This summer brought the completion of the first round of Dennis Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellowships, funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation in memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone, the former chair and CEO of J.P. Morgan, to encourage promising young scientists to chose autism research as their career.
In this blog post, Meaghan Parlade, the first Weatherstone grad to complete her fellowship, reflects on her experience and the program’s importance to future autism research.
The life of a pre-doctoral student can be intense and taxing, to say the least. However, the training and experiences I have garnered during the past (dare I say it?) seven years have been invaluable in positioning me to achieve my ultimate goal: to further the scientific understanding of autism in a way that improves the lives of affected children and families. Families affected by autism are some of the most steadfast, passionate, and deeply devoted people I have ever encountered. No doubt, they will continue to inspire my work.
Looking back at my training, one experience stands out above the rest as the most formidable in shaping my development as a clinician and scientist: The Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship awarded by Autism Speaks. I am honored to be the first to complete the program.
With the support of Autism Speaks and in collaboration with my graduate advisor Jana Iverson, PhD, at the University of Pittsburgh, I have been investigating the development of communication skills in infants who have an older sibling on the autism spectrum. These skills include gestures, smiles, eye contact and sounds.
In conducting this research, our hope is to identify behavioral indicators of autism at a much earlier point than is currently possible. This, we further hope, will allow earlier diagnosis and treatment and lead to improved outcomes. In addition, by studying the development of social difficulties during infancy, we hope to improve our understanding of social communication difficulties in older children on the spectrum—and, in turn, hasten the development of tailored interventions.
Fellowships such as mine are highly coveted by my classmates because the financial support allows us to focus intensely on our research instead of taking on such time-consuming jobs such as teaching and working in faculty labs. The Weatherstone Fellowship allowed me to devote the majority of the past two years to my scientific research, clinical goals, and professional development. It also allowed me to meet regularly with other Weatherstone fellows and their advisors (all of whom are leading scientists in autism research) and to participate in national autism scientific meetings—opportunities that will enable me to develop future collaborations.
Finally, I believe this experience played an instrumental role in helping me secure a predoctoral internship in clinical psychology, the final step in my training to become a child psychologist and practice independently in clinical and research positions. Starting Sept. 1st, I will begin my internship at the Mailman Center for Child Development at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine—as the program’s first autism intern.
As I look forward to this new exciting step in my career, I continue to reflect on my experience as a Weatherstone fellow. I appreciate how it has helped prepare me for a career dedicated to excellence in both research endeavors and clinical work, ultimately allowing me to better serve the unique needs of children and families affected by autism.