NEW YORK, N.Y. (October 1, 2009) – Autism Speaks is pleased to announce its first round of Dennis Weatherstone Pre-Doctoral Fellowships funded by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, awarding eight Fellows a combined $448,000 in research grants over the next two years. Established in 2008 in memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone, the former Chairman and CEO of J.P. Morgan, the intent of the fellowship program is to encourage the most promising young scientists to establish autism research as their chosen career path. The fellowship awards will provide highly qualified candidates with exceptional research training opportunities in all areas related to the study of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Specifically, Dennis Weatherstone Fellows will work directly with mentors who are leading scientists in the field of autism research to support the growth of a promising cadre of young autism scientists.
Eight applicants were chosen to be among the first class of Dennis Weatherstone Fellows, selected from the 55 proposals received from highly qualified candidates in response to this year's request for applications. The thorough and competitive review process confers distinction on those awarded a fellowship grant. Research topics for this year's award recipients focus on various aspects of autism science ranging from neurobiology, genetics, and immunology to behavior, communication, and computer-based language tools.
“We are extremely pleased to launch this new fellowships program made possible through a generous gift to Autism Speaks,” says Geraldine Dawson, chief science officer for Autism Speaks. “We were especially impressed with the quality and diversity of the fellows whose research spans genetics, neuroscience, and clinical research. Jumpstarting the careers of these young scientists, not only with research funds but with mentor relationships with leading scientists, is one of the best investments we can make.”
In a computer science project entitled “Visualizing Voice,” Joshua Hailpern, under mentor Karrie Karahalios, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, aims to develop a computer-based program for children with ASD that will “paint” an individual's voice onto the screen, showing volume and pitch changes in real time in order to teach language skills such as multi-syllabic word production.
Jennifer Foss-Feig, with mentor Wendy Stone, Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, will investigate the underlying neural mechanisms involved in the processing of complex sensory information using noninvasive measures of brain electrical activity.
Meaghan Parladé, with mentor Jana Iverson, Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, will investigate early risk indicators for autism such as gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, and communicative vocalizations in very young siblings of affected children.
At the University of Colorado Denver with mentor of Donald Rojas, Ph.D., Lisa B. Wilson will use advanced imaging techniques including magnetoencephalography and magnetic resonance imaging to examine how language is processed in parents of children with autism and in adults with autism.
At the University of Illinois at Chicago with mentor John Sweeney, Ph.D., Anna-Maria D'Cruz will study abnormalities in brain function that may contribute to Insistence on Sameness, a core feature of autism characterized by routine, stereotyped and repetitive behaviors.
With mentor Paul Patterson, Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology, Elaine Hsiao will use a mouse model of maternal viral infection to investigate the role of Interleukine-6 in the development of autism-related behaviors in the offspring.
Bradford Elmer, with mentor A. Kimberly McAllister, Ph.D. from the University of California at Davis, will study the role of immune molecules but in the formation of brain connections (or synaptogenesis) and possible alterations that might result in neurodevelopmental disorders.
Examining the genetic causes of autism, M. Ali Bangash with mentor Paul Worley, M.D. at Johns Hopkins University, will refine a mouse model to study the gene SHANK3 and investigate its implications for autism using biochemical and behavioral tests. Mutations of this gene have recently been implicated in a subset of individuals with autism.
In order to facilitate a network of collaboration, the Weatherstone Fellowship program will include group interaction among fellows and opportunities to meet with the Weatherstone family and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. The first annual luncheon will take place in late October in New York City to honor this inaugural class of Fellows and the memory of Sir Dennis Weatherstone. Our hope is that the bond created by the program will carry on and that Weatherstone Fellows will develop a network by sharing their knowledge and experiences with each other, and perhaps one day mentor a new Weatherstone Fellow.
Autism is a complex brain disorder that inhibits a person's ability to communicate and develop social relationships, and is often accompanied by behavioral challenges. Autism spectrum disorders are diagnosed in one in 150 children in the United States, affecting four times as many boys as girls. The prevalence of autism has increased tenfold in the last decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called autism a national public health crisis whose cause and cure remain unknown.
About Autism Speaks
Autism Speaks is the nation's largest autism science and advocacy organization, 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 funds more than $30 million each year in new autism research, in addition to supporting the Autism Treatment Network, Autism Genetic Resource Exchange, Autism Clinical Trials Network, Autism Tissue Program and a range of other scientific and medical programs. Notable awareness initiatives include the establishment of the annual United Nations-sanctioned World Autism Awareness Day on April 2 and an award-winning, multi-year national public service advertising campaign with the Ad Council. Autism Speaks' family services efforts include the Autism Video Glossary, a 100 Day Kit for newly-diagnosed families, a School Community Tool Kit and the distribution of community grants to local service providers. Its government relations department, through its Autism Votes initiative, has played a critical role in securing federal legislation to advance the federal government's response to autism, and has successfully advocated for insurance reform to require insurers to cover medically-necessary autism therapies. Each year, Autism Speaks Walk Now for Autism Speaksfundraising events are held in more than 70 cities across the country, as well as Canada and the United Kingdom. To learn more about Autism Speaks, please visit www.autismspeaks.org.
About Stavros Niarchos Foundation
The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is a major international philanthropic organization established by the family of the late Stavros Niarchos. Mr. Niarchos, born and raised in Greece, was best known for his successful ship building and shipping enterprises, although he was active in a wide range of business activities. For years he was known to have the largest private fleet in the world, with more than eighty supertankers. The Stavros Niarchos Foundation, founded in 1996, supports charitable activities in four primary areas: arts and culture; education; health and medicine; and social welfare. Special attention is given to programs for children and the elderly. Since its inception, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation has provided total grant commitments of $361,254,582 with 1,647 grants in Greece and in 85 additional nations around the world to various not-for-profit organizations. To learn more about the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, please visit www.snf.org.