Phoebe Spencer speaks at the Mandurah Science Cafe in August 2018.

Blog by Suzanne Jones


Something that always amazes me is that any subject, if presented by someone with a passion for it, will be absolutely fascinating. That’s what I enjoy most about the Science Cafe evenings hosted by Peel Bright Minds.  For a few hours, I can sit and listen to speakers tell the story of their research, what inspires them and how they think it will help change lives or the environment. The Science Cafe in Mandurah on Tuesday 28th August was no different.

We heard from two speakers: Phoebe Spencer, a PhD candidate from UWA who is studying growth rates of children in East Timor; and Dr Gail Alvares, Adjunct Research Fellow at the UWA Centre of Child Health Research, an expert in Autism Spectrum Disorder.

First to speak was Phoebe who is about to complete her PhD research looking at how the environment a child grows up in shapes their biology and growth. Her work focuses on energy input, i.e. the calories consumed, and how that energy is then used by the body to perform vital tasks such as movement, growth, and protecting us from illness. Think of it like a pie with three roughly equal slices. For a child with adequate nutritional input and a healthy balance of those three categories, their growth should fulfil their genetic growth potential, allowing for variation due to genetics.

Studies of the children in East Timor have shown that on average, the children are shorter than the global average. Phoebe has spent a total of around 10 months in East Timor, looking at why that might be, and if anything can be done to help the children reach their genetic growth potential. To collect her data she regularly visits two towns where she interviews families about their daily lives. The study has measured approximately 1,500 children, revisiting the families yearly to track growth over time.

The theory behind the research is that if the children are getting sufficient energy input, i.e. their diet isn’t too bad, then their energy must be being used up by the other uses: activity and illness. It is very hard to calculate the energy input of the children, however, it is possible to interview the families about their daily lives and make an estimate of their energy output for activity and illness. The results here were quite surprising.

The interviews showed the children were doing a very high amount of activity, up to 8 hours a day. Compare this to the one hour recommended in Australia and we can easily see one way that a lot of energy is being used up. Phoebe also discovered that around 50% of the children had been sick in the month leading up to her interview.

With both activity and illness taking up a lot of energy, there is not a lot left for growth. This would explain why the children were not reaching their height potential. But what can be done to help?

Phoebe told us about the involvement of the East Timor government and their interest in improving infrastructure so the children didn’t need to walk so far to school, or to collect water, and so on. They are also looking into improving health so the children’s immune systems are not working so hard.

Phoebe was clearly passionate about her research and described “a different kind of science with real people talking about their normal lives”. Her work can make a huge difference to the lives of the children she meets.

Our second speaker of the evening was Dr Gail Alvares who works with families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders to help them achieve their full potential. Dr Gail started off by asking us to picture ourselves in the shoes of a child with autism. We imagined a playground interaction with another child where we were uncomfortable with eye contact. The other child perceived this as lack of interest and walked off, leaving the first child confused and disheartened.

It was a very effective way of understanding that just because someone may not be showing the social cues we are used to, that doesn’t mean they’re ignoring us. Dr Gail went to explain that although we are born with an instinct to communicate – for example, how a baby seeks to make eye contact with its mother - not everyone gets the same level of ‘reward’ for these interactions. Because of this, some people with autism may not develop these skills in the same way.

The really interesting outcome from the work of Gail’s team is that they found people with autism are often comfortable with technology, and online interactions, much more than in person. They have developed a game app called ‘Frankie and Friends’, which they hope will give children an avenue to develop their social skills. The game is still in development but will hopefully be available soon for anyone with a smart phone or tablet.

This is another great way that scientific research and technology innovation are coming together to help people.

Many of the audience had questions and the talk turned into a group discussion as people shared their experiences. One lady spoke of how her daughter who has autism was excelling in her work at McDonalds because she felt comfortable the short and scripted interactions with customers. Gail backed this up by describing how employers are starting to recognise the varied skill sets of people with disabilities.

It’s not all science though. Although a lot of the questions were about the science, many were about how the scientists were able to connect with the communities they work with, and how they feel about their work.

It was wonderful to hear how Phoebe learned the local language before her first trip to East Timor, travelled solo and trained two locals up as her research assistants. Not everyone received her so warmly though! Phoebe told us about a cow that took a dislike to her and how she needed to be escorted around the village to avoid unwanted bovine attention.

Gail spoke of her pleasure in seeing the children she met flourish, and become the full version of themselves.

One of the things I really enjoy about the Science Café events is that they create a friendly environment where everyone can interact with scientists and innovators. People can ask about the research, or about why someone is particularly interested in their subject. We can get to know the people behind the scientific papers and see the human aspect of their work. The scientists also hear experiences from our community, and what outcomes we think will help our families.

It’s great that the children of the Peel region get to see these scientists who look nothing like the stereotypical old man with fuzzy hair in a lab coat scientist. And us adults get new insights into our world too.


Want to learn more: 

Visit the Facebook page of the Family Ecology and Children's Growth in Timor-Leste project for Phoebe's work, and the website and Facebook page of the Telethon Kids Institute's Autism team for Gail's work. 


About the author: Suzanne is a geoscientist and outdoor enthusiast. She is passionate about sharing her love for science and nature with younger generations. You can read about her adventures with her young family on her blog Keeping Up With Little Joneses.