“AUTISM is an extraordinary condition,” Rosa Hoekstra says of her research field. “It’s not discrete – you either have it or you don’t, yet it blurs into normal behaviour. And I’m fascinated that people of very high intelligence can have it, while finding it impossible to develop skills to interact with other people.”
Rosa’s interest in the subject began to develop during her first degree in biomedical sciences. “I’ve always been interested in the bridge between biology and psychology,” she says. “When I first began studying at degree level I found all the aspects so fascinating I did an interdisciplinary year. I did develop this into biomedical sciences but I didn’t find working in the lab that interesting. I liked work that combined the disciplines of biology and psychology – I was fascinated by the study of behaviour but also really interested in the biological processes behind it.”
Rosa continued with a masters and then an internship at Cambridge’s world-famous Autism Research Centre before returning to her native Holland to do further study into problem behaviour and cognition “so I squeezed in a bit more autism” before returning to Cambridge for a two-year fellowship and then arriving at the OU as a lecturer in psychology and to continue her ongoing research into the link between autistic traits and behaviour.
“I love the Open University,” she says. “I was aware of it and how much respect it had, but I’ve been really impressed to see first-hand just how much work goes into the course materials – and how much effort goes into making them work.
“It’s a bit strange to work in a university and not run into students everywhere – although,” she adds wryly, “if there were 20,000 students on campus maybe it would be a little nearer the railway station!”
Rosa’s recent work has focused on how genes affect the condition. “Autism is one of the most heritable conditions in psychopathology,” she says. “People have for years looked for the ‘autism gene’ but I don’t think there is one – It is more likely that there are several different genes that combine and possibly interact.”
And Rosa enjoys being at the cutting edge of such potentially influential research. “One day I hope we will discover the biological mechanisms that explain the genetic link in autism,” she says. “I really feel the urgency of my work and how my research can be applied. It’s really exciting to be near the forefront of such a fast-moving field.”
Most of Rosa’s free time is spent merely enjoying her surroundings, having relatively recently moved to London. “I recently discovered I’m a big city person and I love it here,” she says. “I was brought up in the Dutch countryside and lived in Amsterdam for the last 10 years. I still deeply love Amsterdam, but London is ten times the size and there’s so much to do and see – great concerts and movies and London has some wonderful museums, many of which are free! My partner is South African and we’ve been here 18 months but we’re still acting as tourists! And so many people from our homes in The Netherlands and South Africa come to see us – they all think London’s such a cool place to be”
1979. Born during a thunderstorm in a small Dutch village called Makkinga.
1989. Felt invincible after winning a drawing competition organised by the local supermarket.
1990. Spent the first 5 months of my final year in primary school on the backseat of a camper van travelling through North West Africa, together with my parents, grandmother and sister. I showed off my hula-hoop skills to the locals and my gran taught me how to knit.
1997. Started my undergraduate studies in Amsterdam.
2000. Collected data for a study in demented elderly, which made me shortly contemplate a career in politics instead, to fight for the improvement of the lives of the vulnerable.
2002. Completed a research internship at the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge which got me permanently hooked to academia and especially autism research.
2003. Finished my MSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Amsterdam
2003. Started my PhD project, a longitudinal twin study into autistic traits, withdrawn behaviour and cognition at the Netherlands Twin Register in Amsterdam.
2005. First talk at a scientific conference, held next to the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, where Hip-Hop and R&B stars attending the BET awards overflowed the conference hotel.
2007. Received my PhD in Behaviour Genetics at the VU University in Amsterdam.
2007. Moved to the big smoke to start a Rubicon postdoctoral fellowship (funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge.
2009. First permanent appointment as a Lecturer in Psychology at the OU.