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Meet Our Researchers

 
 

Part of our mission at the Center for Autism Research is to train up-and-coming young autism researchers so they have a solid foundation from which to drive tomorrow’s breakthroughs. These post- doctoral fellows come to us from a wide range of academic disciplines, and they each enrich and invigorate the work of our center. Meet two of our current “post-docs” to learn about what led them to autism research, what area of autism research they specialize in, and what they find most exciting about their work. In this issue, you’ll meet:

 

 

Whitney Guthrie, PhD, CAR Postdoctoral Fellow

 

 

 

 

Evangelis Sariyanidi, PhD, CAR Postdoctoral Fellow

 

 

 

What is your main area of focus in autism research?

Dr. Guthrie - My research has two main focuses, but both involve infants and toddlers. The first is early identification of autism – I’m interested in developing new ways of identifying children with autism as early as we possibly can. My second area of research is early developmental trajectories of autism. Infants later diagnosed with autism often develop at typical rates in the first year of life, but sometimes in the second year of life their development starts to diverge from typical development in ways we don’t quite understand yet. My research in this area is aimed at understanding how autism symptoms develop in the first few years of life, so that we can learn how to best intervene when there are developmental delays.

Dr. Sariyanidi – I am an engineer and I specialize in computer vision: I develop computer algorithms to quantify and analyze images and videos. More narrowly, I would define my expertise as the automatic analysis of facial expressions. In autism research, I focus on using automated analysis of facial expressions to improve our understanding about the nature of autism and to develop tools that can aid the process of diagnosis.

 

Why did you decide to go into autism research?
Dr. Guthrie - Like many people in the field, my family has been personally touched by autism. My cousin was diagnosed with autism when I was 13 and I’ve wanted to make a career out of helping children with autism and their families ever since!

Dr. Sariyanidi – For someone with utilitarian motivations who approaches autism from a technical background, I’m fascinated by the opportunities to apply my specialization- automated human behavior analysis- to learn about and support those affected by ASD.

 

What do you find most exciting about the work you do?
Dr. Guthrie - One of the reasons I love working at CHOP is the close connection between research and clinical care. The average research finding takes 17 years to impact clinical care – that means that what we find in the research lab takes almost two decades to make a difference for children and families! But here at CHOP, collaboration between researchers and clinicians means that we don’t have to wait to improve clinical care. For example, if we’re able to develop new methods of autism screening, we can make them immediately available to CHOP pediatricians.

Dr. Sariyanidi - The most exciting thing is that I am at a very unique place and time to be in. Computer-based analysis of human behavior is now mature enough to yield substantial improvement in human subject research. CAR is committed to using such novel technologies and approaches, and thus can lead major scientific contributions as computer-based analysis enables research on big samples that are difficult, if not impossible, to analyze consistently with traditional approaches such as clinician observation alone or manual behavior coding.

 

What do you want people to know about autism?
Dr. Guthrie - Starting high quality intervention before a child turns three is the best tool we have to help children with autism reach their full potential. Because of this, I want parents to know the early signs of autism and when they should seek out a specialist to evaluate their child. Even though some children with autism have delays in their verbal communication, some of the earliest signs are nonverbal behaviors – difficulties with things like making eye contact or using gestures like pointing to communicate. Other signs include seeming to have more interest in objects than people or playing with toys in an unusual way.

Dr. Sariyanidi - I would share my opinion about what we know (or we don't know): we still have a relatively limited understanding about autism, and therefore a limited ability in defining and characterizing it. I hope that research based on large-scale data analysis will shed further light to what is and what is not autism, so that we can achieve more effective interventions.

 

Over the course of your career, what is the most important lesson learned or guiding principle?
Dr. Guthrie
- Children and families have always guided my research. When I embark on a new research study, I always want to make sure that the project will be meaningful to children with autism and their families and has the potential to make an impact outside of the research lab.

Dr. Sariyanidi -The most important thing that I realized is that very little academic research is actually useful. As a result, my guiding principle is being skeptical about my own work and to continue being a researcher only if I have a strong conviction that my work is useful.