The Science and Humanity of Newschaffer’s Critical Research
by Rebecca Ingalls, Assistant Professor of English
When I sat down with Professor Craig Newschaffer prior to the Winter break, I was prepared to talk with him about autism research. As most are aware, Professor Newschaffer is chair of Drexel’s department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics in the School of Public Health. In addition, he is leading the Early Autism Risk Longitudinal Investigation (EARLI) study, a major research endeavor which is following a cohort of up to 1,200 pregnant women who already have a child with autism. This research is funded through a National Institute of Health (NIH) Autism Center for Excellence grant, and Drexel University School of Public Health is the national coordinator of the EARLI Study network. Indeed, we did cover these impressive details in our interview, but I wanted to be sure that everyone had an understanding of how Professor Newschaffer came to be at Drexel and how he came to study autism as profoundly as he does today. Some of Drexel’s most renowned faculty cultivated fascinating, creative paths on their way to making the deep impressions in the arts and sciences. There is just something special about these individuals, and Professor Craig Newschaffer is no exception.
Glance at his 30-page CV, and you will find yourself mystified by Newschaffer’s publications, collaborations, national organizations, presentations, thesis committees, and grant work. Knowing what we know about his prestige, it is intriguing to find at the top of the first page of his CV that he holds a BA in Public Relations from Boston University. The truth is, he considered a career in medical and science journalism, hence the interest in PR. However, the truer truth is that Newschaffer was also pursuing another career at the time in Boston; he was playing bass in a band. “I was in the scene. It was fun,” he recalls. His band even opened for the Pixies once. Though he wound up departing from that career path, and while he modestly disparages his talent, it is clear and well worth mentioning, one of our most prominent researchers at Drexel is also an artist.
After about a year, Newschaffer encountered a turn in the road toward Harvard’s School of Public Health. “I thought about hospital administration,” he explains. “My father was a social worker, running county mental health centers. However, not before long, I knew that this was an error. [Harvard] also had health policy, which was interesting to me. I switched tracks. I got most interested in research. I thought, finally I was finding a fit, and I got a job doing health policy research for a non-profit in DC.” For a couple of years, Newschaffer focused on research in public health policy, specifically health economics and econometrics. Ultimately, he realized that it wasn’t being an economist that called him, but rather epidemiology. “My role in life would be the translator between epidemiology research and health policy,” he says. What a role it has been.
Newschaffer’s first research focus was cancer, and he wrote a Ph.D. dissertation in Chronic Disease Epidemiology at Johns Hopkins titled “Comorbidity and survival in elderly breast cancer patients.” With a keen interest in classical, traditional, risk factor research, Newschaffer found funding through his marriage of epidemiology and health policy, and took a faculty position in the School of Public Health in St. Louis. Wanting to get back to the Philadelphia area, Newschaffer later took a research position at Thomas Jefferson University, and he and his family soon settled in Wilmington. Eventually, his research took him to Johns Hopkins, where he worked as an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology with a joint appointment in the Department of Mental Health. While at Johns Hopkins, he also served as Director for the Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Epidemiology.
So, how did Newschaffer make the transition from cancer to autism? Newschaffer explains, “twelve years ago, [autism] was starting to get more attention in the popular press. There were few epidemiology researchers studying it. There was a regular request for apps, and the CDC was putting out an RFA to put out a public health surveillance system. It came across my desk, and it caught my eye. I was still junior in the cancer epidemiology world; it’s a crowded place. You have to ask small, incremental questions. That’s where the science is; there’s been a lot done. For autism, there were big fundamental questions to ask that hadn’t been asked yet.” In 2006, Newschaffer left Johns Hopkins to become a Department Chair at Drexel in the School of Public Health. In making the transition from a hugely visible program at Johns Hopkins to Drexel’s smaller program, Newschaffer was excited about the opportunity to help build the School of Public Health. However, he had some concern about whether he would be able to keep up his research momentum. “But, I decided to do it,” he says. “After I made the decision to take this job, I wrote the grant that became the EARLI study as I was leaving [Johns Hopkins], thinking we wouldn’t really have a chance. When I came here, it was funded. That allowed me to keep my own research moving.”
The most pressing question I asked Professor Newschaffer: “From where you sit, what has changed in the world of autism?” In his response, his humility reveals both his compassion and his fervent desire to continue his work. Newschaffer explains that the most pronounced change has been in the field’s clearer clinical understanding of what is today known as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the fact that researchers have done well to streamline the process of evaluating individuals. Moreover, in the last 12 years, he explains, researchers’ perception of the causes of autism has evolved from one purely about genetics to one that involves a “constellation of environmental factors” mixed with genetics. Furthermore, he says, there are probably “multiple paths to autism,” an understanding that, while complicated, also shows important progress from historical perceptions of the disease.
On the cutting edge of research is Newschaffer’s work with the EARLI study. The brainchild of Newschaffer and his colleagues, this $14 million research project’s study of pregnant women who are already mothers of autistic children seeks to follow “a population in which you expect the risk of the outcome is higher than the general population.” In this way, the EARLI study is a merging of prospective and retrospective approaches to research. As of now, the study is watching approximately 210 families and will continue to enroll for the next several years, and it is important to note that those who have committed to the study are showing that they are in it for much more than personal gain. Newschaffer says, “It is a huge undertaking. They sign on for a long journey with a lot of commitment. They are committed to the study. You compensate them, but there is a tangible benefit. These little babies are being closely followed. A number of [the families] are motivated by that, but they just really want to help.”
Ultimately, as a researcher and as a father, Newschaffer is continuously connected to both the real-life situations of these families and to the cultural perceptions of the disease. Part of his commitment to the study of risk factors is the study of risk communication. Here is where his gift as a translator can offer even more to the study of autism than the laboratory science: “I want to be as good as I can be as a scientist,” he says. “It is challenging. You have your own parenting hat, and you have your scientist hat. I study people; I don’t study lab rats. We’re immersed in the community of parents; you need to be respectful.” Indeed, Newschaffer and his colleagues have taken some critical steps to uncover some possible risk factors such as parental age and a vast concept known as epi-genetics, which is the study of modifications to DNA that influence how those genes are expressed in a person. Likewise, Newschaffer remains committed to giving talks around the globe to try to translate these findings to real people with both scientific and personal concerns about ASD. With eyes set on primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention for both children and adults, Newschaffer is now leading an initiative at Drexel to launch a new research institute focused on autism public health science. He pledges that “the Institute will step in to find ways to translate from laboratories to communities.” In this endeavor, the Drexel community is extraordinarily fortunate to have Professor Newschaffer, a scientist and a humanist, at the helm.
Editor's note: The article first appeared in the Winter 2012 Letter from the Provost.