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World Autism Day: How JHSPH Researchers are Addressing Autism

Observed on April 2, 2018, World Autism Day kicks off a month-long international initiative to “increase understanding and acceptance and foster worldwide support” of autism. Here's how six researchers are addressing autism at the Bloomberg School.

Gazi Azad

Gazi Azad, PhD

Mental HealthKennedy Krieger Institute

Azad is a clinical psychologist with a background in school psychology who is concentrating on school-based mental health services research. Azad’s research focuses on promoting family-school partnerships for underserved children with psychiatric and developmental disabilities. A major emphasis of her work is to enhance the continuity of care received by children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in underserved communities. Her research targets communication and collaboration between stakeholders to ensure consistent implementation of evidence-based practices across contexts and, ultimately, better child outcomes.

Dani Fallin

Dani Fallin, PhD

Mental Health, Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities

Fallin’s interests are in applying genetic epidemiology methods to studies of neuropsychiatric disorders including autism, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder and in developing applications and methods for epigenetic epidemiology, particularly as applied to mental health and development.

Luke Kalb

Luke Kalb, PhD

Mental HealthKennedy Krieger Institute

Kalb’s research focuses on improving mental health outcomes among vulnerable populations, with a focus on youth and individuals with a developmental disability. His primary research interests involve understanding the phenomenology, epidemiology and treatment of mental health crises. His research portfolio also extends to assessing the effectiveness of community-based mental health programs, psychometrics and measure development, developing methods to address selection bias, and use of health information systems and emerging technologies to improve clinical care and research methodologies.

Christine Ladd-Acosta

Christine Ladd-Acosta, PhD


Ladd-Acosta’s primary research interest is to understand the molecular underpinnings of autism. Recent evidence suggests both genetic and environmental factors are involved in the etiology of autism, yet no single factor has been conclusively identified to date. Ladd-Acosta’s research is focused on integrating genome-wide genotyping, genome-scale epigenetic and prenatal environmental exposure data, at a population level, to understand how these factors influence autism risk and to identify biologic pathways that could serve as molecular targets for prevention and intervention efforts. This work is carried out through collaborations with both U.S.-based and international epidemiology studies and research consortia. Additionally, Ladd-Acosta is pursuing the development of new molecular epigenetic methods and tools to enable the next generation of epidemiology studies, more broadly. 

Li-Ching Lee

Li-Ching Lee, PhD

EpidemiologyMental Health

Lee is a psychiatric epidemiologist with research interests in global autism, autism surveillance, and neurodevelopmental disorders. She leads the Maryland site of the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, a project funded by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide comparable, population-based estimates of the prevalence rates of autism and related disorders from different sites over time. Internationally, Lee has been leading autism epidemiologic studies in Taiwan, China, and Bangladesh. Related to these efforts, Lee has been ensuring that widely used autism assessment tools are culturally appropriate and scientifically validated for various language speaking populations, and she has been implementing comprehensive parent-mediated intervention for children with autism specifically targeting for underserved populations.


Heather Volk

Heather Volk

Mental Health

Broadly, Volk’s research seeks to identify gene-environment interactions with neurodevelopmental disorders and, more specifically, on the effects of prenatal and early-life air pollution exposure on risk for autism spectrum disorder, inattention, and delayed cognitive development. Genetics, disease biomarkers and environmental exposure biomarkers are incorporated into the evaluation of these relationships to examine underlying biological mechanisms, improve exposure metrics and evaluate susceptibility.



At the Wendy Klag Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities, researchers focus on a variety of areas to uncover the causes of autism. #JHSPH third year PhD student Calliope Holingue (right) in the Department of Mental Health is working with Wendy Klag Center director Dani Fallin to research the connection between autism and the gastrointestinal system. . "I'm interested in how physical and mental health are connected," says Calliope. She chose #JHSPH because it's the only school of public health with a Department of Mental Health, and because she could also continue to study epidemiology. "There are other places to do psychiatric epidemiology but I felt like here I could get the best learning experience." . Calliope says she knew Fallin would be her advisor when she came here, but she didn't know much about autism at the time. "My favorite thing about Dani is she gives me a lot of independence and to pursue the research I want... I always joke that she's who I want to be down the road, because she’s doing so many things and doing them all well." . What does she love about JHSPH? "There are so many opportunities and so much great work going on," she says. "That's really inspiring and motivating." . Calliope hopes to stay in academia and explore the field further after completing her PhD. Her advice to students on finding a mentor? "Find someone who supports your goals." #publichealth #autism #MyBmore #highereducation

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