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Surrey Communication and Language in Education Study (SCALES): an introduction

Many years ago I had the amazing good fortune to work as a research assistant for Dorothy Bishop. My job was to drive the length and breadth of Britain assessing six-year-old twins, many of whom had language impairment. I was a speech-language therapist at the time, so I knew a fair bit about assessing young children with language and communication difficulties. But I knew nothing about research and even less about the reality of gathering the amount of data necessary to explore the genetic and environmental contributions to language impairment. I was, however, up for a new challenge and keen to work with Dorothy and to travel around this fair island in the name of scientific discovery.

It was an amazing experience. Certainly there were times when it was monotonous and I never wanted to see another child or motorway again. As I look back though, I just remember how much fun I had and how much I learned. My only regret is that I never wrote any of it down. Most of the time I was just too busy entering data or figuring out how to get to my next destination (in the days before SatNav) to keep a journal. Yet just about every day brought an experience that I wanted to share with someone else.

A great example was my first home visit – a story I tell to all new students and research assistants in my lab. I went to see twin boys, one of whom had been expelled from school for his behaviour (at the age of six remember). When I arrived, mum explained that he had been diagnosed with dyspraxia and was often unintelligible. He was also not to keen on my visit. In fact, he was under his bed and no amount of temptation with stickers and Pokemon cards could entice him to come out. In desperation, I suggested to mum that I would just carry on setting up my equipment and see if he might become interested in me. When I got to the bottom of the stairs he appeared, hurling shoes and toilet rolls at me and shouting with great clarity “fucking off, you fucking idiot.” His poor mum pleaded with him to stop swearing while I dodged missiles and questioned the wisdom of my career change. Happily though, once his brother started my activities, he became very interested in what we were doing and eager to demonstrate that he could do it too. He tried extremely hard and we managed to complete the session successfully.

Fortunately not every home visit was like that, but I did face many quirky challenges such as chickens in the kitchen, finding the small difference that distinguished identical twins, engaging the child who just wanted to bite my ankles and recognising the signs that the loo is required by an over excited child who does not want to be parted from the dinosaur game. And those were the participant challenges – I also had to endure a number of colourful accommodations and over time perfected the art of dining alone. In total, I personally saw about 200 twin pairs and travelled as far north as Newcastle and as far south as the Cornish border. That’s more than 1,000 hours of testing and many thousands of driving miles (I’ve probably been in more motorway service stations than Alan Partridge). Thanks to Dorothy’s brilliance, we published numerous journal articles and made exciting new discoveries, though I often feel that the publications just don’t do justice to the stories behind the numbers.

So now I find myself the Principal Investigator on SCALES, a large project funded by the Wellcome Trust. SCALES will be the first epidemiological study of risk for language impairment at school entry in the UK. It will involve screening a population cohort, in-depth assessment of approximately 500 children and a longitudinal follow-up of those children over a four year period. It involves a large research team and extensive collaboration with Surrey County Council, local schools and families. My life circumstances have changed since the twin days – I’m a lecturer in Psychology and have a 3-year-old at home, so there are many more demands on my time. But I am keen not to make the same mistake twice and allow my challenges and experiences to go unrecorded. SCALES is the perfect opportunity to record what actually goes in to making projects like this succeed and to highlight the personal stories that make science work. I hope the blog will be fun and informative, documenting both the drudgery and exuberance of a life in science.