Here we feature stories and images of faculty and staff working towards #AutismAwareness at the UNC Autism Research Center.

Aysenil Belger, Ph.D.

Dr. Aysenil Belger is the new director of the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute.  Dr. Belger is a Professor of Psychiatry, Professor of Psychology, and directs the Neurocognition and Imaging Research Lab in the UNC Department of Psychiatry.  She also heads the Clinical and Translational Research Core within the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities.  She has served as a faculty member at UNC for 18 years.

Her research focuses on studies of the cortical circuits underlying attention and executive function in the human brain, as well as the breakdown in these functions in neuropsychiatric and neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.  Dr. Belger combines functional magnetic resonance imaging, electrophysiological scalp recording, experimental psychology and neuropsychological assessment techniques to explore the behavioral and neurophysiological dimensions of  higher order executive functions.

Her most recent research projects have focused on electrophysiological abnormalities in young autistic children and children, adolescents and adults at high risk for schizophrenia.  Her research also examines changes in cortical circuits and their physiological properties in children and adults at high-risk for psychotic disorders.

Dara Chan, ScD, CRC

Dr. Dara Chan is an Assistant Professor in the division of Clinical Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling, in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.  Her research interests include  community integration and resource use for people with physical and psychiatric disabilities; spatial analysis of accessibility and the environment using Geographic Information Systems (GIS).

Dr. Chan’s research focuses on using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping and Global Positioning System (GPS) data tracking to record the activity locations and time spent in the community of individuals with disabilities during an average week. “We know many adults with ASD and many adults with CP have lower rates of post-secondary education, employment, and even recreational activities, which can contribute to social isolation and low participation in the community. Understanding where adults are going and what activity locations in the community are important may be able to improve service delivery, community based interventions for adulthood, and overall community integration,” she notes.

Dr. Chan was awarded two grants to investigate community participation in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and a third grant to investigate community participation in adults with cerebral palsy (CP). Historically, research and services directed at developmental disabilities such as ASD and CP have focused on childhood and adolescence, with little attention given to what happens in adulthood. “There is a gap in understanding how activities and service needs change in adulthood for people with developmental disabilities, and how these needs are, or are not, being met,” stated Dr. Chan.

Gabriel Dichter, Ph.D.

Gabriel Dichter is a clinical psychologist and tenured Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology & Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill and a faculty in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. His research uses behavioral econometrics, eyetracking, electrophysiology, and functional brain imaging to investigate core deficits and treatment response in autism spectrum disorders and affective disorders.

He has been PI of two NARSAD awards addressing reward processing in mood disorders, a Dana Foundation grant investigating neural mechanisms of treatment response in autism, and five NIMH grants, including a career development award focused on neuroimaging treatment effects in autism, studies of imaging and molecular genetic predictors of response to psychotherapy in mood disorders, and currently an R01 focused on reward processing deficits in autism.

Dr. Dichter co-leads UNC’s SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research for Knowledge), a research initiative designed to become the largest genetic research study for autism ever undertaken in the U.S.  SPARK is a national autism research initiative that will connect individuals with a professional diagnosis of autism and their biological family members to research opportunities to advance our understanding of autism. SPARK’s goal in doing so is not only to better understand autism, but to accelerate the development of new treatments and supports.

Graham Dierling, Ph.D.

Dr. Graham Diering is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology.  Dr. Diering’s research interests include understanding the molecular mechanisms of synaptic plasticity with a particular interest in sleep.  Sleep is an essential and evolutionarily conserved process that modifies synapses in the brain to support cognitive functions such as learning and memory.  Using mouse models of human disease as well as primary cultured neurons, his lab is applying this work to understanding and treating neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and intellectual disability. The lab focuses on biochemistry, pharmacology, animal behavior and genetics.

Kara Hume, Ph.D.

Dr. Kara Hume is an Advanced Research Scientist at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, as well as a Research Associate Professor in the School of Education. Her research interests include Classroom and home-based intervention strategies for young children, school-age children, and adolescents with developmental disabilities; use of structured teaching strategies with individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD); professional development and implementation support for special education service providers; identification, review, and evaluation of evidence based practices for individuals with ASD.

She serves as Principal Investigator (PI) and Co-PI on several studies with children, adolescents, and adults on the autism spectrum. She serves as Co-PI for the Center on Secondary Education for Students with ASD (CSESA,, a five year project developing and implementing a comprehensive high school program for students on the spectrum funded by IES.

Additonal current work includes the Family Implemented TEACCH for Toddlers study (FITT, supporting families with toddlers on the autism spectrum funded by Maternal and Children’s Health Bureau, as well as a study to support the independent functioning of adolescents and adults through the use of work systems, funded by the Organization for Autism Research.

Laura Grofer Klinger, Ph.D.

Laura Grofer Klinger, Ph.D.,  is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine and the Director of the TEACCH Autism Program.  She oversees TEACCH’s seven regional Centers, Supported Employment Program, and the Carolina Living and Learning Center, an integrated vocational and residential program for adults.

Dr. Klinger serves on the Board of Directors of the International Society for Autism Research (IMFAR).  Her research program focuses on learning and memory in individuals with autism and the development of treatment programs based on these learning difficulties.

Dr. Klinger is the Principal Investigator of an Autism Speaks’ funded longitudinal study measuring outcomes in middle-aged adults with autism spectrum disorder who were diagnosed during childhood by the UNC TEACCH Autism program.  Approximately 7,000 children with ASD were served between 1965 and 2000 and are now adults.  The goal of the study is to survey 400 of these adults and their caregivers.

Dr. Klinger is a member of the Sesame Street advisory panel that developed the character Julia, a muppet with autism.  The panel was composed of researchers, clinicians, family members and people with autism.

Patricia Maness, Ph.D.

Dr. Patricia Maness is a Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics in the UNC School of Medicine.  Dr. Maness is a member of the UNC Neuroscience Center, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, and UNC Curriculum in Neurobiology

Dr. Maness’ research focuses on understanding the molecular mechanisms governing development of the mammalian nervous system; specifically, mechanisms of axon guidance and synaptic targeting and their disruption in neuropsychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and autism spectrum disorders.

Dr. Maness has received national recognition for her research, including the Jefferson-Pilot Award in Academic Research, NIH Career Development Award, Hilton Distinguished Investigator Award from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), and Pogue Scholarly Research Fellowship (2015). She has served as a full member of NIH Study Section Neurodifferentiation, Plasticity, Regeneration and Rhythmicity, 2013-2017.

Sheryl Moy, Ph.D.

Dr. Sheryl Moy is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the UNC School of Medicine.  Her research addresses genetic factors in susceptibility to neurodevelopmental disorders, and preclinical efficacy testing with novel therapeutic agents, using mouse models for psychiatric and neurological conditions. Current studies in the Moy laboratory utilize knockout or transgenic mouse lines with disruptions of NMDA, serotonin, or other signaling pathways as models of human clinical disorders.

With Drs. Gary Duncan and Beverly Koller, she is using mice with reduced NMDA receptor levels as a model of the intrinsic glutamatergic hypofunction associated with schizophrenia. This collaborative group has already determined behavioral and pharmacological profiles in the model, and demonstrated alterations in neural circuitry underlying abnormal social behavior and deficient sensorimotor gating. The aims for Dr. Moy’s present project include characterization of the time course for emergence of schizophrenia-like phenotypes and the evaluation of early intervention with typical and atypical antipsychotic compounds. A second line of research in her laboratory focuses on the C58/J inbred strain as a model for aberrant repetitive behavior and social deficits, relevant to symptoms in autism.

Ben Philpot, Ph.D.

Ben Philpot, Ph.D., is the Kenan Distinguished Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, Associate Director of the UNC Neuroscience Center and Co-Director of the UNC NIH T32 Post Doctoral Research Training Program.

Dr. Philpot’s research investigates the molecular, cellular, and neural circuitry mechanisms underlying neurodevelopmental disorders, with the goal of discovering novel therapeutic opportunities.   His lab is passionate about identifying treatments for monogenic neurodevelopmental disorders such as Rett, Pitt-Hopkins, and Angelman syndromes.  Dr. Philpot’s work is focused primarly on the following projects:  (1) the synaptic basis for Angelman syndrome and autism spectrum disorders, and (2) the role of NMDA receptors in neural development.  He has published more than 70 articles.

Dr. Philpot is a recipient of the Dr. Claudia Benton Award for Scientific Research, awarded by the Angelman Syndrome Foundation, for demonstrating strong commitment to advancing the scientific knowledge as it pertains to Angelman syndrome.  In 2010, he received the Daniel X. Freedman Award for outstanding basic research achievement by a NARSAD Young Investigator.   In 2016, Dr. Philpot was the co-recipient of the first gene therapy grant awarded by the Pitt-Hopkins Research Foundation.

Joe Piven, M.D.

Dr. Joseph Piven is the Thomas E. Castelloe Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology; Director, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities; Co-Director, UNC NIH T32 Post Doctoral Research Training Program; Director, NICHD Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center; Director, North Carolina University Center of Excellence; and Director of the NIH ACE Network – Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS).

Dr. Piven’s research interests are focused on structural MRI, diffusion tensor imaging of the developing brain in autism and Fragile X, health services for individuals with developmental disabilities, and molecular and family genetic studies of the intermediate phenotypes in autism.  His work has emphasized interdisciplinary collaborations in imaging (MRI/DTI), behavioral-family and molecular genetics (linkage and association) studies aimed at elucidating the pathogenesis of autistic syndrome.  He has been the principal investigator of two large-scale research centers on autism – an NIH STAART Center and NIH ACE Network; as well as an NICHD-funded P30 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center and a T32 post-doctoral research training grant.

Dr. Piven is the author of over 100 peer-reviewed publications on neuropsychological mechanisms, brain/morphology/mechanisms and the genetics of autism and Fragile X Syndrome.  He is the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders, a publication aimed at promoting interdisciplinary research on the pathogenesis of a range of neurodevelopmental disorders.  Dr. Piven was awarded the Scientist Developmental Award for Clinicians from 1992 – 1997 and the NIMH’s Independent Scientist Award in 1998 – 2003.

Jason Stein, Ph.D.

Dr. Jason Stein is an Assistant Professor of Genetics in the UNC Neuroscience Center.  Dr. Stein’s lab explores how variations in the genome change the structure and development of the brain, and in doing so, create risk for neuropsychiatric illness. He studies genetic effects on multiple aspects of the human brain, from macroscale phenotypes like gross human brain structure measured with MRI to molecular phenotypes like gene expression and chromatin accessibility measured with genome-sequencing technologies. His team also uses neural progenitor cells as a modifiable and high fidelity model system to understand how disease-associated variants affect brain development.

Garret Stuber

Dr. Garret Stuber is an Associate Professor in the departments of Psychiatry and Cell Biology and Physiology in the UNC School of Medicine.  Dr. Stuber’s lab is interested in delineating the precise neural circuitry that underlies maladaptive behaviors that are implicated in a variety of neurological and neuropsychiatric illnesses. To accomplish this, the lab uses cutting-edge methodologies to unravel neural circuit function in rodent models of disease. One particular line of research is focused on understanding the neural circuit mechanisms that regulated the activity and function midbrain dopamine neurons. Dopamine neurotransmission is critical for a variety of essential behaviors related to movement, motivation, and affective behaviors. Recently, the Stuber lab has identified key neural circuit elements that innervate the ventral midbrain that can directly and indirectly regulate dopamine neuron function to orchestrate motivated behaviors related to reward-seeking and anxiety

Lauren Turner-Brown

Dr. Lauren Turner-Brown is the Assistant Director of the TEACCH Autism Program and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry.  Her research is focused on gaining a better understanding of the autism phenotype to promote accurate early detection and to develop and test more targeted interventions for individuals with autism. She currently studies early autism screening and different approaches for early autism intervention.

Dr. Turner-Brown specializes in clinical and research experience with early screening, identification and intervention for toddlers, as well as experience training current and future professionals.  Some of her current research focuses on examining the efficacy of structured teaching for toddlers and their families in rural communities.

Linda Watson

Dr. Linda Watson is a Professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences in the Department of Allied Health Sciences.  Her responsibilities have included providing direct clinical services, supervising graduate students in clinical experiences, serving a term as the Speech-Language Pathology Clinic Coordinator, and teaching courses in the Masters and Ph.D. programs.  Dr. Watson’s research interests include Early identification of children with autism; Social, communication, and sensory-motor development in children with autism and other disabilities; Communication intervention with toddlers and preschoolers with or at-risk for autism or other disabilities.  She devotes most of her time to autism research, and to mentoring students interested in research, teaching, and clinical projects related to children with autism.

Mark Zylka, Ph.D.

Mark Zylka, Ph.D., is the Jeffrey Houpt Distinguished Investigator, Professor in the Department of Cell Biology and Physiology, and Director of the UNC Neuroscience Center.

Dr. Zylka studies genetic and environmental risks for autism, as well as molecular and brain mechanisms that underlie pain sensation.  His lab is studying a number of transcriptional regulators using genome-wide approaches to determine how they contribute to autism.  This work includes mechanistic studies with neuronal cultures and autism mouse models.

Dr. Zylka’s pain research is focused on studying a number of lipid kinases, some of which may represent new therapeutic targets for chronic pain.  He is also using circuit-based approaches to dissect pain pathways in the periphery and in the brain.  One of Dr. Zylka’s key goals is to better understand the molecules and circuits that transduce pain so that new therapeutics can be developed.

From 2006 – 2008, Dr. Zylka was an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow and was granted the Klingenstein Fellowship Award in the Neurosciences from 2006 – 2009.  In 2007 – 2010, he was the Rita Allen Foundation-Milton E. Cassel Scholar.  In 2013, Dr. Zylka was awarded the NIH Pioneer Award.