Shining Through the Spectrum

Image source: Photographer Ian Waldie

Being misunderstood and bullied are distant memories for autistic woman Laura Dionysius. With courage, tenacity and resilience, she is now focused on achieving some amazing feats in science, writes Bec Marshall.

Is it possible to be a high achiever as well as a quiet one? Can you ever bounce back from bad experiences? Do we have the power to choose if adversity or ‘difference’ will make or break us? 

Spend an hour with Peregian Springs 21-year-old Laura Dionysius and there is no question. The only answer is ‘yes’.

Resilient, determined and making some astonishing waves in scientific research, Laura is the first student from Peregian Beach College to earn First Class Honours at university. 

Before we get to the topic of her Honours research (because it takes some explaining), there are more achievements to note.

In Year 11 and 12, Laura took extra university-level subjects as part of USC’s Headstart program. “They were easier than my school subjects,” she said. 

After school, Laura did a Bachelor of Science degree with majors in microbiology and biotechnology, and a minor in genetics. While at uni, she was the third person to tackle her Honours project, which included studies never done in Australia. The others quit while she successfully completed it.

She graduated with a Bachelor of Science late last year and will attend her Honours graduation a week before her 22nd birthday in April this year.

Recently, an article Laura co-wrote was accepted for publication in an upcoming special issue of Microbiology Australia. A huge achievement on its own, made even more remarkable given how much it means to be named as a first author. This identifies her as the most important contributor to the research in the article, and it is highly unusual for Honours students to feature first. 

“I’m very excited,” Laura said. “It’s pretty important to be listed as first author, especially in science papers.”

Two more publishing opportunities beckon: a review paper Laura is writing as a companion piece to the above article and her role as a minor author for a book chapter about bacteria found in sea foam in Sunshine Coast marine waters.

Laura is also an autistic woman who has accomplished these iceberg-tipped achievements despite enduring some very tough times in high school. 

“Do you like nuts?” The question appears out of the blue, when Laura is asked to explain her complex Honours research. 

“Have you ever noticed how they sometimes smell funny, or off?”

Turns out, the ‘things’ causing that musty, mildewy smell are bacteria that produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Laura’s research tested methods to isolate, purify and remove them from the surface of peanuts. Her thesis showed that bacteria-eating agents called streptophages are effective in reducing VOCs on nut surfaces.

“Honours is a like a mini-PhD,” she said of the year she spent essentially locked away, missing out on moments with family and friends. 

“I really like a challenge and I like to think ahead so that I research things that will help people and have relevance,” she said. “I want to do good research that’s helpful even if the direct implications aren’t recognisable straight away.

“This was the first study done in Australia using Australian (nut) products. I haven’t tried any nuts. I don’t really eat them as I’m very fussy. 

“One of the challenges I have is that I can’t tell when I’m hungry or thirsty,” Laura explains. “I use daily reminders a lot to remind me to eat and drink at certain times. 

“My mum loves macadamias, but she’s always saying to me ‘don’t tell me what’s on my nuts’.”

She paid tribute to her supervisor Dr Ipek Kurtböke and chemistry professor Dr Peter Brooks. She also thanked her mum and her grandparents Sandra and Bernie Disney for letting her stay with them during her studies and driving her to the bus stop so she could catch a bus closer to uni. 

Laura is now taking a well-earned break while applying for jobs and considering a future PhD combining microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics, ideally in biosecurity or women’s health.

There’s no time to reflect on her achievements, though. 

“No, there’s always more to do,” she says. “It’s very hard for me to take a break. I feel like I need to be active all the time. Getting my PhD would be kind of nice, but we’ll see. I want to get more skills, especially in genetics. Nothing feels big for me, I just do what I need to do to keep challenging myself.”

While she weighs up her considerable options, she’s enjoying simple things. Happy places include hanging out with her brother Damon who is also on the spectrum but has high needs; going op-shopping; reading comics; watching Scooby Doo or Get Smart and getting in some driving practice as a P-plater.

Life is good. A far cry from some challenging times a few years ago.

“School was a mess,” she said. “I had a hard time figuring out how to make friends, and what friends were. I really like playing The Sims™ game because you can select an emotion (for your character) from a menu, and that was nice and clear.

“These days, I am probably happiest doing stuff with my brother or with my friends. It’s taken a long time to get to this point and now I am enjoying it. It’s really nice.”

If given the choice to have autism or not? 

“It would be easier, but I probably wouldn’t be doing scientific research. So, I wouldn’t choose not to have autism.” 

Thank goodness Laura is happy to be exactly who she is. The world is much better for it. 

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