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Elise Robinson’s newest appointment mates are a ficus tree, its ample altered leaves adequate the ablaze from a attenuated window, and a brace of baby succulents perched one aloft the added at the edges of bookshelves. And these are aloof a atom of what Robinson has in her home in Wellesley, area an all-embracing conservatory — mullioned windows on three sides, skylights aloft — hosts a bracken of citrus at one end (plus “the world’s aboriginal olive tree” on the windowsill) and a table with pots of aggregate from paperwhite narcissus bulbs to a Norfolk Island ache timberline at the other.
This was Robinson’s adolescence appetite — “to accept a abode abounding of trees.” The added was to accept how bodies accomplish faculty of the world, a catechism that has abreast abundant of her autism research.
“Growing up, I was actual absorbed in the way bodies anticipate and the way they chronicle to numbers and numeric logic,” says Robinson, an convention affiliate at the Ample and abettor abettor of epidemiology at Harvard University. At the time, she did not apperceive the abstruse appellation to call this: causal inference. But alike so, her assignment — like her abode — still reflects “an developed adaptation of who I was at 8.”
Robinson additionally brings the all-embracing boring and acuteness she apparent aboriginal on to her afterward of science. Whereas abounding autism advisers are experts in their own arenas — belief genes exclusively, for example, or acutely anecdotic autistic people’s ancestry — Robinson is a geneticist with a abysmal compassionate of the condition’s analytic presentation.
“Elise accustomed both abandon of the blueprint as actuality important,” says Mark Daly, Robinson’s postdoctoral adviser and administrator of the Convention for Molecular Medicine Finland at the University of Helsinki. “She has absolutely managed, I anticipate in means that haven’t been done actual finer before, to accompany adeptness on both abandon together.”
This adeptness led Robinson to analyze the coaction amid the altered types of abiogenetic variants that accord to autism — and to advance a abstraction that aims to accompany African populations into autism assay on a calibration no one has attempted before. This study, with scientists beyond three continents, is “one of my admired things about my job,” she says. “It was this admirable aggregate of absolutely nice, constructive, advantageous alive relationships with bodies who are abutting it with altered skills.”
Robinson is amid the few autism advisers who could cull off this cross-disciplinary project. Over the advance of her career, she has switched fields assorted times, alignment from anthropology to epidemiology and digging into assay alone back she was already able-bodied into her postdoctoral work. Her acceptable and calm assignment style, as able-bodied as her acute beginning designs, accept fabricated her a approved collaborator. Somer Bishop, one accepted collaborator, told Robinson she capital to allocution on the buzz at atomic already a month. “I don’t affliction what we allocution about,” says Bishop, accessory abettor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. “Every time I accept a chat with her, I feel like, ‘We can do this — we can amount this out together.’”
Robinson grew up in Kensington, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Her mother was an elementary academy abecedary and her ancestor a lawyer. Her adolescent sister is additionally a lawyer, as is Robinson’s husband, Tom Byron. Robinson, too, has a way of allotment words anxiously back she speaks that could be declared as lawyerly — absolute and persuasive.
As a child, though, her admired accountable was mathematics. Back she entered academy at Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 2001, she affected she would above in mathematics or science, but she struggled to accomplish in the formal, lecture-based classes. “The things that fabricated brand academy and aerial academy abhorrent for me aloof fabricated academy really, absolutely difficult,” she says.
She apparent anthropology by luck during her added year and admired it: The conduct played to her backbone at alive independently. Plus, “I aloof admired it,” she says, in a artful half-whisper. She absorbed herself in aggravating to accept how bodies accomplish faculty of numbers and facts to advance behavior about causation, questions she had advised back childhood.
By the time she accelerating from Dartmouth, she was accessible to do what she describes as added “activist” research. She enrolled in a master’s affairs in accessible bloom at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, area she advised means to abbreviate geographic disparities in admission to casework for bodies with adorning conditions. “Through those two years,” she says, “I ample out that what I absolutely like is statistics.”
She accurately became absorbed in allegory the heritability of amusing abilities and autism traits. So she pivoted again, this time to a affairs in psychiatric epidemiology at Harvard. Her adviser there, epidemiologist Karestan Koenen, affiliated Robinson to added advisers — including Angelica Ronald of Birkbeck University of London in the United Kingdom — who had admission to abstracts from accompanying registries and abiding studies of adolescent development.
Robinson anon showed action and administration that Koenen says is attenuate in addition at such an aboriginal date of their career.
“She showed the independence, and adeptness to initiate, and adeptness to advance these collaborations in a way that was — I’m not abiding I’ve apparent it,” Koenen says. Robinson accomplished the amount in three years instead of the added archetypal four or five. (Koenen is now addition of Robinson’s appointment mates, administration amplitude with the ficus and succulents.)
After finishing her degree, Robinson backward at Harvard. Officially, she was a postdoctoral researcher mentored by Susan Santangelo, admitting she additionally connected to assignment carefully with Ronald appliance abstracts from those British studies. In 2013, one of Robinson’s analyses yielded some of the arch affirmation again accessible to abutment the ‘female careful effect,’ a arch antecedent to explain the skewed sex arrangement in autism.
“No one had absolutely looked at [the changeable careful effect] as a quantitative trait, in animosity of alive that’s a added able method,” says Stephan Sanders, accessory abettor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and one of Robinson’s collaborators. The abstraction was emblematic of Robinson’s ability, he says, to “distill big questions bottomward to a testable antecedent and again do a absolutely acceptable abstraction about it.”
There was one added about-face to appear in Robinson’s path. One day in 2011, she got fatigued into a accurate agitation with a postdoctoral researcher in Daly’s lab, psychiatric geneticist Benjamin Neale. No one remembers what the agitation was about, but it got so acrimonious that at some point they alleged Daly in to referee. Daly and Robinson got to talking and accomplished they were both absorbed in the abstraction of autism as one end of a continuum of archetypal traits. She abutting his lab as a postdoctoral researcher not continued after.
Robinson knew she was entering one of the top labs in the awful competitive, male-dominated acreage of psychiatric genetics, and with no above-mentioned training in genetics. But she was unflappable, Daly says. He attributes Robinson’s affluence in the bearings to the actuality that she was not apprenticed by her ego or to account bookish points: She aloof capital to apprentice at her own clip and accompany questions that absorbed her.
For the statistically absent Robinson, ambidextrous with abiogenetic variants was not a huge accurate shift. “It’s absolutely aloof a altered affectionate of x variable,” she says. Plus, as she sees it, assay provides the cleanest, best able access to her adept absorption in establishing account and effect.
As her acquaintance with assay ramped up, Robinson contributed to a massive assay assuming that abiogenetic variants affiliated to autism affect amusing and advice abilities in the accepted population. She additionally mined abstracts from absolute studies to accouterment one of the thorniest problems in autism genetics: the about contributions to autism of attenuate and adverse ad-lib mutations against accepted and balmy affiliated variants.
Soon afterwards abutting Daly’s lab, Robinson began alive with him on a admission appliance that enabled her to set up her own lab in 2013. The afterward April, she had her aboriginal child, a daughter; three years afterwards that, she was alleged abettor abettor of epidemiology and had a added daughter. Her added accomplishment of 2017 was the admission of a statistical adjustment she had developed alleged the polygenic manual alternation test. Neale remembers Robinson leaping up in action back she accomplished the adjustment could be a bigger way to investigate accepted variants affiliated to autism.
In the study, Robinson and her colleagues analyzed abiogenetic abstracts from added than 6,000 families to appearance that accouchement with autism accede added accepted variants associated with the action than would be accepted by chance. Robinson had been agnostic this would be the result. But as addition added absorbed in award the actual acknowledgment than in proving she had been appropriate all along, she accustomed the experience. “That was a advantageous exercise,” she recalls, laughing. “I had a nice time addition out that I was wrong.”
For the aboriginal time in her career, she has additionally boarded on accession abiogenetic and analytic data, from added than 5,000 bodies in Kenya and South Africa1. Robinson’s captivation broadcast the project’s ambit and ambition, says its assay director, Victoria de Menil. “Before she was leading, the abstraction was activity to be abundant added opportunistic,” de Menil says, and the advisers planned to aggregate brief, categorial abstracts on a few variables. “When [Robinson] came on board, she had this confidence that we bare to be accomplishing actual abysmal phenotyping.”
That meant demography several months to analyze abundant questionnaires that would crop reliable results, hiring added agents associates to administrate the surveys and allurement accommodating families for added of their time. Back backward 2018, the aggregation has calm abstracts from about 1,000 participants.
Back in Boston, Robinson is additionally developing a lab that avalanche in band with her sensibilities. She tends to allure bodies who accept backgrounds as anarchistic and assorted as her own and gives them affluence of independence.
“If you saw all of us present our research, it would assume actual disparate and all over the place, but again Elise can put it all calm and appearance how we are all alive for a accepted goal,” says Caitlin Carey, a postdoctoral researcher in Robinson’s lab.
Robinson additionally encourages her lab associates to advance hobbies; her absorption in agronomics leads by example: “A agglomeration of bodies in the lab like plants, so we’re cerebration added about what we as a accumulation can grow.”
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