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New Institute for Developmental Sciences Announced

Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences Director Laurie Wakschlag, right, sits with DevSci Associate Director Rachel Flynn, who will be arriving at the University on June 12. Photos by Eileen Molony

The seeds of neurodevelopmental strength and vulnerability take root before a baby is even born. So do the roots of age-related illnesses, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

During those critical first years of life, brain and behavioral development, and family and social experience, play a formative role in determining whether and how children will learn, behave, adapt, and thrive. Early development also shapes a child’s capacity to benefit from later experiences and to lead a healthy, productive life.

As scientists probe the mechanisms that underlie the impact of early development, Northwestern University has launched the first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary Institute for Innovations in Developmental Sciences (DevSci). Directed by Laurie Wakschlag, a clinical and developmental psychologist who joined Northwestern in 2010, DevSci’s mission is to motivate and lead transformative science to engender a “healthier, earlier” population — beginning even before birth — and continuing throughout life.

“It is clear that many elements of our childhood environment set the stage for disease later in life,” says Rex Chisholm, associate vice president for research and vice dean for scientific affairs and graduate education at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “This institute will expand our understanding of how this happens and explore not just childhood well-being, but how we might optimize adult health, too.”

DevSci is born out of an initiative started five years ago in the Feinberg School’s Department of Medical Social Sciences (MSS) in partnership with leading developmental scientists from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the School of Communication, and the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP).

The Institute now includes partnerships with the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital, The Graduate School, Northwestern University Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute (NUCATS), Northwestern University Library, and the Galter Health Sciences Library.

The DevSci Institute will leverage strong partnerships with other existing Northwestern institutes and catalyze already robust collaborations between biomedical investigators and social scientists on the University’s Chicago and Evanston campuses. It also will create crucial infrastructure to establish Northwestern as a global center of excellence and an international leader in the field.

“This institute has the potential to provide powerful scaffolding for the field-leading work that the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and SESP have been producing,” says David Figlio, IPR director and incoming SESP dean. “Indeed, work by many of the leading faculty in DevSci have been strongly supported and promoted by IPR — which is a key indicator of how central developmental science has become to our mission.”

Having expanded to include more than 125 faculty members, Northwestern’s DevSci community has made numerous pathbreaking discoveries and has garnered nearly $140 million in developmental science research funding during the past three years.

“DevSci is a major realization of our department’s mission to enable transdisciplinary solutions by bringing together faculty from around the University at the intersection of biomedical and social sciences in the developmental arena,” says David Cella, the Ralph Seal Paffenbarger Chair of Medical Social Sciences. “DevSci coalesces University-wide strengths through outstanding partnerships to create an unparalleled translational research environment.” MSS will serve as the institute’s administrative home.

“There is increasing evidence that the origins of lifespan health and disease reside in very early life,” says Wakschlag, DevSci director and MSS vice chair for scientific and faculty development. “But the profound potential of this knowledge to optimize lifelong health while reducing the overall population burden of illness has not yet been realized. DevSci will serve as a scientific engine driving actualization of this promise for all children to receive a healthier start in life.”

With the organizing theme of “healthier, earlier,” DevSci will stimulate and enable interdisciplinary scientific and training activities that support young children’s developmental health, learning, and wellbeing. A nexus of this activity will be generating evidence on “when to worry” about young children’s neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities to enable earlier identification and prevention.

“Translation from discovery to application typically takes more than a decade” says Megan Roberts, communication sciences and disorders, who co-leads DevSci’s research incubation center. “DevSci’s goal is to accelerate the discovery-to-application pipeline for children’s developmental interventions by engendering collaborations of scientists who span the full translational spectrum.”

DevSci will be comprised of an administrative core and multiple intersecting components, including:

  • A Center for Research Incubation, codirected by Roberts and Matthew Davis, pediatrics, and director of the Smith Child Health Research Program at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute of Lurie Children’s Hospital. This center will house various enabling platforms to foster innovation and engagement in transdisciplinary development science, including a clinical-pediatric and population research hub to foster multisite research platforms that facilitate access to young children and their families to engage them in studies about health, vulnerability, and illness, and activities and supports designed to catalyze team science.
  • A Neurodevelopmental Resource Core, codirected by Bradley Marino, pediatrics, and Lurie Children’s Heart Center Director; and neuroscientist Elizabeth Norton, communication sciences and disorders. This core will provide methodologic support and training in developmentally sensitive neuroimaging and performance-based assessment techniques, in partnership with leading developmental and neuroscientists across the University and the Center for Translational Imaging.
  • A Data Science Hub, codirected by Joseph Ferrie, economics, and Norinna Allen, preventive medicine, in partnership with Northwestern University Library, Galter Library, and the NUCATS Center on Data Science and Informatics. This arrangement will optimize collaboration between biomedical and social scientists through the employment of state-of-the-art data science approaches.
  • A Center for Training in Transdisciplinary Developmental Sciences, codirected by Molly Losh, communication sciences and disorders, Vijay Mittal, clinical psychology, and Craig Garfield, pediatrics. This center will be the nucleus for unique developmental sciences training and educational opportunities across the University.

“Training will emphasize direct engagement with leading Northwestern investigators in the developmental sciences,” says Losh. “Opportunities for student cross-disciplinary mentorship and collaboration via the Center’s transdisciplinary cluster and pilot grants will provide a rare level of multilayered support and methodologic training, with particular emphasis on graduate student, physician-scientist, and postdoctoral training.”

A key feature of the Training Center will be its DevSci Graduate and Pediatric Fellowship Cluster, which in partnership with The Graduate School and Lurie Children’s, will support nine graduate and three pediatric fellowships during the Institute’s first three years.

“The creation of the DevSci graduate cluster, and our investment in the shared Neurodevelopmental Resource Core, provide resources that will enable new types of creative scholarship and contribute to our training mission,” says Kelly Mayo, associate dean for research and graduate studies at Weinberg. “DevSci will play an important role in cross-school and cross-campus integration, and provide a focal point for research in an area that is truly emergent in promoting health and well-being across the lifespan.”

The DevSci leadership structure was designed to blend junior and senior faculty across the biomedical and social sciences. Three of DevSci’s founding members, Lindsay-Chase-Lansdale, human development and social policy; Sandy Waxman, psychology; and Ellen Wartella, communication studies, will continue as DevSci executive committee members. Also informing these activities will be the DevSci advisory council, which includes diverse scientists representing 12 departments across its four anchoring schools.

“DevSci has a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach to research that is essential for this field,” says Thomas Shanley, chair of pediatrics and chief research officer at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. “Bringing pediatric scientists at Lurie Children’s together with their peers on the Evanston and Chicago campuses allows the Northwestern academic community to address developmentally linked clinical needs that profoundly affect the health of both children and adults.”

The DevSci Institute will host an official launch event on June 29 in Chicago. Click here to RSVP for the event or to receive more information about DevSci.

By Roger Anderson