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Autism Speaks Welcomes 2014 Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows

October 20, 2014

Encouraging the most-promising scientific talent to launch careers in autism research

(Oct 20, 2014) Today Autism Speaks President Liz Feld, Co-Founder Bob Wright and Vasili Tsamis of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation welcomed the sixth class of Dennis Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellows, at the Princeton Club, in New York City.

“It's a point of pride that we fund more pre- and post-doctoral fellowships [86 total] than the NIH and other federal agencies combined," Feld said, while calling on the federal government to follow Autism Speaks' lead. "It's so inspiring to help so many talented young scientists embark on careers in autism research."

"You have the talent to face the challenges and find the solutions," added Vasili Tsamis, chief operating officer of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

Autism Speaks established the highly competitive Weatherstone fellowship program in 2008 with a generous gift from the Niarchos Foundation. In name, the program honors the foundation’s first chairman, Sir Dennis Weatherstone. A distinguished financier, Sir Weatherstone and his wife shared a deep, personal commitment to supporting autism research. Lady Weatherstone continues to actively support the career development of Autism Speaks Weatherstone fellows. 

The fellowships enable highly promising doctoral students to pursue autism research projects under the mentorship of the field’s leading scientists. Autism Speaks received a record 78 applications for this year’s class.

Wright described how Autism Speaks’ rapidly growing autism genomics program will soon enable the fellows and other researchers to freely search thousands of autism genomes to answer questions about autism’s and to guide their development of promising treatments. "I am so hopeful to stand here watching you begin a journey that will be augmented by what's going on with this tremendous data resource,” Wright said. 

Featured speakers and honorees
Other featured speakers at this year’s Weatherstone luncheon included two accomplished Weatherstone fellowship alumni.

* Esther Berko (Weatherstone class of 2010) described her research on the epigenetics of autism. In particular she described how her findings may help explain why the risk of having a child with autism increases with parent age. Dr. Berko is currently completing her pediatrics residency at Columbia University Medical Center. Read more about Dr. Berko’s research here.

* Jennifer Foss-Feig (Weatherstone class of 2009) described her research on impaired sensory processing in individuals with autism. Her behavioral and brain studies are advancing understanding of these challenges and promise to lead to more precise diagnosis and treatment of autism subtypes. Read more about Dr. Foss-Feig’s published studies here.

Ed Clayton, Autism Speaks senior director of strategic funding and grants administration, presented honored guest Stephen Camarata with an award honoring him for his many years reviewing fellowship applications as the chair the Weatherstone Fellow Review Panel. Dr. Camarata’s research at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine is advancing the treatment of speech and language disorders in young children, including those with autism.

Special guests also included prominent autism scientists who have served as fellowship mentors. They included Helen Tager-Flusberg, director of Boston University’s Center for Autism Research Excellence; Craig Newschaffer, director of Drexel University’s AJ Drexel Autism Institute; psychiatrist Jeremy Veenstra-VanderWeele, of Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital; and Kevin Pelphrey, director of Yale University’s Program in Translational Developmental Neuroscience.

Dr. Camarata introduced this year’s fellows, each of whom presented an overview of their research projects and motivations to work in the field of autism. Read about all nine fellows and their projects here.

Taekwondo and autism – an annual Weatherstone tradition
In what has become an annual tradition, Lady Weatherstone closed the luncheon by reading a note of encouragement from her daughter Cheryl Weatherstone Vance, whose son has autism:

“My Dad always said there are people out there that would find their way to the same cause because they are fighters and share that same spirit. Every time I read about the progress from the Weatherstone Scholars I think to myself, my Dad was right! He knew it could be done. He knew you were fighters, too! So, I have one thing to say to autism. ‘Sorry, but you are going down in flames! I have an elite team of the brightest minds on the planet on my side here at Autism Speaks!’ My Dad would have been so proud of you, and as his daughter I am so proud of you, too.” (Read her full letter here.)