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UC Davis Health System

UC Davis Health System

Autism Research Training Program graduates advance autism research

Posted April 10, 2013

Rebecca J. Schmidt © UC Regents
Rebecca J. Schmidt

A.J. (Amy Jo) Schwichtenberg © UC Regents
A.J. (Amy Jo) Schwichtenberg

Tracy DeBoer Riggins © UC Regents
Tracy DeBoer Riggins

The key goal of the MIND Institute is conducting leading-edge research, and integral to that effort is increasing the number of highly skilled, well-trained and committed investigators in the field. The Autism Research Training Program (ARTP) was launched to expand the numbers of autism scientists. Since its inception in 2005, the program has enrolled 37 postdoctoral fellows. These young investigators are trained to make important contributions to the field of autism science.

Autism Awareness Month events

Autism: From the Teen Years
to Young Adulthood

Wednesday, April 17, 5:30 p.m. - 7 p.m.
MIND Institute, FREE – limited seating.
A panel of experts and community members will give updates on promising research and interventions for teens transitioning into adulthood. The MIND Resource Center opens at 4:30 p.m. Event is part of the Minds Behind the MIND series. Se habla español.

Art Spark: An Inclusive Arts
Festival for Families
Sunday, April 21, 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.
Crocker Art Museum, FREE.
An inclusive celebration of visual and performing arts, including El Dorado Dance Academy, AIM HIGHER, Afia Walking Tree and Francie Dillon with Puppet Art Theater. Activities will include gallery tours and hands-on fun stations for visitors of all abilities. Presented by the Crocker Art Museum’s Art Access Committee, I Can Do That!, Short Center South and the MIND Institute. Co-sponsored by the MIND Institute. Se habla español. Child friendly.

Family Open House and Festival
Saturday, April 27, Noon-4 p.m.
MIND Institute, FREE.
Performers will include The Star Dancers, I Can Do That!, Dream Achievers, Jordan the Science Wizard, Latin jazz of Ivan Najera and Friends, emcee Jack Gallagher, magicians, balloon artists, and other special guests. Representatives from the MIND Institute and community agencies will be on-site with resource information. Create art projects, participate in hands-on activities, ride a train, or jump in a bounce house. Food trucks from Sacramento’s FoodMob will sell food, or bring a blanket and a picnic lunch. Quiet areas for families will be available throughout the event. Se habla español. Child friendly.

Many already have. In 2011, Rebecca J. Schmidt, now a UC Davis assistant professor of public health sciences, published groundbreaking research that found women who did not take a daily prenatal vitamin before and during their first month of pregnancy were twice as likely to have a child with autism. Extending this research in 2012, Schmidt and her colleagues published a study that identified folic acid in the prenatal vitamins as providing the protective effect. The research attracted international media attention.

The work was the first peer-reviewed research to suggest a concrete step that women may take to reduce the risk of having a child with autism. The landmark study’s findings recently were replicated by researchers in Scandinavia.

Schmidt completed the ARTP in 2010. Her primary mentor was professor of public health sciences Irva Hertz-Picciotto.

“Graduating from the ARTP at the MIND Institute positioned me well for conducting leading-edge, interdisciplinary research on the etiology and prevention of autism,” Schmidt said. “Under the mentorship of the program and in the enriched MIND Institute environment, I was able to secure funding for research projects that led to publication of high-impact papers and follow-up grants.

“Collaborations initiated as a post-doctoral student in the ARTP continue to augment my research, and new collaborations with researchers I connected with through the program have developed as I expand my research,” she said.

Tracy DeBoer Riggins, another ARTP graduate who is now an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, College Park, said that participating in the program expanded the breadth of her knowledge and widened the lens through which she viewed science in relationship to children’s health. Riggins has published articles on risk groups including infants of diabetic mothers and adolescents exposed to drugs prenatally.

Riggins completed the ARTP in 2006. Her primary mentor was Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Tony Simon.

“During my fellowship at the MIND Institute, I was exposed to scientific thinking that was very different from my own and my graduate training. I vividly recall sitting in seminars and being able to comfortably ask researchers from other fields to define terms or explain concepts with which I had little or no experience,” Riggins said. “I strive to carry the experiences and the knowledge I gained as an ARTP fellow forward and apply them in both my teaching and research.”

A.J. (Amy Jo) Schwichtenberg completed the Autism Research Training Program in September 2010 under the mentorship of Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Sally Ozonoff. Shwichtenberg recently was appointed assistant professor in the Departments of Human Development and Family Studies and Psychological Studies at Purdue University.

“I grew tremendously as a diagnostician and a scholar,” Schwichtenberg said of her ARTP experiences. “The structured coursework and dual mentorship model used in ARTP exposed me to explore diverse areas of study and afforded me the opportunity to learn more about autism and a specialty area of interest – sleep.”

Schwichtenberg recently published research with her mentor Sally Ozonoff on “Behavior and Sleep Problems in Children with a Family History of Autism.”

“I am truly humbled by the support provided by my mentors and I am eternally grateful to them and the Autism Research Training Program,” she said.