Two bright young thinkers win early research prize

October 26, 2007

How do Israeli children think of Palestinians? Mostly with deep hatred and fear, but there are glimmers of empathy too, writes Zoe Corbyn. This is what Asi Sharabi found undertaking his PhD at the London School of Economics two years ago. The research this week won him, together with Liz Pellicano, a £3000 share of the Economic and Social Research Council's Michael Young Prize, awarded each year to socially valuable early career research.

"Even in the harshest depictions you can still find some ambivalence ... they are not completely narrow or blocked to the Palestinian version of the story," explains Dr Sharabi. "That a hint of empathy can be found points to the need to find creative ways to strengthen the potential for mutual understanding."

Dr Sharabi's PhD - looking at the difficulties Israeli children have in understanding the way Palestinians perceive the conflict - meant fieldwork in Israeli classrooms, including his own primary school where he got 12- year-olds to draw pictures of Palestinian children and write stories about the conflict through their eyes. The work offers insights into understanding how prejudices are built, maintained and might be overcome in conflict situations.

"The drawings and compositions were extremely rich data," Dr Sharabi says. "You see how easily children are socialised into conflict and bound by it and how hard it is for them to step outside and understand."

Dr Sharabi, now a strategist for the website design company PokeLondon, grew up in Israel and came to the UK for his masters and PhD in social psychology. He says the work is not just academic but a personal journey. "It is very critical (of Israel) but because I am coming from Israel I am also coming from quite a lot of understanding."

He intends to use the prize money to create a website for Israeli and Palestinian academics, as well as the public, to communicate with one another. Turning his research into a book is also on the cards.

- Liz Pellicano, a lecturer in experimental psychology at Bristol University, wins the Michael Young prize for her work on the development of autism.

It began with her PhD thesis at the University of Western Australia in Perth. Completed in 2005, this looked at different symptoms of autism in four to seven-year-old children who were "cognitively able" - autistic children with at least average IQs who usually attend regular schools. She followed it up with a study of the same group three years later, finding some children showed major improvements in various functions, while others showed little.

"There is loads of work going on trying to find the causes of autism - identifying genes and biological markers," she explains, "But there is less attention on the way autism develops over time.

"I think this is crucial to understanding the condition but also really important for parents, carers and autistic people. If we can work it out, we can improve children's wellbeing and developmental outcomes," Dr Pellicano adds. She would like to look at the same children at age 11- 14.

Dr Pellicano anticipates using her winnings to work with parents of autistic children and autistic adults. "I would like to talk to user groups - parents - about my findings and get from them experiences of how their kids have changed over time. I also want to run an online discussion forum for adults with autism."

OTHER FINALISTS

- Joanne Tippett: supporting capacity building in joined-up planning

- Fiona Raje: the barriers created by a lack of transport

- Nick Sireau: lessons for social activism from the 'Make Poverty History' mass communication campaign.

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