Nearly seven years ago, I made the all-important decision to pursue a future in scientific research. I was inspired by the ability of research to humble far-fetched ideas into reality, and I wanted to help uncover knowledge that would serve as an indispensable foundation for the advancement of medicine, technology and industry. Importantly, I saw an opportunity to evoke change in a way that improves lives.
As I enter my fifth year of studying the molecular underpinnings of autism, it is precisely these real-life applications of scientific research that continue to motivate me. I am grateful for the support of Autism Speaks and its numerous donors, in defending the realization that only by pushing the frontiers of science will solutions to today’s most pressing problems be found.
As an Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellow, I have been studying maternal infection as a primary environmental risk factor for autism, under the guidance of neurobiologist Paul Patterson, PhD, at the California Institute of Technology. Using animal models, we are uncovering the biological pathways that implicate infection in the development of core behavioral symptoms of autism as well as associated alterations in brain development. We are further exploring means for effective prevention and treatment, with aims to translate our findings to the identification of potential biomarkers and targets for effective therapies.
Support from the Weatherstone fellowship has also allowed us to explore the potential connections between gastrointestinal (GI) complications, immune dysregulation and behavioral symptoms in animal models for autism. We are very excited that this is now part of a larger collaborative research effort supported by Autism Speaks, with the aim of better understanding gastrointestinal GI and immune dysfunction in certain subsets of persons affected by autism.
In addition to providing financial support for my studies, the Weatherstone fellowship has given me unique opportunities to interact with leading scientists in autism research. I am truly inspired by the breadth and depth of research being conducted by my Weatherstone colleagues and by scientists worldwide. Exchanging ideas with scientists from other laboratories and disciplines greatly informs my own work.
Finally, I am deeply grateful to Autism Speaks and the Weatherstone fellowship for providing unique forums for scientists to interact with individuals and families directly affected by autism. Being able to convey the promises, obstacles and advances of autism research to the community is not only rewarding, but also very constructive. Likewise, my time with these individuals and families—time spent learning about their experiences and needs—drives my desire to conduct autism research that is innovative and informative.
With the valuable training I have received through doctoral research combined with the unique experiences I have gained as a Weatherstone fellow, I feel prepared to pursue a productive career in scientific research, with aims to uncover knowledge that will better our understanding of autism’s causes and lead to the development of more effective tools for its diagnosis and treatment.
[Editor’s note: Administered by Autism Speaks and funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowship Program encourages the most promising young scientists to choose autism research as their career through funding and direct mentoring by the field’s leading investigators.)
Read more news and perspective on the Autism Speaks science page.