Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why the question ‘fraternal or identical’ is important to all twins?

Twins come in two types: identical and fraternal. Identical twins result from the splitting of a very early embryo and share the same genetic sequence. Fraternal twins are as genetically different as any two siblings; they just happen to share a womb.

When twins are born, the first thing a parent asks is “are they identical?” If one’s a boy and one’s a girl, it’s easy – they are fraternal. With all the other twins, this is where things get complicated.

If we know for sure that the twins shared a placenta, there is a high chance they are identical. This leaves almost half of all twins who have a separate placenta and are the same sex and the only way to know for sure whether they are identical of fraternal is to get a DNA fingerprint (‘zygosity’) test done.

To complicate things even further, everyone, including strangers, family and friends seem to have an opinion about ‘identical or fraternal’ one way or another. Furthermore, many wrongly assume that identical twins always look and behave identical or that identical twins always share a placenta. These false assumptions have led to confusion, yet little research has been conducted with the twins community about understandings and assumptions.

So, at the 2012 Australian TwinsPlus Festival, we asked for twins and parents of twins who were in any way unsure of their genetic identity. In one day we got over 100 pairs!

We asked for their best guess on ‘identical or fraternal’; we asked about the reasons for their assumptions and we asked about the importance of accurate knowledge. Responses were compared with twins’ true genetic identity determined from cheek cell DNA they provided on the day.

We found that many parents and twins had been misinformed in the past but that knowledge of their true genetic status provided peace of mind and made them and their families happy, if a little surprised in some cases.

The main reasons given for the importance of such knowledge related to feelings of certainty, a sense of identity and concerns about health implications. For these reasons we propose that all same-sex twins and their parents should be advised to seek the certainty of a genetic test to minimise confusion and to provide peace of mind.

In the meantime, we have gathered more evidence in favour of universal zygosity testing for same-sex twins and we have a manuscript under review. Watch this space!

If you would like more details, see our publication which is also available for personal use on request.

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From failure to success: how people are fighting back against fetal alcohol specrum disorder

This blog is my report from the 6th International Conference on Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder in Vancouver in March 2015.

Alcohol. It makes us merry, loosens social constraints. It’s sold to us in a bewildering array of forms and is marketed incessantly to us as soon as we can legally drink. However, it is arguably the most abused drug in the world.

Excess alcohol damages our brain, heart, liver, pancreas and immune system and causes a variety of cancers. According to the World Health Organisation, 3.3. million deaths every year are attributable to alcohol abuse and 139 million years of healthy life is lost worldwide.

Drinking rates are rising, especially in women. According to prizewinning author and recovered alcoholic Ann Dowsett Johnston, some female students are now playing drinking games of “competitive blacking out” and some women are now getting chronic liver disease in their 20s. Moreover, these trends are not confined to any single socioeconomic group. At the heart of the problem, women are drinking alcohol as self-medication for depression, anxiety, loneliness, trauma and abuse. As Ann says, “alcohol is the modern woman’s steroid”.

This is sounding alarm bells because half of all pregnancies are unplanned and when consumed in excess in pregnancy, alcohol causes malformation of the embryo. From just 3-4 weeks old, a 1mm embryo is susceptible to alcohol even before a woman may know she is pregnant. As a result, a child is born every 30 seconds with a major brain disorder due to prenatal alcohol exposure (source, Denis Lamblin).

Brain disorders form part of the diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD), which is an umbrella term covering the spectrum of physical, behavioural and developmental outcomes that may occur after exposure to alcohol in the womb. Children with FASD have recognisable facial characteristics, such as a thin upper lip, small lower jaw, short nose, a flat midface and an indistinct philtrum, the groove that runs from the nose to the mouth.

fas_face-revisedLatest research has shown that alcohol slows down the development of a structure that forms during human development, called the neural crest, which gives rise to a diverse cells including the muscles and bones of the face and the certain parts of the brain. It effectively slows down development of all these structures meaning that they are often incompletely formed. 

Children born with FASD are at a huge disadvantage. More than 60% of kids with have been physically, sexually or emotionally abused (Charles Raineki). Nine out of every ten children with FASD are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. Youths with FASD are 19x more likely to be incarcerated and are much more likely to be the victims of crime themselves (Svetlana Popova). According to the National Organisation fior Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (NOFASD) “FASD is referred to as the ‘invisible disability’ as it often goes undetected, whether it be overlooked, ignored, attributed to another known non-genetic condition or even simply blamed on ‘poor’ parenting or post birth environments.”

What stood out for me at this conference was that delegates represented all stakeholders: researchers, doctors, social workers and even those directly affected by FASD. This gave the conference an emotionally-charged atmosphere. There was laughter and there were tears.

We heard the compelling life story of Paul Burke, father of a boy with FASD. He introduced his qualification as “OCD, ADHD and a DAD.” He stood in front of hundreds of people and admitted “I carry shame, I fed her drugs and alcohol when my wife was pregnant”” and followed it with “What do you do when your child says Daddy, why am I the way that I am?” and Daddy I don’t want to live anymore?”

We heard from Ann Dowsett Johnston that there are many reasons why a woman drinks even after she has discovered she is pregnant. Apart from the reasons mentioned above, women cite peer pressure, social norms and, as we have heard, pressure from their partners. One counsellor told me that one woman said that she couldn’t quit because her husband had told her that if she did, he would go with another woman.

We  heard of the many advances being made into characterising FASD using tools such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) , which showed that alcohol slows down the flow of “traffic” along the brain’s “superhighways” that connect different brain regions (Michael Charness and Kristina Uban). We saw the latest three dimensional facial scan data from Peter Hammond. We also saw how the two types of data can be superimposed and how studying developing rats could aid in our understanding of how FASD develops.

Research-Projects-6-300x225Joanne Weinberg presented data showing that prenatal alcohol exposure in offspring of rats showing twice the human legal limit for driving resulted in prolonged inflammatory responses to infection, even as adults. This may reflect that children with FASD have a higher risk of immune disorders. The brain has its own immune system and its own immune cells – the microglia, which ‘tidy up’ neurons that are “past their sell-by date”. Fulton Crews showed that alcohol exposure renders more neurons inactive and mobilise many more microglia than usual, thus disturbing the status quo in the brain’s immune system.

Another exciting topic presented was how environments can interact with genetic sequences. We are all carrying genetic ‘risk’ variants that are only ‘activated’ when you encounter a specific environment. Thus, genetic knowledge could eventually lead to avoiding specific environments. Tatiana Faroud showed a couple of examples that she has discovered. Canadian researcher Michael Kobor presented unpublished data of how alcohol can get “under the skin” and change epigenetic dimmer switches controlling gene activity.

In an exciting development, Cynthia Kane found that an anti-diabetes drug can prevent immune activation in the brain in an animal model, showing a faint glimmer of hope for future treatments in humans.

A great success story came from here in Australia. June Oscar told the amazing story of how, in the remote Western Australian town of Fitzroy crossing, she mobilised the local aboriginal community to rise up and say “enough is enough” to the high rate of FASD and alcohol-related violence, ill-health and suicide. In the Lililwan (“all our little ones”) project, she achieved a change in liquor licencing laws, and was successful at getting rid of “cowboy cops” from the police force, all despite encountering vilification, threats and ignorance.

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June helped establish the Marulu (“precious and worth nurturing”) Unit  that offers help to parents and caregivers of FASD children and promotes  a “no alcohol” messages. We heard from paediatricians James Fiztpatrick and Liz Elliott on how things are slowly being turned around, for example the proportion of healthy birth weight babies is rising. However, there is much still to do, and all despite the government refusing to continue funding the project. James eloquently and passionately talks about the issue in this TED talk.

grogWe heard a similar story from Carolyn Hartness, a Native American, who is revising traditional cultural practices to help heal the “soul wound” of past social injustices, helping to tackle the root of the problem of alcohol abuse. Her culture taught her that “we are all responsible for the health of the next seven generations” and recommended “Even if you don’t care enough about yourself, care for the next generation”.

These messages wee echoed by the presence of multiple support groups who were given ample space among the commercial stands, which is a rarity at conferences. One of the most powerful campaigns was the “Too young to drink” campaign by Fabrica.

TYTD

Support groups also used the power of social media to share their message, as illustrated by Yours Truly.

jeffAll-in-all, this was a great conference in which I was immersed in the subject matter that I am currently studying. It made me  understand the problem and the reasons why research can eventually lead back to the community.

What is autism?

The United Nations has declared that 2 April each year will be World Autism Awareness Day, with an aim of bringing more attention to the condition and help give a voice to the millions of individuals who are undiagnosed, misunderstood or looking for help.

An estimated one in 100 people has autism and autism is diagnosed in almost four times as many boys as girls.

Just as autism is a spectrum of disorders, there are many answers that add up to give the bigger picture of autism. For this I enlisted the help of a number of different autism experts: doctors, psychologists, people living with autism and support groups. Thanks to everyone who gave up their time.

This blog is for all those who wish to know something more about the spectrum that is autism. I have provided a number of links for those interested in finding out more.

 

Doctors and scientists

“Autism is a description of behavioural characteristics which may bring a person great challenges but also great strengths,” Dr Lauren Taylor, a Psychologist from the University of Western Australia. Lauren recommends people seek information from the National Autistic Society, the leading UK charity for people with autism.

“Autism is term that describes a certain pattern of social, communication and other behaviours in humans, and all of the wonders and challenges that these bring.” – Professor Andrew Whitehouse, a psychologist. Andrew represents the Cooperative Research Centre for Living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Autism CRC).

“Autism is an umbrella term for a set of highly heterogeneous neurodevelopmental conditions which share difficulties in social communication and restricted and repetitive behaviours and interests. These are generally present from early in life with onset variable over the first two years. In the absence of known causes and cures the best approach to supporting individuals with autism is early identification, diagnosis and early intervention. Most people with autism will need some supports throughout their lives.” – Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, Director, Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University

“Autism is when subtle changes in neuronal wiring turn everyday social interaction and sensory processing into a monumental challenge.” Elisa Hill – University of Melbourne. Elisa recommends the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (SFARI) web site.

“Autism is a spectrum of developmental conditions, caused by a variable and complex combination of genetic and environmental factors, in which altered brain maturation affects various behaviours, including social interaction and communication”. – Professor Tony Hannan, Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, Melbourne

 

People living with autism

“Autism is a difference in experiencing, being and doing” – Dr Emma Goodall who is on the autism spectrum.

“As an autistic woman, wife and mother, autism is just a different way of sensing the world. No cure needed.” – Tina Richardson, person on the spectrum.

“Autism is part of what makes me me. I like being me so it’s hard to say it in overly negative terms” – Jeanette Purkis, also on the autism spectrum

“The good, the bad and everything in between.”- Dr Sara Hassan, mother. Sara also went on to say:

“People often wonder what it’s like having a child with autism. It’s best described as follows: it’s having a child with the impulsivity of a toddler but with the strength of an adult. You are constantly on your guard, during every waking minute. It’s the inability to truly relax at the park or at the beach. It’s rejecting kind invitations to friends’ homes because you cannot deal with the chaos that may ensue when your child’s impulsivity rears its head. It’s the staying up at night worrying who will take over the reins of care once you’re gone. It’s the crippling fear of expanding your family, because one child with a disability is hard enough. It’s the disdainful stare of strangers devoid of understanding or compassion. It’s the tears of gratitude at every small accomplishment. It’s the promise that one day, every tear, every hardship, every sacrifice, will be worth it. It is the kindness, compassion and support of those around us that make this journey bearable.”

Next, in the three awesome YouTube clips below, young people talk about what it’s like to live with autism and advise on how to treat a person with autism with respect and dignity, like you would any other person:

Just Like You , Spectrospective and ‘In My Mind’.

Finally, read this guide: How to Explain Autism to People .

Watch, read and learn.

 

Support groups

AMAZE is the peak organisation for Autism Spectrum Disorder in the state of Victoria. Here is an abbreviated version of their definition of autism:

“Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental condition which affects individuals in two main areas:

  • Individuals have impaired communication and social interaction
  • Individuals have restricted, repetitive patterns of behaviour, interests or activities

ASD affects the way that individuals are able to interact with others and they often find the world to be a confusing place. Difficulty communicating can result in ‘melt downs’ – this differs from a tantrum as the individual does not choose to have a meltdown.

Individuals with ASD often have sensory sensitivities – they may be under- or over-sensitive to any of the five senses.

Every individual with ASD is different.

Some people with ASD have other conditions as well, such as speech and language difficulties, intellectual disability, sleep problems, attention problems, epilepsy, anxiety and depression and difficulties with fine and gross motor (movement) skills.”

 

Other useful and trusted web sites

The Raising Children Network is an award-winning website that connects Australians with tips and tools for everyday parenting, from pregnancy to teens. The Murdoch Childrens Research Institute provides expert content and is a member organisation of Raising Children Network.

The website’s information on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) describe it as “a group of conditions that cause people to have difficulties with social communication, to have narrow interests and repetitive behaviours, or to be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to taste, touch, sight or sounds.

They also say that autism spectrum disorder is “a brain-based condition – that is, where the brain hasn’t developed in a typical way.”

They also highlight that:

“The prevalence of ASD has risen since the 1990s. Research suggests that the apparent increase is at least partly because of:

  • increased awareness about ASD, so more cases are being identified
  • changes in the criteria for diagnosing ASD.”

They go on to say that:

“Evidence also strongly suggests a genetic basis to autism spectrum disorders – that is, the condition might come from the complex interaction of several genes involved in brain development. One specific gene is unlikely to be responsible for ASD. Rather, it might be that several genes combine and act together. Researchers have found many possible genes that might play a role in the development of ASD. It’s also possible that different gene combinations might explain the differences seen in ASD – for example, why one child is more sensitive to sounds than another.

We don’t yet know exactly what causes autism spectrum disorder. In fact, it’s suspected that there might be several causes. Among these are brain development and genetic factors. ASD is not caused by anything that parents do or don’t do while raising their child”.

Their support for parents:

“Any young child might behave in the ways listed above at different developmental stages. This isn’t necessarily a sign of ASD. You know your child better than anyone – the key is to talk to someone if you have any concerns about your child’s development.

If you’re concerned about your child’s development, talk to your health care provider about a developmental assessment. Finding out for sure is the first step to helping your child and getting services and programs suited to your child’s needs.

It’s important to get help and support as soon as possible. The sooner children get intervention services, the more effective these services can be.

A paediatrician, psychiatrist, psychologist or other professional trained in ASD can diagnose ASD. They’ll use a combination of behaviour tests (watching the child play and interact) and interviews with parents about the child’s development.”

Suggested Raising Children Network links:

New links from Publichealthcorps December 2016

This blog will also appear on the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute blog

DNA methylation biomarkers: cancer and beyond

Epigenetics is many things to many people. To some, it is a away to explain the mechanisms by which molecular ‘musicians’ bring the instruments that are our genes to life. To others, it is a away to explain the effect of the environment on the genome. I concur with all of the above but where I believe that epigenetics will be most useful is in helping to diagnose and predict disease. Last year a colleague and I wrote a review about this. We are talking biomarkers – naturally-occurring characteristics by which a disease can be identified or monitored. Biomarkers can reflect past environmental exposures, predict disease onset or course, or determine a patient’s response to therapy. Many people don’t realise it but this is already happening in cancer: diagnostic and predictive biomarkers for cancer based on the epigenetic mark of DNA methylation are being used in the clinic. Each of these clinical biomarkers is the result of multiple studies all showing the same result – ‘replication’ Other diseases are not far behind cancer even though their epigenetic changes are smaller in magnitude and need replication. Notable papers have shown that DNA methylation measured at birth can predict obesity during childhood (and here). Others identified potential early markers of type 1 diabetes and potential predictors of response to weight loss in adulthood. Neurodevelpmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia are also waiting in the wings. Most importantly, as most chronic diseases originate in the womb and leave a latent imprint on the epigenome, this can act as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that, with the ‘wrong’ environmental measures and genetic predisposition, cause full blown heart, liver or brain disorder. If we can read the epigenetic changes predictive of disease risk in the ‘book of pregnancy’, we can not only understand the mechanisms of chronic disease but we can detect them way before symptoms occur. Thus early detection will mean early intervention and a paradigm shift in healthcare from treatment to prevention. Yes,we have a little further to go, but this is a dream worth chasing. I am banking my career on it.

Public engagement: far from the Great Unwashed

At a recent scientific conference staged in a casino complex, a couple of cocktails emboldened me to chat to the guy sat at the bar table next to me. He was a big guy, with matching height and girth and looked like he was out enjoying a buck’s night. I thought I would try to engage rather than try to educate. After my introductory sentence about my research area – the early origins of human disease – he replied “do you mean that…” and proceeded to succinctly summarise my research better than I could in two sentences, finishing with “well., it’s just common sense, isn’t it? Gobsmacked, I continued my conversation with him with renewed respect for “the public”. Far from being the “great unwashed”, they are the great informed, intelligent, sensible and pragmatic, probably mixed in with the opinionated and the skeptical, which is fair enough.

Fast forward to a talk today from the US-based Frameworks Institute who’s role is, by engagement, to bridge the gap between scientists and the public. Not surprisingly, they and others (here too) have found that the public, including those affected directly or indirectly with specific diseases, can have different research agendas from researchers. By understanding what the public understands about a particular research area, we can gain an insight about how best to engage and thereby add power to, and communicate, our research findings.

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The rules of engagement are simple and follow themes of values and metaphors. Values help by the public about medical research may differ from country to country but may include common themes of the common good, future prosperity and workforce equity. Often, the public comes to the table with pre-existing cultural biases, which Frameworks calls the Mind Swamp. Biases can include mistrust of science and scientists, the “good old days” and genetic determinism. It is up to us as scientists to survey the swamp for each country and culture to determine where the starting point for engagement should be.

The next step is the use of metaphors. A good metaphor can easily be used to introduce a scientific concept, such as the early life origins of disease (we can help tip the balance of the see-saw of good vs bad environments for kids) or even something more complicated such as epigenetics (the musicians who play the symphony of life on your genes). For my research area, Frameworks discussed ideas such as weaving the strands of early life in children to produce a strong rope in adulthood, and comparing the green light of acute positive stress to the red light of chronic toxic stress.

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On the side of caution, we were warned of the pitfalls to avoid when communicating medical research. No giving more and more examples – too much already; it doesn’t work. No myth busting – people often remember the myth and not the bust. Be careful with stories that resonate with people – they may also provide mixed messages. Caution, too, about pressing the message home at length. Keep it simple.

So if you want to win over the public with your message of medical or other research, first get inside their heads. Turn to the guy or girl in the bar and engage. Your research will benefit and maybe you may learn something.

The Developmental origins of Health and Disease: you are what you eat and you are what your ancestors ate but it’s never too late to change your genes

Heart disease, stroke, asthma, type 2 diabetes, some cancers and some mental health problems. All preventable. Combined, such chronic diseases kill more than 36 million people every year and this figure is increasing annually and a quarter of these deaths occur before the age of 60. These diseases also cost the global economy more than a trillion dollars a year. So why aren’t we preventing them?

The answer is that we have not been targeting the true time of origin of such diseases – early life. We have already had clues to this origin; childhood obesity is a major risk factor for future chronic disease. Going back even further, babies who experienced slow growth in the womb have thicker artery walls, and both are risk factors for later heart disease.

There are many other pieces of the jigsaw of evidence coming together to support the idea of an early life origin for chronic disease. This has recently crystallized into a rapidly-growing field called “Developmental origins of health and disease” or DOHaD for short. The field developed from the seminal work of the late David Barker who, in the early 1990s, provided evidence for his hypothesis that a fetus who cant get enough nutrition to grow normally is at a higher than average risk for heart disease and other chronic conditions.  Importantly, Barker introduced the idea that affected individuals are “mismatched” – they adapt to conditions in the womb that are different from those they encounter after they are born. A good example would be that a child born to a malnourished mother in a developing country today may be exposed to “Western” junk foods as a child and adult, thus overloading a metabolism that had been “programmed” to make the most of every morsel he ate.

dohad5 mismatch bookIn a nutshell, the idea behind DOHaD is that while the human body is being molded during early life, it is super susceptible to the effect of the environment. Sensitivity is likely to be highest during pregnancy, and depending on the organ, this sensitivity may well persist as far as puberty.

ImageSuch effects of environment on the developing body may not appear at birth or even in childhood. They may lay dormant until they are triggered by further events that an you experience at some later point in life. It is as if each of early environment were a time bomb, each set with a different timer. Some timers may be may be set to a few months, others to years or even decades.

So what are these time bombs? Many think the answer lies in epigenetics – the small molecular switches that jump on and off of our genes and control their activity. Changes in epigenetic switches direct our development but there is increasing evidence from studies of animals and humans that adverse early life environment can cause epigenetic changes that are associated with latent disease risk. For example, sixty years after the Dutch Famine during the Second World War, individuals that were in the womb of starving mothers at the time were more likely to suffer from heart disease. These people also carried an epigenetic change. Others have found that epigenetic marks measured at specific genes in early childhood can predict obesity in late childhood. Similar studies have been able to predict which adults may benefit from weight loss interventions.

ImageBefore you go pointing the figure at your mother, however, it is emerging from animal and human studies that your father’s diet or stress may have contribute to your health. Even before you were a twinkle in his eye. There is also evidence that you may be what your grandparents ate too. Maybe some of us have been handed down the effects of food rationing during the Second World War?

The list of time bomb triggers is bigger than just nutrition, though, and includes stress and pollutants. Some say that a combination of an increase in busy lifestyles, consumption of junk food and environmental chemicals, such as those used in the plastics and fire retardant industries, may be driving the current obesity epidemic. Research is ongoing to pursue these links.

No-one quite knows how we may inherit more than a gene sequence from our parents, but it is suspected that Charles Darwin may have guessed the reason over a hundred years ago. He predicted that tiny particles he called gemmules would pass into the sperm (or egg) and onto the next generation. The current ‘smoking guns’ for gemmules are small versions of DNA’s cousin ribonucleic acid. Watch this space.

A further component of inheritance factor points the finger at no-one. Random factors act during pregnancy to influence the size and shape of your placenta and umbilical cords thereby altering the flow of goodies from mum to you.

Coming back to the future, the current expectation in the DOHaD field is that if you know where to look in the human genome, at any particular point in the life span, you can find an epigenetic mark that will predict future disease risk or even response to treatment for that disease. And with DNA sequencing technology getting cheaper, the race is on to find such predictors. Some have even suggested future epigenetic screens in early childhood to enable us provide preventive treatments to those children at highest risk. Effectively treating the sick before they get sick.

But treating with what? Studies with animals have suggested drugs, specifically  those that have already been approved for adult diseases  such as diabetes. However, evidence is building that diet, exercise, mindfulness/meditation and even bacteria can also change our genes. Interventions involving each of these are currently being trialled in children and adults. There will be successes and there will be failures but imagine a future in which you are prescribed salad, a specially formulated yoghurt, a 10k run and a session of yoga every week. More palatable than a pill?

The DOHaD field is currently going from strength to strength. It has an international society and Australia is fighting above its weight as evidenced by the excellent first national conference held in early April in Perth. As shown by the Gravida consortium in New Zealand, this fast moving field is taking its first steps towards its goal of ending mismatch through education about healthy eating habits and through intervening to help those mismatched individuals who slip through the net.

So next time you feel tempted to eat junk food, think twice – you may be providing your kids and grand-kids with an unwelcome inheritance.

To ask or not to ask? What is the question? A guide for asking questions at the end of a scientific talk

Author’s note: this blog is aimed at junior research scientists, although it can apply to anyone in any type of seminar, class or lecture.

Tense, nervous headache at the end of a seminar? Are you afraid to ask a question? Do you think it may make you look silly? You are not alone. But fear not.

Q2

Firstly, speakers want questions; it makes their talk or journey worthwhile and questions help them hone their talk for next time and may even inspire a new research direction. You will also be given ‘stored credit’ by your supervisor/Group leader/Department Head for asking a question; it will shown that you can think and engage – two qualities that will be recognised as essential for a career in research. Kudos in a competitive market will give you the edge.
So, what kind of question can you ask? Well, first let’s build up to that moment. For a visiting speaker, find out a little bit about their work beforehand. Read the talk abstract or their web site blurb. This is how the professionals do it and it’s not rocket science (unless the talk is on rocket science).

Secondly, take notes during the talk. It crystallizes what the speaker has said and it’s a natural way to form questions. Write questions down as you think of them. I usually start a line of notes with a ‘Q’ to make it easier to find at the end of the talk. During the talk, rewrite the question if necessary and rehearse it in your mind and don’t be afraid to read it from your notes. Tweeting instead of note-taking is also a way to formulate questions. If others are tweeting at the same talk, then you can even run a potential question past them.

Q3

Still no idea for a question? Once you consider the variety of possible questions below, you will never lack a question again.

The honest question. Maybe the speaker didn’t explain themselves properly (consider yourself a typical audience member). Maybe they forgot something or had their facts mixed up? Ask the question you want to know the answer to.

The knowledgeable question. A variation of the ‘honest question.’ If this is your field, you are starting at an advantage; you will be excited with the topic being presented and questions are much more likely to come to you.

The technical question. Ever been frustrated by not enough information? ‘What did the error bars on that graph signify?”, “What were the units on the X axis?

The staple question. This is the best category as this type of question requires no knowledge of the speaker’s field, and doesn’t matter if you haven’t been paying attention. Typical questions are:
“What are the strengths/limitations of the method you used?“
“Could this technique be applied to the study of….?”
“How do your findings compare with others in the field”
“So far, what kind of reception has your work had in the field/by scientific community in general/by the general public?”
“I’d be glad to know about the evolution of your thinking on this topic. Who do you see as the people/papers that inspired you in the first place?”
“Do you have any unanswered research questions you still want to address?”
“Would your method be suitable for another application/organism”?

The “please explain” question. Did the speaker say that they chose not to go down a particular avenue or did they say that a certain technique/topic was too difficult? If so, ask why. A speaker may say that they don’t have time to cover a particular aspect of their work. In this case, they often have some secretly-prepared slides after the end of the talk that they would be most delighted to share with the audience, thanks to you.

Q4

Finally, the elephant in the room: the “silly question”. Well, it may sound clichéd, but there is no such thing as a silly question. If you really think your question is silly, frame it in one of the following ways:
1. “I may have missed something but…?”
2. “This may sound like a naïve question but…?”
3. “Can you please clarify what you mean by…?”
4. “Can you explain a little on what you said about…”?
5. “I am thinking on the run here, but…?”
6. “I am not familiar with this area, but…?”

Some final tips: do be polite to the speaker (“that was a great talk…”); don’t ask a question that simply demonstrates your superior knowledge, don’t confront your speaker, don’t make a statement instead of asking a question (although a comment together with a question is sometimes acceptable).

Armed with this toolkit, there will be no stopping you. Good luck!

 

Sources
• Personal experience
“How can I ask better questions in seminars?” from MetaFilter
Ask questions like a pro: questions you can ask at any scientific seminar
• “Guidelines for the Preparation of Scientific Presentations”