Read the full article at spectrumnews.org.
Vanessa H. Bal’s alarm clock is a cheeky toddler named Annelise. The alarm sounds every morning at 6:30 a.m., as the 3-year-old recites her favorite line from the movie “Frozen:” “The sky’s awake, so I’m awake.”
Between making breakfast, walking the dog and cajoling Annelise to brush her teeth, Bal and her husband Brian map out the day. On a typical morning, he drops Annelise at daycare and returns home, where he builds iPhone and Android apps. And she heads straight to the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), where she explores the lifelong effects of autism with her LifeSPAN team. After work, she picks up Annelise from daycare and grabs groceries on the way home.
By 10 a.m., Bal has checked off half the tasks on her to-do list, including several work-related phone calls and drafting the methods section of a grant. Now it’s time to meet with a research assistant to pin down a strategy for recruiting participants for a study. In the silvery light of the building’s atrium, the two women spread out papers on a round table and review the logistics.
Their goal is to explore how children with autism or dyslexia physically respond to their own emotions. To get at this, they plan to investigate changes in the children’s breathing, heart rate and perspiration as the children watch videos that provoke feelings of embarrassment or self-consciousness. Bal says she is curious about whether these physiological measures track with autism severity. She also aims to find out whether having certain mutations linked to autism predicts a child’s physical response to emotion.
The meeting ends at noon, and Bal walks out into the sunshine to an empty lot filled with sawdust and food trucks. Over plates of curry and pad Thai, she traces the arc of her career.
In her second year of college at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Bal earned money entering data for a long-term study of adults on the spectrum. Then, a graduate student in Catherine Lord’s lab, Rhiannan Luyster, broke her arm. Luyster needed someone to accompany her to the home of a young girl with severe autism; Bal volunteered. She helped Luyster with behavioral strategies to help the girl sit in a chair and practice naming and requesting objects.
The girl often threw tantrums during the sessions, but Bal never got rattled, recalls Luyster, now assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at Emerson University in Boston. “She was incredibly mature, very composed and calm.”
When Luyster graduated in 2009, she handed the reins to Bal, who began making the trek to the child’s house on her own. Every week, she’d sit on a couch in the family’s basement and work with the little girl. “There were moments, sitting on that couch, that I considered how crazy it was that this family needed so much help — but all they had was me,” Bal says.
The experience convinced Bal to pursue a career in autism research: She enrolled in a master’s program in neuroscience at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. “Vanessa is a veritable dynamo,” says Bal’s advisor, Anthony Bailey, then chair of psychiatry at the university. “Her drive and intelligence were immediately apparent.”