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Autism Speaks names 2016 Weatherstone fellows

Predoctoral fellowships launch promising young scientists into careers in autism research with ground-breaking projects and mentors
May 09, 2016

Autism Speaks is pleased to announce its eighth annual class of Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows. Selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants, this year’s three young investigators will pursue two-year autism research projects under the mentorship of 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 early career scientists pursuing autism research. Lady Weatherstone and daughter Cheryl Weatherstone continue to actively support this fellowship program on a personal level. 

The 2016 class brings the number of Autism Speaks Weatherstone predoctoral fellows to 63.

“We extend our thanks to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation and the Weatherstone family for their continuing investment in the next generation of ground-breaking researchers," says Autism Speaks Interim Chief Science Officer Mathew Pletcher. “These young scientists embody Autism Speaks’ ongoing commitment to shape the future of autism science by supporting training and research opportunities for the field’s brightest new investigators.”

Developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks senior vice president for medical research, oversees the fellowship program. “Many 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,” Dr. Wang says. (See the links at the end of this news item to learn more about past and ongoing fellowship research projects.)

This year’s class of Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellows include:

Eric Rubenstein, of the University of North Carolina, will explore the association between autism symptoms in children diagnosed with the condition and autism-like behavioral traits in their parents (who don’t have autism). The goal is to better understand how and when inherited factors play a role in the development of autism and then use this information to tailor interventions that can best meet a child’s needs. The study also promises to deepen understanding of the inherited traits and biology of different subtypes of autism. Mr. Rubenstein’s fellowship mentors at UNC include epidemiologist Julie Daniels, public health statistician Amy Herring and developmental psychologist Rebecca Edmondson Pretzel. Read more about his research project here.

Stephen Siecinski, at Duke University, will be investigating how individual differences in epigenetics and gene expression may affect treatment response to oxytocin. He will be doing so using blood samples from participants in SOARS-B, a large clinical trial evaluating oxytocin nasal spray as a treatment for improving sociability in people who have autism. He will also use a mouse model of autism to advance understanding of oxytocin’s effects in the brain. Mr. Siecinski’s mentor is geneticist Simon Gregory and his co-investigators include Yong-hui Jiang and Lydia Kwee. Read more about his research project here.

Anne Martin, at the University of Utah, will study the role that the autism-linked Kirrel3 gene plays in the development of synapses – the bioelectrical connections between brain cells. This work promises to advance understanding of how problems in synaptic function may cause some types of autism. Ultimately, this may lead to the development of new autism therapies that improve synaptic function. Ms. Martin will pursue her research using 3D electron microscopy to define synaptic defects in Kirrel3-knockout mice. She will also test whether and how autism-associated Kirrel3 missense mutations impair synaptic function. Ms. Martin will be working in the lab of her mentor, neurobiologist Megan Williams. Read more about her research project here.

In related news, Autism Speaks also announced its first Royal Arch Masons predoctoral fellowship. Read about it here.


For more about Autism Speaks research fellows and their ground-breaking studies, also see:

Easing anxiety in kids with autism and limited verbal skills

Helping nonverbal children with autism learn to speak

New evidence links immune irregularities to autism

Pivotal Response Training may improve brain responses to social cues

Research on girls provides insights into severe autism

Genes, older dads and autism

Why autism risk rises with mom's age: Study may shed light

Remote coaching helps parents deliver autism therapies

Stopping dangerous behavior in children and teens with autism

* Why study what causes of autism?