Team – Accordion style

Faculty

Christine Wu Nordahl, PhD

Principal Investigator

Christine Wu Nordahl, PhD, is a professor and neuroscientist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She received her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and graduate degree in neuroscience from UC Davis. She began her career at the MIND Institute as a postdoctoral fellow and has been working on the Autism Phenome Project (APP) since the beginning of the project, spearheading efforts to acquire MRI scans in infants and toddlers during natural sleep, without the use of sedation or anesthesia. She is also committed to increasing inclusion of autistic individuals with intellectual disability in neuroimaging research. ​Dr. Nordahl joined the MIND Institute faculty in 2011 and was named the Beneto Foundation Endowed Chair in 2022. She initiated the Girls with Autism – Imaging of Neurodevelopment (GAIN) Study in 2014 to focus on autism in females. Together with her team, she founded NeuroTeens in 2021, a social support group for neurodivergent girls and nonbinary teens.

Joshua Lee, PhD

Assistant Professional Researcher

Joshua Lee, PhD, is an Assistant Professional Researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. As a developmental neuroscientist, his research characterizes processes of brain development in individuals with neurodevelopmental disabilities. Dr. Lee received his Ph.D. in Psychology at the University of California, Davis in 2016 where he conducted research on typical and atypical development of the hippocampus and episodic memory. As a post-doctoral fellow at the UC Davis MIND Institute Autism Research Training Program, Dr. Lee conducted research examining the development of autistic neurophenotypes in males and females. Dr. Lee has expertise in longitudinal statistical analysis, high-resolution structural MRI imaging, and resting-state functional MRI. Dr. Lee is currently pursuing research to elucidate elevated coincidences between autism and gender diverse identity, an under-served intersection. In addition to his analytical role on the study, Dr. Lee also operates MRI scan sessions for the APP and GAIN studies.

Derek Andrews, PhD

Assistant Project Scientist

Derek Andrews, PhD, joined the MIND Institute in 2017 as a postdoctoral scholar after receiving his PhD in Neuroimaging from King’s College London, UK. Dr. Andrews’s research focuses on the analysis of magnetic resonance images of the brain to increase our understanding of the biological basis of autism. As a member of the MIND Institute, he has published studies identifying brain measures associated with different autism symptom trajectories over childhood as well as co-occurring anxiety and sleep problems in autistic children.
Staff

Brianna Heath, PhD

Program Manager

Brianna Heath, PhD, is the program manager for the APP and GAIN studies. She earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Southern Oregon University and her PhD in Human Genetics from the University of Pittsburgh, working with cell and animal models of neurodegenerative disease, before moving into autism research. Her role serves as a bridge between project leaders, collaborators, the research team, and participating families. She also serves on the MIND Institute Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, aids with sharing research findings through the IDDRC (Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center) Scientific Dissemination efforts, and is an alum of the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) program. She has ADHD and is passionate about promoting self-advocacy for neurodivergent individuals. Across all these domains, her work is aimed at bridging the gap between those with lived experience and the policy makers, clinicians, and researchers whose work directly affects the lives of those individuals.

Melissa Regester

Staff Research Associate

Melissa Regester joined the research team in 2017 as a Lab Assistant. She is responsible for processing and managing inventory of biospecimens from APP participants. She maintains a specialized database system to track available quantity and quality of processed materials like DNA and blood cells and helps coordinate sharing materials with research collaborators. She has also undergone training at the MIND Institute to assist the pediatric phlebotomist during blood draws to ensure participant and staff safety. In addition to her role on the research team, Melissa maintains the MIND Institute Biorepository and manages operations for the MIND Institute Bioscience Building.

Alexa Hechtman, EdS

Study Clinician

Alexa Hechtman, EdS is a School Psychologist and Registered Associate Professional Clinical Counselor. She received her BS in Psychology at UC Davis and received her MA in Education and EdS in School Psychology at California State University Sacramento. As an undergraduate, she joined the GAIN study at the MIND Institute as a volunteer research assistant in 2013. She continued on as a study coordinator for GAIN starting in 2015 has been a program coordinator for APP, GAIN, and related studies since 2020. In her current role, she administers standardized language, academic, and cognitive assessments with study participants and clinical diagnostic interviews with their parents. She is interested in strengths-based assessment, clinical evaluation of anxiety in children with autism and intellectual disability, and behavioral and mental health supports for students with neurodevelopmental disabilities.

Mason Brown

Student Assistant

Mason Brown is a student assistant working with David Amaral and Christine Wu Nordahl on the Autism Phenome Project team. He joined the lab as a volunteer when he was a sophomore at Vista del Lago High School in 2017. After graduating in 2020, he began attending UC Davis where he is currently a junior majoring in English. Mason assists with many different tasks, including acquiring night time MRI scans, preparing MRI scans for analyses and managing undergraduate research assistants in the lab. We feel fortunate to have his perspective as an autistic young adult on our team.
Coordinators

Kiran Sharma

Jr. Specialist (Study Coordinator)

Kiran Sharma received her Bachelor’s of Arts in Psychology from UC Santa Cruz. She has worked at length in Behavioral Health as a Registered Behavioral Technician, specializing in children on the Autism Spectrum as well as other Neurodevelopmental disorders. She is currently working at the MIND Institute as a research coordinator for the GAIN and APP studies managing study recruitment, data analysis, and supporting participant visits. Kiran is interested in Adolescent Psychiatry and Development.

Tori Liggans

Jr. Specialist (Study Coordinator)

Tori Liggans earned her Bachelor of Science in Psychology with a minor in Biology from Howard University. She has recently worked with school-aged children on the Autism Spectrum as a Registered Behavior Technician. Tori is currently working as a study coordinator for the adolescence phase of the APP study. In the future, Tori plans to continue her education by obtaining her doctorate in clinical psychology, specializing in children and adolescent care.

Shayan Alavynejad

Jr. Specialist (Study Coordinator)

Shayan Alavynejad graduated from UC Davis in 2021 with a BS in Biological Sciences. As an undergraduate, he volunteered with the APP and GAIN studies as a research assistant aiding with MRI scans and data entry and with Dr. Bibiana Restrepo on analysis of gastrointestinal symptoms in autistic children. He is currently a study coordinator on the BRAIN and GAIN studies and a pilot study on gastrointestinal assessment methods through the MIND Autism Center of Excellence. In the future, Shayan plans to become pediatric gastroenterologist, with a focus on providing quality medical care for autistic children.

Val Sierakowski

Jr. Specialist (Study Coordinator)

Val Sierakowski is a recent graduate from UC Davis with a degree in Psychology. an undergraduate, he worked as a research assistant aiding in MRI scans and outreach in the Memory and Development Lab with Dr. Simona Ghetti studying associate memory formation in toddlers. We are excited to have him join our team as a study coordinator. He will be leading the early childhood visits for the GAIN study. In the future, Val plans to pursue a career in teaching and research, with a focus on equitable and flexible education.

Kali Kecskemeti

Jr. Specialist (Study Coordinator)

Kali Kecskemeti graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2020 with a BA in Intensive Psychology and a Minor in Education. As an undergraduate, Kali worked in the Early Social Interaction Lab (ESIL) with Professor Audun Dahl, where she studied helping behaviors in infants and investigated how students from various backgrounds understand different cultures and religions. She was also a research assistant in the Athena Lab with Professor Steve Whittaker, where she assisted in developing and testing a conversational chatbot. Kali has worked with children of various ages in school and research settings. She is currently a study coordinator for the middle childhood and adolescent time points of the APP and GAIN studies. In the future, Kali is interested in pursuing a career in educational psychology.
Trainees

Olivia Surgent, PhD

Postdoctoral Scholar

Olivia Surgent, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow in the Autism Research Training Program at the MIND Institute. She earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Dr. Surgent’s research takes an interdisciplinary approach to examine the neurobiological mechanisms underlying behavior in children and young adults on the autism spectrum. Her ultimate goal is to broaden our understanding of the connections between the brain, the body, and the environment and develop more effective solutions to the challenges faced by individuals with developmental differences.

Andrew Dakopolos, MA, MS, PhD

Postdoctoral Scholar

Dr. Andrew (Andy) Dakopolos is postdoctoral scholar working under the direction of Dr. Christine Wu Nordahl and Dr. David Hessl. Andy received his Ph.D. in Intellectual Disability and Autism from Teachers College, Columbia University. He holds an M.S. in Applied Statistics from Teachers College, as well as an M.A. in Teaching from Willamette University. Andy’s background is in education, and he has over 10 years of experience teaching special education. Andy currently focuses on cognitive measurement and assessment of individuals with intellectual disability, including those who are also autistic. His work aims to better characterize cognitive profiles of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, with the goals of improving our understanding of cognitive trajectories in development, characterizing cognitive phenotypes in autistic individuals, and better informing educational placement, programming, goals and interventions. His research interests include cognitive measurement and assessment, executive function, emotion regulation, and early social communication in children with autism and other developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Hosanna Kim, MD

Psychiatrist & Study Physician

Hosanna Kim, MD is a resident physician at UC Davis Health Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. She received BS in biology at KAIST and completed her MD at Kyung Hee University School of Medicine in Korea. She subsequently trained as a postdoctoral researcher with the Kim/Leventhal group at UCSF studying the neurodevelopmental trajectories of children with neurodevelopmental disorders in Korea, the Navajo Nation, and the US. She is interested in working with underserved patients with ASD and their families in clinical and research settings.

Joseph Boyle, MA

Graduate Student

Joseph Boyle, MA is a first-year doctoral student in the Developmental Psychology program working under the mentorship of Dr. Christine Wu Nordahl. Joseph comes from the D.C. metropolitan area where he received his MA in Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Joseph’s research interests involves an interdisciplinary approach to better understanding of how co-occurring conditions in autistic individuals both with and without intellectual disability contribute to brain development and health outcomes with a strong emphasis on inclusivity by involving historically underrepresented autistic groups as active participants and co-researchers in his studies.

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Pirates
Where the Wild Things Are
Where the WIld Things Are
Clue
Thank You Party – Big Hero 6 2015