Psychology Alumna Involved in Autism Research
By Gerianne Wright
Spit, it turns out, may be a great place to look if you want to find out more about autism.
Dr. Alisa Woods ’92, who graduated from Plattsburgh with a degree in psychology and has since returned as a visiting professor, is leading international research that looks for abnormal proteins — she calls them biomarkers — that are more common in the saliva of autistic children.
“Biomarker signatures give someone the increased probability of being autistic,” she said. “My ideal would be taking the biomarkers and psychology and correlating them — finding a biochemical marker that corresponds with a behavior. It merges biochemistry and psychology. That would be my ‘eureka’ moment.”
Opening the Door to Possibilities
Woods said she left Plattsburgh prepared for a future in science, but she arrived on campus with no such dream. She described herself as a C student from Long Island when she arrived as a freshman. Then Dr. Lary Shaffer, a now-retired distinguished teaching professor of psychology, delivered his annual “Things My Mother Never Told Me” lecture to incoming freshmen, and, Woods said, she walked away changed.
“That talk at the beginning of my freshman year told me I could do something, make something of myself. Lary did. I made his story my story,” Woods said.
Shaffer opened the door to possibilities; Dr. Jeanne Ryan, distinguished teaching professor of psychology, ushered her through, according to Woods.
“The first class I took with Jeanne Ryan was biopsychology. She was a powerhouse. And she had confidence in me.” Woods said. Woods wound up taking a lot of classes and doing a lot of research with Ryan.
Research Becomes Personal
After earning her Ph.D. and doing a stint as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Freiburg, Germany, Woods came back to the North Country, to work as a research assistant professor in Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Science at Clarkson University.
Then, her interest in the field became personal. Woods’ son was diagnosed around age 2, and her knowledge of the disorder helped her get him into an early intervention program.
Working with her husband, Dr. Costel Darie, an assistant professor at Clarkson, she has access to technology that can measure 700 proteins in saliva. Using that technology and her connections at SUNY Plattsburgh, she joined forces with SUNY Plattsburgh psychology grad Stefanie Russell ’12, to collect saliva samples through the college’s Nexus program for children with autism. Analyzing these, Woods found more irregular proteins — the biomarkers — than ever before.
She also received blood samples from her German colleagues who were conducting similar studies but who lacked the equipment Woods had access to. She uncovered similar results in those. Ultimately, Woods said she hopes her findings will be used in an even larger study at the University of California, Irvine, thereby making this project truly national and international, she said.
Woods finds inspiration in seeing the outcomes of early intervention with her son.
“He’s a ‘normal’ kindergartner mainstreamed in his school …” she said. “I’d like to see more children diagnosed early for intervention, or the development of an autism medication, or discover an environmental situation that triggers this gene to create the disorder. That’s what I hope this research will lead to.”
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