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President’s Message

  • Author:
    Lou Anna K. Simon, PhD
  • Published:
    Winter 2014

Autism and other intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities are persistent problems representing a multidisciplinary and organizational challenge for those seeking to confront them. But meeting such challenges is one of MSU’s strengths, one that enables the university to play an essential role in tackling some of the world’s toughest problems.

Three years ago, Michigan State signed a memorandum of understanding with a handful of partners in Ireland to build on a collaboration between the MSU Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies and the Dublin-based Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. Today, that program harnesses the knowledge assets of MSU; the Daughters of Charity Service and its fundraising arm, RESPECT; eight Irish universities; the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland; and the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Called the Daughters of Charity Technology and Research for Intellectual Disability (DOCTRID), the program seeks to bring a wide variety of researchers together into a center of excellence that will inform policy and practice in service to those with autism and other intellectual and neurodevelopmental disabilities. Last spring, the program won $11.3 million in European Union funding for 40 postdoctoral researchers to be distributed among partner universities.

Michigan State funds three interdisciplinary postdoctoral research associates in DOCTRID’s Hegarty Fellows Program, named in honor of Sister Martha Hegarty, ’87, a standout doctoral student who worked with MSU Professor Michael Leahy in the 1980s. Before her death in 2012, Sister Hegarty maintained a professional relationship with Leahy through the Daughters of Charity, and the programs and networks they developed led to DOCTRID. Hegarty is remembered as someone who regarded the intellectually disabled population she served in Ireland from the perspective of the assets they possessed, not the disabilities they were dealt, and she saw the potential for research to greatly benefit those individuals.

In October, I joined my colleagues to solidify our relationships at DOCTRID’s third annual conference in Dublin. It’s an exciting initiative that perfectly models the MSU co-creation approach to knowledge discovery and application. Our willingness to engage far and wide through the years has taught us that solving problems in one place gives us a foundation to apply it in other locations, including in our own backyard.

The partnership prompted us to look more closely at our own assets. We’ve identified nearly 40 MSU faculty members with research expertise that can be applied to intellectual disabilities, from pediatrics and genetics to software and computer engineering. This group populates our new Research in Autism, Intellectual and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (RAIND) initiative, which focuses on the entire age continuum and the entire functional spectrum.

Professor Leahy, director of the MSU Office of Rehabilitation and Disability Studies and principal investigator for the DOCTRID International Research Institute at MSU, is co director of RAIND with Nigel Paneth, University Distinguished Professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, and pediatrics.

Such faculty members bring powerful knowledge and experience together in a common cause, but pivotal leadership comes from many places. Sister Martha Hegarty chose Michigan State to develop her talent in rehabilitation counseling, and after she returned to Ireland, she continued to tap MSU’s global networks. She became an international force for good, demonstrating how important our alumni are to Michigan State and to the world—and how Spartans Will.

Lou Anna K. Simon, PhD
President, Michigan State University