I learned Swahili pretty quickly once I realised I needed it to eat, get water, electricity, and floors in the building, get the cars serviced, and communicate with the children participating and, indeed, most of the project staff. At least the Bantu grammar came in handy.

In this field, at least 75% of the effort is in developing tests. As Dorothy Bishop says, culturally appropriate tests are usually lacking, and (even once we've developed them) they are not standardised or validated. Another huge hurdle is a lack of psychologists. It's one of the most popular degree courses in the West, but in many countries there are no psychology degrees. This was true in Tanzania, and also in Indonesia and Uganda where I have worked more recently. In Tanzania we were working in a school setting and we tended to employ school teachers as research assistants. In Indonesia, it has been child nutritionists, and in Uganda, nurses and medical officers. I was at a meeting recently in Kampala to set up a network of people working in child psychology - mainly educationalists and psychiatrists, with a couple of paediatricians.

Where psychology degrees exist, most graduates go into private counselling. Any child psychologists also tend to go into private practice, working with the children of the new middle classes. University psychologists have horrible teaching loads, have to run a private practice to make ends meet and cannot get any research done. You're right,
you don't know you're born in Europe or North America.

One of my colleagues who has completed her PhD in developmental cognitive neuropsychology is a psychology graduate from her home country but was seconded from her lecturing job to the group we were both working with. Her supervisor found some great postdoc funding but she wasn't supposed to continue research - and she was a government employee - so she's had to be careful to avoid her university when she's in her home country. She could easily have got a good teaching job outside her home country, but she wants to do something for psychology in the country, we're pretty sure they won't re-employ her if she just leaves, so she's juggling for the moment.

Neglected tropical diseases are of course incredibly important causes of delay in cognitive development. But there are many other factors that mean children in developing countries are at risk for neuropsychological deficits and cognitive delay.

One of the most satisfying projects I worked on was a "boring" construction and standardisation of a "bog standard" test of cognitive development - in essence the same as an IQ test - for a project trying to estimate the prevalence of cognitive and neurological deficits (pdf) in a population of children. We made sure that our tests were do-able, at least in part, by children with motor or sensory problems. And we found a group of children who were profoundly deaf, had no spoken language, and weren't in school - because of parents' beliefs that deaf children are uneducable. But these children were performing at normal limits on non-verbal tests. So we arranged for them to go to school.

The main reason I mention that project is because the majority of children who do have neurological deficits in that group are those who have suffered cerebral malaria. The article I've linked to estimates that a million children under five die each year and 250,000 are left with neurological complications or developmental delay. Just as with worms, if this parasite were affecting "our" children, people would be up in arms.

One interesting fact is that, of course, all of these parasites (worms, malaria) did affect "our" children in the past. Malaria was common in the Southern US until at least the 1930s. Hookworm flourishes most places where there aren't enough privies and children don't wear shoes - again very common in the southern US in fairly recent history. Educators at the time recognised that wormy children did not learn well, but had little evidence to back it up.

The "widespread prevalence"of hookworm weakened the "bodies and minds" of schoolchildren, declared Virginia state school officials in a pamphlet circulated to teachers. Infected children became "easily fatigued,"unable to study with interest; even with the teachers' determined involvement, children with hook- worms made "poor progress" and probably left school uneducated.
It's not just infections, either. Another project I've been involved with has been giving pregnant mothers micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and comparing outcomes to mothers who got the standard iron and folic acid normally supplied by midwives on their Indonesian island. My PhD student looked at the outcomes of nutritional supplementation on both mothers and their preschool children. We're still analysing the data, but we're interested to see that mothers who were given supplementation improved in their cognitive functioning (pdf) - so we now want to know if they might make better, more attentive and stimulating, mothers for their preschoolers.

The thing that all of these - the biological risk factors - have in common is that they occur when people are materially poor. We commonly find effects in our results of relative poverty - the differences between mothers who have managed to go to secondary school and those who have only a couple of years of primary school, between families who can afford a bicycle and a tin roof (and probably enough to eat) and those that cannot. But we find on top of those effects of the biological risk factors we study. Schooling is well known to influence cognitive functioning, and we've got some interesting data on what happens when you try and test children who haven't been to school.

It would be bad enough if we were, in fact, talking about children who have these biological risk factors, but who then went to lovely primary schools and had heaps of Surestart resources and well-trained teachers, enabling them to overcome their disadvantaged start in life. Although some schools in Asia are clean, pleasant, and have at least some equipment suitable for small children, many schools in the developing world struggle to have enough desks, and for the roofs not to leak in the rainy season. Teachers can be poorly trained and equally poorly motivated. Their salaries don't cover their living expenses, so they neglect their classes for outside jobs, spend classroom time working their vegetable gardens, and in some cases deliberately leave crucial subjects untaught so that pupils have to pay for outside tuition to pass Government exams.

Children leave school early because their families need them to work, because another child needs to go to school and there is not enough money for fees or uniform, or because they started school at a relatively old age and have reached puberty. Just a few years at school may teach children to read, but they may not retain it once they have left.

I'm going to have a mini professional moan at this point, just to say that this is the type of field where one works with very large teams of researchers, and rightly the large teams are credited on research papers. Unfortunately, because this isn't common in psychology, it's often not recognised that if you are going to have a great paper in a great journal, you are going to share authorship with 10 other people, and the only way to avoid that is not to be an author on that paper or (which has been suggested to me) not to do this kind of research. Personally, I feel this kind of research is much too important not to carry on doing it.

I started this post to give a flavour of the path I've taken in doing this research and the experiences I've had but - probably because it's something I feel passionately about! - it's taken on more of an educational character! Sorry about that... but anyway, I have had some incredible experiences and worked with some incredible and dedicated people.

It's not every research psychologist that has to arrange for a bridge to be built over the weekend to get the team to the testing location. You don't often get to have a beer watching the sun go down over both sides of the Indian Ocean*. And fortunately you don't in most research psychology jobs lose child participants, research assistants, and a project driver to malaria, HIV, and one of the biggest killers in the developing world - road traffic accidents - respectively.

*before you get confused, not simultaneously, two different research sites widely separated but both with quite undulating coastlines.

23 September, 2010

On (the) telly

Yesterday I spent mostly trying to stay out of shot, and trying to keep my shadow out of shot, too.

My placement at the BBC has been organised by a presenter who doesn't do much science news, but who's been the contact for a while in organising the BBC placements. In previous years someone was attached directly to TV news and spent about 3 weeks trailing him which though interesting, wasn't massively productive - it just takes so long to learn how to do telly that you can't actually make anything in that time. But watching a couple of interviews in a day is not such a bad idea.

We were seeing two authors for a Meet the Author segment, one at lunchtime and one in the afternoon. Of course we got off to a bad start with traffic, though I have no real idea what London traffic "should" be like to drive in. The cameraman/producer wasn't really sure why I was there, though he seemed impressed and surprised that I would be writing stories that actually get on the website, and that were on non-psychology stories.

Filming was actually pretty efficient, which is really interesting to know - I can imagine it being really tempting to film hours and hours for a 5 minute segment, when really, doing it two or three times and then re-doing the bits you aren't sure about is more efficient - certainly, there will be less editing.

What I really had not realised was how much setup there can possibly be for a filming session. It's not like radio, where the most you have to do is get people to turn off the air conditioning and their mobile phones*. Apart from moving the furniture, the cameras are incredibly heavy, time-consuming to set up, and take up loads of space, and then there are the lights... and like the old-fashioned data projectors, you have to let them cool down before you leave the room. It's been a revelation.

I wasn't much use to the whole enterprise of course, though apparently they had a sound failure recently and the cameraman didn't have his headphones on, so I was In Charge of headphones. And I do have a reasonable memory for conversations, so recapped what exactly had been the questions asked so the interviewer could run them through again. Apparently I should have been given a "real" producer's job and then would have been taking notes on them - which would have been fine - if I get another chance to go out filming, I may see if I can be a bit more useful.

*which I have learned to my cost, though thankfully only on recordings made for note-taking purposes, when I discovered how much interference a phone can cause to a digital recording.

22 September, 2010


I spent last week at the British Science Festival with large numbers of other science journalists, and very interesting it was too. Some of the interesting part was the science, and some was learning about how science journalists think, what gets into the news, and why.

I spent four days there and for most of the first three another BBC person was there. So this should mean we shared the stories and either did half each, or one of us did something for the radio (not me) and one of us for the website (me). In practice this did happen, but then I was left on my own for a day and a half... and got very panicky about what seemed to be an important story.

As it turned out, it was an important story for geeky scientists, and the Guardian covered it in quite a bit of depth on their website, but what happened after the interview was that everyone rang their editors (including me) who told them to ring their health editors (ditto) who said, not a very interesting health story. In fact, the BBC Online health editor gave a different reason to some of the other health editors, but I was a bit relieved to see that none of the other papers covered it, since we weren't!

I tended to be a bit random about which stories I covered, partly because I knew I had some backup, if anything was ultra important I wouldn't get in trouble for not covering it, but also because of course I'm not as attuned or experienced in what makes a good story, what's been covered, what's hot... But there were a few stories that were covered by absolutely everyone else (but not me), or by me (but no-one else). I wasn't entirely sure what to make of it when one story I wrote up for the website was mainly ignored by the other papers, but our radio guy decided to put it on the news. More exciting than everyone else thought, or I was over-hyping it to him?

But one thing that I've experienced this week is having soooo many stories out that older ones begin to fade into insignificance. And it does mean I was less bothered when I found a science blogger criticising one of my stories - not sure if that's why, but it was the most-read Science story for 2 days running, and I don't really mind why people are reading my stories!

09 September, 2010

It's always nice if someone notices

As I said before, quite a few people ended up reading my story about Arabic. Of course that one has my name on it, but today I was at a press launch for the British Science Festival which all the Media Fellows are going to next week, and someone from the British Science Association mentioned a study that looked at what happens when people disagree with scientific findings.

I spotted this study while I was in the Science Radio Unit and researched it, and got the author, and another psychologists looking at attitudes to science, to come on the programme. You can read/listen here. It was actually broadcast after I left the unit so I hadn't put it up here. So it was really nice to know someone had been listening (or, possibly, reading Ben Goldacre's blog, but I like to dream!).

Another story I researched also went out after I left - and in some ways was the most challenging radio story I did. I not only knew nothing about solar cells, but had to look up what a synchrotron was - I researched this one quite early on so it was a rude introduction to "how to use Wikipedia to your advantage". Don't worry, I checked I had all my facts and terms correct with the scientist in question! But perhaps a lesson for the person who wrote the press release? I'm not a physical scientist, but nor are all science journalists, though I am finding that this job makes you incredibly knowledgeable at a surface level about a wide variety of topics. So I now know about theropods, the Cretaceous, the Palaeolithic etc. etc.

08 September, 2010

Carry On And Keep Calm

I used to live and work in London but was never really phased by travel disruptions as I could cycle (or, in fact, walk) to work so if there was a strike I just hopped on my bike. Unfortunately where I'm staying during my placement is a leeetle far from Television Centre, where I'm based at the moment, so I had a slightly lengthy but not too stressful journey to work on Tuesday. I thought it was one of those ironic co-incidences that the strike was on the anniversary of the start of the Blitz.

People were remarkably cool and collected and only a few rude words were heard. My journey home wasn't as easy (although we were going to a friend's house for dinner, the hardest part of it was the bit I would have had to do anyway), and I can see if you don't like London you might find it overwhelming.

Though it's not directly relevant to my placement, I do like London and I'm enjoying working here again - in fact, the two most irritating things about working here are specifically about TVC. One is that it is incredibly easy to get lost here - despite following signs for the Restaurant Building the other day, it took me 10 minutes and a couple of useless changes of floor to get there - it's probably 2 minutes' walk away. The other is the celebrities. How dare they get in the way of our work.

I'd been working on a Health story and wanted to ring up a private clinic to cheekily ask their prices. But outside my office window was, in full flow, the launch of Strictly Come Dancing. Lots of Good Life fans, it seems, as the applause for Felicity Kendal was probably the loudest.

Anyway, although officially I'm on Science and Nature, I think my interests lie a bit closer to Health and I've had one story on how the brain reads Arabic which got a lot of interest over the weekend - and a couple of pretty negative emails! Some were easy to answer but I was told just to ignore one of them... This was a story where I spotted the press release, and checked who else had done it - turns out it was no-one in the UK - before writing the story. It was great then to see that actually I had been right and people did find it interesting.

I had another couple of science stories out last week - and another one this week with some great dinosaur pictures. The hard part about writing that one was struggling to understand the Spanish scientist's English. I don't speak Spanish well enough to talk to someone about their research in Spanish, but at least I had a small clue about some of the things he might be groping for or how a word might be mispronounced.

One of the other Media Fellows told us the other day that she finds one of the hardest things about doing this is talking to people on the phone. I am not particularly phone phobic, but I have in the past tried really hard to make phone calls only in quiet circumstances. I just can't get away with that here. Both here at News Online and at the Science Radio unit the office is highly open plan - our "area" is smaller here but I don't even have a cubicle. I'm getting better at ringing people on the off chance, without having written down every single thing I want to say, and also at not getting a little nervous and forgetting important questions.

Writing this blog, which is one of those things I've been doing in my off moments, waiting for someone to ring me back, waiting for a meeting etc., is a total stream-of-consciousness job. Write, and press "publish" or "save" depending on whether I've run out of things to say or am getting bored or someone calls me. I tend to write my stories quite quickly too but go back and look at them again (you'll be pleased to hear!) but never really do for the blog.

So I was intrigued to see a slightly gimmicky website called "I Write Like". Apparently this blog is like Dan Brown. Urgh! At least my dinosaur story turned out to be like HP Lovecraft. I think that's better!

02 September, 2010

Busy busy

This week I started at News Online in a different BBC building. Apart from the fact that my nice BBC swipe card doesn't seem to work here, and I have to keep getting temporary badges every day, it is going really well.

I sat down at one desk on the first day (it is all rotas and hot-desking here, one part of working life that I'm glad we mainly avoid in academia!) and was immediately handed a story to work on. Then another one. And another one. I also found some pretty pictures (it's nice to use pictures!) and two of my stories went out yesterday. Can you tell I was VERY EXCITED?

Coral reef story

Stone age funeral feast story

These were very much time zone stories - I had to get on to the Australians on the coral reef story immediately before they went to bed (and I ended up begging one for pictures as he was getting home after an evening out) and then wait for the East Coast US researcher to get to work before calling her.

It's a lot more immediate in this part of the BBC, though it's not necessarily a case of getting things out the minute we get a press release - stories can be embargoed for up to a week, giving us plenty of time to call people up. Also, even if we are a little late on a story, if it doesn't get picked up by a lot of other outlets, it doesn't matter if we get it a few days late as we will be first.

And if something is really big news, and then a paper comes out, everyone will remember it. Personally, I am not that bothered by free kicks, but I gather that a lot of people are quite keen on that sport where men run up and down in shorts and try not to touch the ball - so a mathematical formula for a free kick that took place in 1997 is new enough to make the top story as I'm writing this.

I'm just waiting for someone to get off the phone so I can publish two more stories which had an embargo time of 5pm here, however - I finished them about 4.45 but we can't put them out yet then, so sometimes the time is pretty precise.

05 August, 2010

Week 3 - Getting to grips with editing software

My last week at the Science Radio unit and time for me to try and edit some of the recordings I made a couple of weeks ago. I do some sound editing for my day job but this is a whole other kettle of fish. None of the programs do what I think they should and a lot of this week was spent accidentally deleting things or trying to copy or cut the same section of audio multiple times! This was actually something I'd hoped I'd learn a lot more about but one thing I have learned is that audio recorded "in the field" is really different to that recorded in my lab under carefully controlled conditions.

Having collected audio under four headings while I was at my conference, I ended up editing segments and putting together a story for just one of these headings. One of them as I say was pretty plain to me, even, that it wouldn't really be usable as it wasn't very exciting to listen to. One of them I thought was interesting but what ended up being really useful was having the conversations with producers about whether it could be interesting, what could be interesting about it, and why it might not be really. The Hook, as Cat is also finding out about. I did edit that audio down a bit and passed it over to the Africa Service who might end up using some of it, but I'm not holding my breath.

But constructing the story which we're hoping will go out on Health Check was great - really challenging, really interesting, and slightly frustrating in that I knew more or less exactly how I wanted it to sound but couldn't get it to work - and then what I wanted to say never came out right either!

I had recorded myself asking the questions and the two scientists, plus the young people from the street kids' theatre, and I have to say I'd assumed that the questions I recorded would be used as well. But it doesn't really work out that way, especially when you need to rework things to make a shorter and easier-to-listen-to story. The other thing that hadn't really occurred to me was that if your interviewee says something in quite a long-winded way, or says an important thing, followed by a rambly anecdote, and then finishes off the important thing, you're going to have to summarise what they said. So it takes a lot of the following:

Listening to what you've got
Deciding on the overall story
Working out what you can get from the audio that will tell the story
Working out what else you'll need to add
Writing the links
Working out if what the interviewee said really fits with your link
Working out if you've said anything in the background that is unclear or just plain wrong
And then finally recording the links!

Which of course is a learning curve in itself. I am highly aware of my personal tendency to talk much too fast - and my poor students are too. I tend to panic when confronted with a long piece of prose I have to read and try and read it all in one go. Big mistake! Sloooow down... and put more expression into it... and smile... and write in your pauses...

So this story, which I'll link to when I know when it's going out, has a news trailer that should go out the same day on World Service News, also including me. So if/when that goes out I'll be glued to Listen Again.

Although I was involved with the main programme I've been working on, Material World, this week, I ended up working really hard on the other story and didn't go over for the recording. I had been interviewing one of the amateur scientists for So You Want To Be A Scientist who was getting very relaxed at doing interviews, but was a bit nervous - so I made the production assistant promise to hold her hand!
It is pretty interesting seeing the programme recorded so I will try and get back there when I'm back in London in a few weeks' time - apparently there is a free bus from White City to Broadcasting House.
I also polished off the notes for the two upcoming issues of Material World this week, though (sneak preview) the poor producers then had to contact me to find out where one of the sets of notes was. I could have sworn I had put it in a public drive but you know what happens when you swear you know where something is...

More in a couple of weeks' time when I am back from my sojourn in the day job and am at News Online. So far, this has been one of the most interesting and exciting things I've done recently, and everyone's been really friendly and helpful. Although you end up getting your writing slashed, edited, and critiqued - no-one is nearly as rude as the infamous Reviewer 2.

02 August, 2010

Week 2 1/2 - In which my friends appear on the radio

As I blogged earlier, with the programme I've mainly been working on it can be a little while before stories make it out there. I spotted a press release about a story I knew something about and (perhaps because I spoke so clearly and intelligently about it, perhaps because it also appealed to him, or perhaps because he could see I was potty about it and there was no shutting me up) one of the producers let me loose on it. Unlike the other stories I've been working on - including other ones on psychology - I do know all the ins and outs and minor details of this one, so this one came with major warnings about not getting technical and making sure it was all accessible to the general listener.

To start off with we were thinking we'd interview the author of the paper, plus someone who is in the US and does related brain imaging work. But the author is in the North of England - and wasn't at first thinking of coming down to London for the programme - which meant that both of the interviewees would be on a line. It's possible to do that but it's not ideal and you can usually tell. As an aside, I didn't go into the studio for this week's recording but listened to it while it was on - and one of the interviewees was in a studio and kept bumping the mike - it was really obvious, at least to me.

So the plan then was to get a friend/colleague of mine, who is a really chatty and enthusiastic person, who had gushed to me about how great the atricle was, and who works in London, to appear - while the author would be in the Newcastle studio. But in the end everything worked out even better, as the author came down for the day from Newcastle.

I wrote questions for both of them, rang them up and took down their answers - with dire warnings about "forget it's me, pretend it's your granny, or you're showing a school kid round the department, blah blah" - they were both very good when they were talking to me. They were extremely excellent when they came on the show (though I know the Newcastle researcher was a little nervous, she ended up making a joke that was, I think, better than the presenter's) and a good time was had by all.

A lot of the rest of the week was spent trying to find stories for future programmes, again. We had a couple of leads, one of which was a story about fossils, and in fact was research done by someone who'll be doing the same placement as me in a few weeks' time. The producer was fairly sure it would be a very popular story though - it's no good running something that everyone else has run, especially if they do it on a Monday and your show is on a Thursday. This turned out to be the case. Fortunately for everyone, the researcher was bored of going on the radio!

Another one was a story about marine life that was very cool - but there were two problems. One was the same as the fossil story - too much likely media coverage. And the other was the same as the bacteria painting - too visual.

So, I ended up researching yet another story - which isn't out yet. But I'll give you a taster. It's quite a cool story and though it's a psychology story, it's about science in general. I saw an article I really liked, on someone else's blog, and the producer said "hmm, interesting, bit philosophical, and really, stop plugging psychology already! is it topical?". The story was only out last month so that's OK on our programme, and then I spotted a book in the huge pile we have in the office which was by another psychologist, also out last month, and very relevant.

So, I got in touch with the first guy and then waited to see if I'd hear from him - he's in the US. And although working on science radio over the summer is great in one way, because weird and wacky stories get on, in another way it's bloomin' frustrating. How dare scientists take holidays! How dare US universities have 3 month summer breaks?

(Incidentally, if you ever send a book for review to a scientific journal - and I knew this already as I used to do reviews editing - probably about a 1 in 4 chance it will get read and reviewed. And half of them aren't relevant for the journal, so if it's relevant, let's say 1 in 2. If you send it to a media outlet? well let's just say there's a very very long shelf of unread books here...)

Week 2 - In which I stick microphones up people's noses

A conference would usually be a good opportunity to record some interviews of research that's just getting published, but this was even better because the unit I'm working in does World Service and anything coming out of Africa is particularly interesting. I browsed the conference programme and chose 3 topics that might be interesting and for each of them managed to get interviews with both researchers and normal people - the latter for most cases courtesy of an extremely friendly and nice Africa Service reporter based there.

I ended up interviewing 5 researchers - of which 4 were very easy to talk to and sounded quite down to earth, though they waffled no end, repeated themselves, overlapped themselves... you name it... thankfully I'm not expected to edit the audio, or at least not do the fine stuff.

One researcher was I'm afraid to say reeeeely boring and ended up sounding like he was lecturing me - I probably could have got a bit out of it but there wasn't really as much of a story as there could have been. That was a shame as to go with that one I and the BBC man chased around Lusaka trying to find a child selling things on the streets and ended up being chased out of the market, and finding a boy selling doughnuts, who turned out to be pretty good on the recording.

The other two pairs of interviewees both worked out pretty well, as did their "counterpart" people-on-the-street. It was great fun tracking down a grandmother for one of the stories - we asked one nice old lady selling fruit but she didn't want to be recorded on the street, and in the end found a lady living in an area with some smaller houses, who was looking after her disabled husband. We wanted to buy her a present so went for some food for her dinner, and a notebook and pen for her littlest boy. She had previously been looking after five grandchildren too, but thankfully now they are all with other relatives.

I also really enjoyed running round our conference dinner interviewing the entertainers, a group of kids who perform and work with street children - they are all of course dying to be on the radio as they are actORS darling, and hopefully at least one or two of them will get to be heard - of course the magic words "I'm from the BBC" open all kinds of doors.

Lusaka at this time of year is in the middle of winter - after a nice week's break in Greece and warm and humid London, I was pretty freezing! I had fortunately packed one wool jumper and though it was about 25C in the afternoons I ended up wearing my jumper till lunchtime every day and all evening.

28 July, 2010

In which I pretend to be a journalist

I'm currently spending a few weeks as a British Science Association Media Fellow (see here), one hopes reaping lots of rewards for my loyal reader in improving my skills at communicating science to the general public.

I started at the BBC Science Radio Unit about 2 weeks ago - mainly working on Material World, with side forays into Health Check and Science in Action. Material World is a live programme which is broadcast on Thursday afternoons, meaning Fridays are really quiet and the week ramps up from there. The first week here, the producers were treating me really gently but it still felt quite scary.

With a programme like this guests are interviewed first by us (that's the producers and random know-nothings like me and another work experience person), after we've written a list of relevant questions. We take notes on what the guest has to say, pass it on to the presenter, and a script for the programme is written - then you have to hope that what you've asked makes sense to the presenter, and that the interviewee gives roughly the same answers, and isn't too nervous!

The first interview I was involved with was with an MP, now, it will be pretty easy for you to find out who it was, but I won't mention her by name. In typical politician fashion, she didn't say very much to me (or on the programme) and was full of clich├ęs. Even the presenter, who prides himself on having a way with words, couldn't think of a synonym for "skilled up" once she'd said it to me three times and him twice. As I say, it felt quite scary to have that responsibility but it wasn't a huge job in reality.

Quite a lot of what I’ve been doing has been looking around to see what news is out there. I usually enjoy reading science blogs and feeds and it’s great to have this be temporarily part of my day job – hearing what’s new, getting press releases before things are out on the web, trawling feeds for something new and interesting. A lot of what is actually really new and interesting doesn’t make great radio, unfortunately. Did you know Alexander Fleming painted with bacteria, for example? But pictures aren't that great on radio.

Some of the stories end up being researched quite a while in advance. In my first week I started researching two more stories for Material World, one of which has gone out at the time of writing and one of which will be out in a couple of weeks’ time. The first one was my own “spot”, in fact of a colleague whose really interesting paper was about to come out – I raved about how cool the research was, the producers said “yeah, go for it”, and I talked to the main researcher, and after a bit of indecision also decided to ask another colleague on. The preliminary work on that was in my first week here but there’s more to this story so I’ll leave that for another entry.

After my first week I was due to go to a conference in Lusaka, Zambia – so I was given a digital recorder, tiny, and a microphone, huge, and some quick instructions on how to use it, and some tips for recording (make sure the background isn’t too noisy but isn’t too quiet, push the microphone right up people’s noses, check the volume level), and the email and phone no of the Africa Service’s employee there. I have been to Lusaka, but not for a really long time, so I was looking forward to having someone to show me round.

I'll try and write another entry on My Adventures in Lusaka shortly - it alternates between twiddling thumbs and manic here.

01 July, 2010

Will the baby cry less and sleep more if we have him in the bed with us?

What has been called "attachment parenting"* has become ever so trendy in recent years and for a lot of parents of very young infants there is a whole set of things that goes together under this heading. This tends to include breastfeeding on demand, sleeping in a family bed, carrying in a sling for a lot of the day, and responding very quickly when infants cry - never leaving them to cry when nothing obvious is wrong. Another group of parents - again hugely stereotyping here - go more for scheduled feeding, own bed, and putting in a baby seat or buggy rather than carrying the baby in a sling.

It's pretty hard to randomise parents to different groups and tell one "right, you lot sleep with baby in the bed but use a pushchair and feed on a schedule, and you lot over there, let's have feeding on demand but even if you think it's part of the package, don't have them in the bed with you or carry them in a sling".

However, infants in most cultures cry a lot and parents complain of them crying a lot, especially in the first three months. So it's probably safe to say that parents in two different European countries are both going to be complaining of infants crying and if they it might be helpful to compare how much the babies cry if infant care practices are different.

In fact, it turns out they are - the two stereotyped groups I've described above are both groups found commonly in the UK but in Denmark, practices are a little different - even parents who don't sleep in a family bed or feed on demand, tend to hold or carry the baby for longer each day. So it's possible to separate the effect of sleeping in a family bed and feeding on demand (the "attachment parenting" or "non-conformist", mainly UK group) from the effect of a high level of responsiveness and carrying (the Danish group).

What the study found was that it was the carrying and responsiveness - as practiced by "mainstream" Danish mothers - that led to less crying during the day and evening (and it's the evening crying that parents find so wearing). Sleeping together in one bed in particular didn't help crying or sleeping through the night. In fact, sleeping in one bed added on to carrying/holding made infants less likely to have a settled, all-night sleep with little crying by 3 months.

What was also interesting was that extreme crying - "colic", which really seems to have little to do with the digestive system - was no different between the groups. So "regular" cryers cry less in the daytime if they are held more, more at night if they are in a family bed, but "extreme" cryers are not a result of anything parents have or have not done. Frustrating if you have one of them, but a little bit reassuring if you are worried you are doing something wrong.

*It's a very distinct style of parenting which some parents prefer but there's no evidence it has much to do with attachment - I'm going to be writing on that shortly** so bear with me.

**i.e. some time this millennium

If you are interested:

Pediatrics. 2006 Jun;117(6):e1146-55. Infant crying and sleeping in London, Copenhagen and when parents adopt a "proximal" form of care. St James-Roberts I, Alvarez M, Csipke E, Abramsky T, Goodwin J, Sorgenfrei E.

07 June, 2010

Own goal?

As an experiment, I've enabled AdSense on my blog (not that I'm anticipating major revenue nor indeed any particular increase in traffic, but just in case).

I note that half my ads so far (out of a microscopic sample size, a phrase including the words "fingers", "hands" and "both" springs to mind) are for unproven parenting products and untested (or tested-and-found-wanting) therapeutic materials for children with disabilities. I sense some bloggy material... let me just add a draft post along the lines of "dodgy therapies and why parents fall for them".

25 March, 2010

Why do some children stop believing in Father Christmas?

I have to confess to a slight obsession with this subject - I suspect because of my own difficulty with the concept (my parents never set anything up to make me believe in Father Christmas) and also a slight scepticism about who, exactly, parents are doing it for - though many parents would admit they want their children to carry on believing for their own sake, not the children's sake.

A fascinating area of research has been following children's response to an invented fantasy character, the Candy Witch, who is kind, visits at Halloween, and gives you toys if you leave out some sweets for her. For younger children (4-5-ish) generally children tended to believe she was real - the more other make-believe figures they believed in, the more likely they were to believe. Children didn't need "backup" in the form of a parent-organised "visit" if they believed in a lot of other fantasy figures.

By the time children are 7 or 8 few of them believed in a lot of other fantasy figures (Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy etc.), but if they did, and they got a "visit", they were more likely to believe in the Candy Witch. It seems as if, should parents wish to keep the belief in fantasy figures alive in older children, they are going to need to put a lot more effort into it, and provide a lot more "evidence" that Father Christmas really exists.

Although some people (Richard Dawkins, I'm looking at you) think that children are really quite credible, and will believe more or less what their parents tell them, without any evidence, in fact children do seem to need evidence - they are not as credible as some people would like to think.

If you're interested:

Return of the Candy Witch

13 February, 2010

The book I wish I'd written

Or, no, I did not steal their title.

Recently this book landed on my desk for review. In fact I no longer pass books on for review, though this used to be part of my job, so I just kept it. I am pretty impressed (though already planning how I can persuade them to let me contribute to the next edition).

The chapters and topics span the whole of childhood, but majoring on infancy and adolescence, which is a fair reflection of both parents' concerns and the research that is out there. Most of the topics are related to behaviour, discipline, and social issues - my own research mainly concentrates on children's thinking and language so obviously I'd feel that was lacking - but I love the concept.

They begin by talking about the concept of evidence and why we need to look at more than just anecdotes in working out what works and what doesn't; there's a little history of child care advice and whether it's evidence-based or not (lots of crazy ideas out there in the past), which was interesting to me, at least.

The chapters that look like they might only be focussed on infancy (sleep, temperament, toilet training) also touch on related issues for older children - although I don't read most parenting books, I do get the impression that a lot of advice on some topics stops with infants - avoiding some quite distressing issues that mainly happen in older children. Soiling, for example, in an already-toilet-trained child can be really upsetting and hard to understand, though it's fairly easily dealt with.

I really appreciated the chapters that dealt with less-than-ideal circumstances though as the overall level of the book is pitched fairly high (probably because of where the authors are coming from) and the text is quite dense (yes, I know it's a book about children not for children but perhaps some graphics would have been nice), I'm not too sure how likely parents with desperate mental health issues are to read the book. But the sections on divorce and adoption are probably very good primers for well-educated parents in those situations, and there's also advice for those with child relatives and friends whose parents are struggling with depression, substance abuse, etc.

I think I may have either a British edition or the language has been tailored to be international (mentions of GPs etc.) but one section I felt didn't go far enough to reassure the very nervy subset of middle-class parents who are paranoid about vaccines - perhaps in the US the paranoia is not as great but here, it is really crazy (though thankfully calming down a bit). Some of these parents will never be reassured by anything professionals or researchers can say, but others might benefit from more calming statements and a clearer explanation than the fairly bald statements that "vaccines are safe". Or possibly just a direction to go and read Bad Science?

07 January, 2010

One in six children "have difficulty learning to speak"?

This statistic has been recently widely reported in the media, as well as by concerned charities (though one charity, I CAN, appears to have removed their press release from their website).

Can this really be true? Does it mean children's language is getting worse? Is it because of the 10% who were reported to have a TV in their room before the age of 1?

Well... probably not.

There are various serious problems with the Yougov poll. Firstly, although this wouldn't necessarily weight it in the direction of finding too many speech and language problems, it's an email poll. The researchers claim to have a 35-50% response rate and, although they don't say this, I'm assuming they told people before they started the poll that it was about children's language (well, they'd have to tell them it was about children under 7 as they only published responses from parents of children that age). So, from the start, parents who think their child might have language problems are biased to respond.

Secondly, the questionnaire asks: How old was your child when they said their first word?
The children being asked about are, at this point, aged up to 7 years. 71% of the children asked about were over 3. So the vast majority of these children said their first word more than a year ago.

It is very difficult to get parents to give accurate information about their child's concurrent language (at the same time you are asking). The best way to do it is to give them a checklist from which they can recognise words that their child understands or says. People are much better at recognition than recall. And they are much better at concurrent report than past report. But this survey uses recall (it asks the parents to tell them, without prompts, the first word their child said) and it uses past report.

Now, some researchers have successfully used past report. For example, a team working on children with autism and looking back at their milestones used prompts like "can you remember where you were staying, what you were doing, around your child's first birthday/first Christmas. Now, can you remember what kinds of play and toys your child liked then, and what they were doing. Can you remember if your chlid could do A, B, C at that time?". That study used home video of events like birthdays and Christmas to verify some of the things parents reported their children could do, but still couldn't verify them all.

Finally, the Yougov poll relies on parents' judgment about what constitutes "experiencing difficulty learning to talk or understanding speech". Parents reported that mainly they decided this by comparing their child to another child the same age or to their other children. Children's speech and language development varies hugely within a wide normal range. To know your child is in the bottom 5% of children learning to talk (usually the cut-off for clinical difficulties) you'd have to compare them to 19 other children who would all have to be better than your child. It's probably true that slightly more than 5% of children have difficulties learning to talk (probably because there are many reasons a child can have difficulties) but even so, parents do not usually have 19 other children to compare their child to (either "another", implying one, or siblings!).

Parents' judgments about whether their child is experiencing difficulties are hugely confounded by expectations and knowledge about typical language development. Parents expect boys to have difficulty learning to speak - and more parents reported their boys did have difficulty. 31% did report that they knew their child wasn't reaching milestones. Sadly, milestones reported in cheery helpful baby books and on cheery helpful baby websites are usually average. Surprise, surprise, half of children are below average. Being below average isn't "experiencing difficulty".

And parents don't all know very much about children's language development. Current theories suggest that providing a correct model when children make mistakes in language is the best way to help them. Thankfully most parents do know this. But 14% thought the best response was to correct them - research shows this rarely works. Even more worryingly, and flying in the face of evidence that shows children flourish when bilingual, and do better in a wide range of cognitive and language skills, most parents thought that when parents' first language wasn't English, they should still speak English to their child at home if they live in the UK. One wonders how many Welsh-speaking parents they asked. Thankfully far fewer of the parents who didn't speak English as a first language thought using English at home was a good strategy.

So we've seen that parents whose child has a problem are more likely to answer this poll, most parents were recalling their child's language a really long time ago, probably inaccurately, and a worryingly large proportion of parents failed to give an answer that would support their child's language development when asked about best practice in the home.

In fact, the actual ages reported for first words - apart from a few children whose parents said they have a disability - are almost all within the range of "don't panic". Just 4% of children spoke their first words, as recalled by parents, past 24 months (and a few of the 11% whose first words were 18-24 months may have been in the "let's have a look at it" category). And nearly 69% reported their child put two words together before 18 months (in fact, the middle of the age range for this is probably about 21 months - so, erm, talkative middle class kids whose parents have email, much?)

But one part of this survey rings a little true - some parents who thought their child had a speech problem felt unsupported. But again, perhaps given the figures this isn't a cause for concern. Only 23% thought their child didn't get any help - so, as 17% thought their child had a difficulty, 13% of parents thought their child had a difficulty but did receive some help. Since really only about 5-7% of children actually have a difficulty, this is pretty good - possibly another 8% of children are receiving help for a difficulty they don't have!

*Gernsbacher, M. A., Sauer, E. A., Geye, H. M., Schweigert, E. K., & Hill Goldsmith, H. (2008). Infant and toddler oral- and manual-motor skills predict later speech fluency in autism. Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry & Allied Disciplines, 49(1), 43-50.

(Note: if you fancy downloading the raw data, it's here - an excel file)