Q&A with Justin Yerbury, Professor of Neurodegenerative Disease at Wollongong University

Justin Yerbury is professor of neurodegenerative disease at Wollongong University in Australia. His research is motivated by a family history of motor neurone disease (MND), a condition that results in the loss of voluntary motor control. In 2016 he was himself diagnosed with the condition.

Justin has recently been awarded an Investigator Grant from Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) to continue his MND research. However, this was only after he appealed the initial rejection of his application on the grounds that the assessment of his track record had failed to take into account the impact of his…


Dr Bonnielin Swenor on the challenges facing researchers with disabilities

Dr Bonnielin Swenor is an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. She also has a visual impairment.

Last year, she and her colleagues published a study looking at applications for funding from the National Institutes of Health. They found that researchers with a disability have a lower success rate than those without a disability and that the number of applications from researchers with a disability is steadily falling even as applications overall are rising.

In November, I interviewed Dr Swenor for a Nature Index article on the challenges facing researchers with disabilities.

In our conversation, we talked about how the culture…


Justin Yerbury’s case illustrates the challenges facing researchers with a disability

Originally published at Nature Index, January 2021

In May 2020, when Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) announced the results of its annual Investigator Grant funding round, Justin Yerbury was among the 87% of applicants who missed out.

A professor in neurodegenerative disorders at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, Australia, Yerbury has motor neurone disease (MND). The condition means he has lost voluntary control of his muscles. He requires daily support from a team of carers, and his breathing is assisted by a mechanical ventilator. …


Illustration: Sofia Sita

Inside the Psychological Science Accelerator.

Published in The Psychologist magazine, October 2020

At school, Neil Lewis Jr was always the ‘smart Black kid’. Aged nine, he and his family emigrated to Florida from his birthplace in Jamaica and he soon learned that his new classmates had low expectations of Black students. ‘They had a stereotype that Black people are not smart’, he explains, ‘so it surprised them that I did so well’. That sense of being judged in the light of racial stereotypes, he adds, has never really gone away. Through high school, university, and even now, as an Assistant Professor at Cornell University, he…


Best practices for authors of scientific preprints

Article published at Nature Index, May 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only accelerated the already rapid growth in submissions of preprints in the biological sciences, but has brought them to the public’s attention as never before.

For example, the medical sciences preprint server medRxiv has already posted more than 3,200 preprints related to the disease. In April, it recorded 10 million views from scientists and the general public.

Many authors in the biological and medical sciences are new to the format. Nature Index asked five experts for their advice on preprint etiquette and best practice.

1. Think of a preprint as the ‘directors’ cut’ of a movie

“The right time to…


Researchers can expect to wait days, rather than months, for the initial peer review.

Published at Nature Index, April 2020.

As COVID-19 sweeps the world, the desire for scientific “good news” is stronger than ever. But with that comes the problem of false positive findings and false leads.

To address this challenge, the journal Royal Society Open Science is expediting its Registered Report review process specifically for COVID-19 research.

In a Registered Report, the study is peer reviewed prior to data collection, with a focus on the methods and analysis plan. The aim of the COVID-19 initiative is to return this initial review to authors within one week of submission.

Passing peer review means…


Study finds that shorter careers explain gender differences in scientific productivity and impact

Article published March 2020 at Nature Index

Despite increasing representation of women in science, gender gaps for publications and citations have continued to widen since the middle of last century.

A new study has found an explanation: women are more prone than men to dropping out of science, thereby curtailing their publishing careers. That gap is also growing.

When differences in career length are controlled for, male and female scientists have similar rates of publication and citation, researchers at the Centre for Complex Network Research at Northeastern University, Boston, have found.

Study co-author Roberta Sinatra, a data scientist at IT…


Brian Nosek explains the potential for accelerating collaboration in psychological science

Published at Nature Index, January 2020

In the summer of 1998, a group of psychologists left their labs at Yale University and headed to the beach. They pitched a tent and began running experiments.

Among them was Brian Nosek, a graduate student interested in the subconscious biases that affect our social interactions. The effects he was looking for are subtle. For the signal to cut through the noise, he needed thousands of research participants — far more than he could feasibly test on his own.

His fellow students and postdocs were facing a similar predicament, so they decided to consolidate…


Photo by Harry Quan on Unsplash

My 2008 study challenging the weak central coherence account of autism

Originally published at Cracking the Enigma, September 2010

In her classic book, Autism: Explaining the Enigma, Uta Frith coined the term ‘weak central coherence’ to describe the tendency of people with autism to focus on details at the expense of pulling together different sources of information and seeing the big picture. Frith described this as the “red thread” running through many of the symptoms of autism, including both the difficulties with social interaction and the strengths in attention to detail.

Frith argued that the ability to pull together different sources of information is particularly important for language comprehension and that…


Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Study highlights the importance of the social environment in the development of autistic children’s social skills

Originally published on Cracking the Enigma, March 2011

It goes without saying that brothers and sisters play an important role in a child’s development, particularly when it comes to their social skills. For young children especially, the family is their social environment and the main opportunity to learn about other people and what makes them tick.

Research conducted in the past 15 years or so has consistently shown that children with siblings of a similar age tend to pass tests of “theory of mind” at a younger age than those without siblings. …

Jon Brock

Cognitive scientist, science writer, and co-founder of Frankl Open Science. Thoughts my own, subject to change.

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