Scholars highlight - Chloe Yap

24 Sep 2021

Chloe sits in front of a laptop, behind her is a large computer monitor filled with code and graphs

We recently asked some of our scholars about their research, where they are now and what being part of Autism CRC meant to them. Chloe was awarded the 'Queensland Women in STEM Prize 2021: Judge's Award' in July this year and is currently undertaking research at the University of California, Los Angeles, as part of a Fulbright Future Scholarship. 

I’m Chloe Yap and I’m a PhD candidate, medical student, Fulbright Future Scholar, and Medical Leadership Program graduate at the University of Queensland. I’m working with “big data” from the Australian Autism Biobank, to hopefully find biological markers that can improve autism diagnosis.

About my research

I have been working with the Australian Autism Biobank for my PhD, using “big data” approaches to combine clinical and biological data, to find biological markers that can contribute to diagnosis.

One particularly interesting project was our study of the relationship between autism and the gut microbiome. This area has attracted a lot of attention lately. Some claim that changing the microbiome can “cause” autism, others have set up clinical trials to test the effect of “trans-poo-sions” (otherwise known as faecal microbiome transplants) on autistic traits, and spin-off companies have entered the commercial market. However, the foundational evidence for this is actually quite limited. The Australian Autism Biobank provided the opportunity to perform one of the largest and carefully-controlled autism-gut microbiome studies to date. Surprisingly, we found few direct associations between autism and the gut microbiome. Instead, we found that autistic people tend to have more restricted dietary preferences, and this in turn affects the microbiome. These are important results as they run contrary to the “hype” around the microbiome directly contributing to autism. These findings also highlight that people on the spectrum tend to have poorer diets, and that nutrition is an important clinical issue to address.

Other than the microbiome project, we have also looked at the genetic data. We have confirmed genetic diagnoses of autism for some Biobank participants, and also found other genetic differences that had not previously been reported. I am currently analysing some other datasets generated from the Australian Autism Biobank, one representing interactions between genes and the environment, and another looking at a smorgasbord of various molecules circulating in blood. 

What I’ve achieved in the past and am doing now

As a child, I was fascinated by the brain, and my favourite book was “Horrible Sciences: Bulging Brains”. My heart was set on medicine, and when I received a provisional postgraduate place in medicine after high school, I thought that I was on a clear track without the difficult career decisions out of the way. Those aspirations quickly became (semi-)derailed when I serendipitously fell into a summer research project, discovered a passion for research (specifically computational and statistical genomics), and found incredible supervisors who I am still working with today (Dr Jake Gratten and Prof Naomi Wray). Since then, I have had semi-regular existential crises on how to balance dual careers in science and medicine. I persisted with the pre-medical and postgraduate medicine path, but have taken two years off medical school to do full-time research. I am now in the second year of that, and I am currently finishing analyses for my Autism CRC work as part of my PhD.

Outside of my PhD research, I am a keen advocate for the clinician-scientist track and I help to implement frameworks and programs (curricular and extra-curricular) that encourage people to consider this career pathway. I also enjoy teaching – I’ve created a medical education website with my own study resources, and run tutorials for junior medical students to break down medical sciences into accessible fundamental concepts, while also bringing a clinical perspective and a human element.

My plans for the future

In July I set off to the University of California Los Angeles as part of a Fulbright Future Scholarship. Here, I’m looking at the contribution of brain cell-types to various neuropsychiatric conditions including autism, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease, and trying to soak up as much as I can about the USA while I’m at it.

In 2022, I’ll return to finish my final year of medical school while writing up my PhD, with the hope of graduating with both at the end of 2022. Nine years of uni done and dusted!

Ultimately, I want to be a clinician-scientist, working to understand the inter-relationships between mind (psychiatry) and body (internal medicine), while sitting the interface between research and medicine. I think that the clinician-scientist career is an incredibly exciting one, putting you in a unique position to translate fundamental research into healthcare innovation, and also to gain inspiration and key insights from clinical issues at the coalface.

So after graduating, I’ll be juggling junior doctor work and specialty training with post-doctoral research. When I am working as a junior doctor, I am also interested in exploring other health research contexts (such as epidemiology, clinical trials, and health services research) to get an understanding of the full translational research continuum.

What I’ve gained by being part of Autism CRC

Working with the Autism CRC has been an eye-opening and grounding experience. It is incredibly valuable to be collaborating with an organisation that is designed to amplify the voices of Australian autistic people and coordinate research in a way that is consistent with the community’s needs and values. In the best possible way, I feel greater accountability to the autistic community and am now so much more aware and humbled by the broader social sphere that my research exists within.

I have specifically worked on the Autism CRC’s Australian Autism Biobank, which is such an exciting, unique, and world-leading resource. There are many biobanks in the world, but a minority are Australian, and vanishingly few are for autism. The Australian Autism Biobank will not only help the international community progress towards improved autism diagnosis, but also means that Australian autistic people will be better represented, and have a “seat at the table”.