Public Release: 

Autism Speaks names 7th annual class of Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows

Predoctoral fellowship program launches promising scientists into autism research careers

Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks, the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization, is pleased to announce its seventh annual class of Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows. Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, the eight promising young investigators will pursue two-year autism research projects under the mentorship of the field's leading scientists.

Autism Speaks established the Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship Program in 2008 with a generous grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The program honors the late financier Sir Dennis Weatherstone and his commitment to the education of young scientists pursuing autism research. Lady Weatherstone and daughter Cheryl Weatherstone continue to actively support the Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellows on a personal level.

"We thank the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Weatherstone family for their continuing dedication and investment in the future of autism research," says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Rob Ring. "This program embodies Autism Speaks' ongoing commitment to developing the future of autism research by supporting essential training opportunities for the field's brightest young investigators. Many of our Weatherstone fellows have already made important findings that advance our understanding of autism and how to best meet the needs of those affected by it."

"The announcement of a new class of Weatherstone Fellows is always an exciting time for our families and supporters," says Autism Speaks President Liz Feld. "We are so inspired to see these talented young scientists embark on careers that will transform the lives of those affected by autism."

The 2015 class brings the number of Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral fellows to 59.

This year's class of Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellows:

Kathryn Unruh, of Vanderbilt University, will investigate visual attention, nonsocial interests and motivations in toddlers affected by autism. Her goals include insights that can guide the creation of early intervention programs that improve social learning and development. Unruh will work with developmental psychologist James Bodfish, whose research and practice focus on severe and treatment-resistant forms of autism.

David Grayson, of the University of California-Davis, will use noninvasive brain scans to study the formation of altered brain pathways in some 280 preschoolers, more than half of whom have autism. His goals include greater understanding of autism subtypes that can guide personalized treatments and other supports. Grayson will work under the guidance of David Amaral, director of research at the UC-Davis MIND Institute.

Rebecca Grzadzinski, of Columbia University, will evaluate the usefulness of the Brief Observation of Social Communication Change (BOSCC) as a much-needed measure for gauging response to treatment across a broad range of children and adults affected by autism. Her goals include improving and speeding the identification of effective interventions as well as tailoring treatments to optimize outcomes and quality of life for those with autism. Grzadzinski will work with psychologist Catherine Lord, founding director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain.

Rylan Allemang-Grand, of Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, will evaluate the effects of several promising experimental autism treatments using brain imaging and mouse models of Rett syndrome. Allenmang-Grand will work in the laboratory of neuroscientist Jason Lerch.

Daniel Tylee, of the State University of New York, Upstate Medical University, will pursue genetic studies aimed at identifying gene changes that protect against autism. Tylee will work in the Psychiatric Genetic Epidemiology & Neurobiology Laboratory of Stephen Glatt.

Kathryn Jankowski, of the University of Oregon, will study brain activity and other biological reactions underlying social and emotional responses in adolescent boys affected by autism. Such information promises to guide the development of behavioral interventions and hormonal therapies that improve social function and quality of life. Jankowski will work under the guidance of neuropsychologist Susan Bookheimer.

Samuel Hubert, of Duke University, will investigate the function of the Shank3 gene during the early development of brain-cell connections (synapses) in mouse models of autism. His goals include a deeper understanding of autism subtypes that can guide the development of targeted treatments. Hubert will work in the laboratory of pediatric geneticist and neurologist Yong-hui Jiang.

Leah Townsend, of the University of North Carolina, will investigate how autism-linked gene changes affect the development of the brain's cerebral cortex, especially for visual processing. Her goals include the development of detailed profiles of altered brain function that can provide treatment targets for new therapies. Townsend will work under the mentorship of UNC neuroscientist Spencer Smith.

"We look forward to meeting with and supporting our new Weatherstone fellows in the months and years ahead," Dr. Ring says. "We wish them all the best as they launch their careers in autism research with these innovative projects."

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About Autism

Autism is a general term used to describe a group of complex developmental brain disorders - autism spectrum disorders - caused by a combination of genes and environmental influences. These disorders are characterized, in varying degrees, by communication difficulties, social and behavioral challenges, and repetitive behaviors. An estimated 1 in 68 children in the U.S. is on the autism spectrum.

About Autism Speaks

Autism Speaks is the world's leading autism science and advocacy organization. It is dedicated to funding research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a cure for autism; increasing awareness of autism spectrum disorders; and advocating for the needs of individuals with autism and their families. Autism Speaks was founded in February 2005 by Suzanne and Bob Wright, the grandparents of a child with autism. Mr. Wright is the former vice chairman of General Electric and chief executive officer of NBC and NBC Universal. Since its inception, Autism Speaks has committed more than $525 million to its mission, the majority in science and medical research. Each year, Walk Now for Autism Speaks events are held in more than 100 cities across North America. On the global front, Autism Speaks has established partnerships in more than 60 countries on five continents to foster international research, services and awareness. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit AutismSpeaks.org.

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