Summer research student working toward improving identification of autism

Matt Schorr
August 6, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Brittany Landry’s interest in medicine was cultivated at an early age. For most of her childhood, she lived with her grandparents in Plattenville, LA. She came in contact with several nurses throughout those years, and that sparked an interest in the medical field.

As she got older, she began shadowing physicians to get better insight into what being a doctor entailed. She then went to Xavier University of Louisiana to study Biology and earn a Bachelor of Science Degree.

 

Third year at Meharry

Landry is now in her third year at Meharry Medical College (MMC), serving on her first rotations.

“With that, we’re in the hospital every day,” she said. “I started in the Emergency department. Now, I’m on the Surgical Floor and allowed to assist with some of the surgeries.”

Serving the underserved is a passion for Landry. Her hometown was small, and access to medical care was limited. Those memories drive her to find ways of providing aid to people without access to healthcare.

 

Pediatric Academies Societies Conference

Earlier this year, Landry attended the Pediatric Academies Societies Conference, where she presented “Novel Tool for Identification of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) within the Medical Home.”

“Basically, the issue right now with autism is it’s becoming increasingly more common among children,” she explained. “One in 59, and most primary care physicians haven’t been trained to make that diagnosis definitively. So, if you go to a pediatrician and there is a suspicion of autism, they will have to refer to a specialist.”

Those specialists, however, often have waitlists that can last up to six months.

“With autism, the earlier you can get a diagnosis, the earlier the child can gain access to  methods of intervention,” Landry said. “The goal of my research was to create a new tool which will  allow primary care physicians to accurately and efficiently make the diagnosis of autism without the need to refer to a specialist with a long waiting list.”

“It was a great experience,” she added. “I did a lot of great networking and met a lot of great people in the field, who led me to realize that I would really like to make research apart of my career in the future as well.”

 

Summer Research Program

Landry began this project in last year’s Summer Research Program, working with the Vanderbilt-Meharry Pediatrics Scholarship. The program was coordinated by Michael R. Debaun, Vice Chair of Clinical Research at Vanderbilt, and Susanne Tropez-Sims, MD, MPH, Associate Dean of Academic Affiliations at MMC.

“Her project, as part of a larger initiative, was focused on testing a novel way for physician extenders to provide diagnostic assessments for ASD in primary care settings,” DeBaun explained. “The hope is that developing this rating scale will help naïve coders make clinical ratings of ASD risk during the types of activities often present in pediatric office visits.”

 

‘So positive and open’

Landry worked under the mentorship of Zachary E. Warren, PhD and Amy Weitlauf, PhD, Associate Professors at Vanderbilt’s Treatment and Research Institute for ASD. Her project assessed the feasibility and accuracy of a companion tool for determining risk status based on approximately 15 minutes of videotaped observation.

“We came up with a seven-item rating scale for seven characteristics typically displayed by autistic children,” she said. “I looked at 37 pre-recorded tapes of children between 18 and 36 months.”

Warren, when looking back on his work with Landry, recalled, “She was just so positive and open. She was willing to do work that’s not necessarily super-glamorous, but found it fascinating.”

 

‘Keen sensitivity’

Weitlauf said Brittany's study provided crucial data that would help researchers develop new ways for medical professionals to screen for ASD within the primary care setting.

“Brittany skillfully blended the roles of medical learner and researcher, eagerly accepting each new challenge and opportunity,” she said. “She approached her project from a holistic perspective that focused not only on developing and executing the work, but also on understanding autism and its impact on families. In particular, she showed a keen sensitivity to the role that medical providers can play in providing developmental guidance, particularly for traditionally underserved groups of children.”

Since completing this project, Landry presented the results at the Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting and the Xavier University of Louisiana College of Pharmacy Health Disparities conference.  She also plans to present at the upcoming Pediatric Medical Student Research Forum hosted by the Florida Chapter of American Academy of Pediatrics.

 

About the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance

Founded in 1999, the Alliance bridges the institutions of Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Its mission is to enrich learning and advance clinical research in three primary areas -- community engagement, interprofessional education and research -- by developing and supporting mutually beneficial partnerships between Meharry Medical College, Vanderbilt University Medical Center and the communities they serve. Through community engagement, the Alliance serves a large community of stakeholders including surrounding universities and colleges, community organizations, faith-based outlets and community health centers. Its interprofessional education enhances students' interdisciplinary understanding and improves patient outcomes through integrated care. The research conducted provides access to experienced grant writers and materials supporting the grant application process and facilitates grant-writing workshop.