Jennifer Blackford, PhD, spent time in her teens volunteering at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development, a place her parents spent the bulk of their careers, her father as a researcher and her mother rising to the role of acting director there.
She has worked since 1998 at Vanderbilt University, home of the famed Vanderbilt Kennedy Center, after arriving at the university in 1991 as a graduate student trainee in developmental disabilities supported by a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development training grant to study Down syndrome.
She's no stranger to the intellectual and developmental disability community. But she's never seen a place like the Munroe-Meyer Institute.
"At MMI, I saw a genuine interest in research from everybody," said Dr. Blackford, who will be joining MMI as the new director of research on April 1. "Everybody was excited about the opportunity for research -- the clinicians, the Hattie B. Munroe Foundation board members, and all of the department directors and leaders at MMI. You can really see it in the new building, as well. Research and clinical services are integrated on every floor. This is unique and special.
"I look forward to working closely with everyone at MMI to build a research program that helps us discover the 'whys' of what's happening and to practically implement the best treatments and strategies that we can."
Dr. Blackford will lead and expand upon MMI's research efforts, lured by the vision and passion of institute director Karoly Mirnics, MD, PhD -- whom she worked with at Vanderbilt University for more than a decade.
"Karoly is the kind of leader that I want to work with," Dr. Blackford said. "He cares about the things that are important, he has integrity, he has vision . . . and he's building this place that's going to make an impact, and I want to be a part of that."
Dr. Mirnics called Dr Blackford "an amazing scientist, caring mentor, a thought leader and an incredible human being dedicated to transforming the lives of families with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
"We worked together at Vanderbilt for 10 years, and she became a treasured friend and confidant," he said. "She brings to us expertise, visionary leadership, passion and a tireless work ethic -- all things that MMI stands for. She is the best possible addition to our MMI family."
Dr. Blackford brings an impressive research portfolio of her own to MMI and UNMC. The institute will become the fourth site in a five-year study of anxiety in young children -- other participating sites include Vanderbilt, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the National Institute of Mental Health.
"Anxiety and the neurobiology of anxiety is the core of my research," she said. "I want to discover what is altered in the brains of people who experience chronic anxiety, with the goal of figuring out how we can provide the solution. How can we prevent anxiety from developing or best intervene with people who have an anxiety disorder?
"At MMI, I look forward to the opportunity to develop new collaborations and build a research program investigating anxiety in neurodevelopmental disorders."
She is also part of a team exploring the neurobiology of anxiety in adults in the early stages of sobriety after having an alcohol use disorder.
She is impressed with the research portfolio she sees at MMI.
"Everything from the molecular work that Dr. Mirnics is doing to study neurodevelopmental disorders, to the cutting-edge technology that Jamie Gehringer, PhD, is using with his virtual reality work, there is a great range from basic science to applied science, and there is a lot of innovation and excitement."
She also was impressed with the research training programs at MMI.
"It is important to me that there is opportunity to have trainees involved in the work that MMI is doing. I look forward to finding ways to increase access to research for the trainees."
Arriving just as the new building opens, Dr. Blackford is excited about the possibilities MMI offers.
"This building reflects the passion that the people at MMI have for the children and families," she said. "They have thought, down to every single detail, about how to make the MMI experience the best possible for the families we serve. That really spoke to me."
In addition, she said, she hopes to have an impact of her own.
"I believe that I can do something important at MMI. I can build a research program that is integrated with exceptional clinical services. That combination of research and clinical will have the power to dramatically improve the lives of children and their families."
Welcome Jenni! One thing left out of this article is that Professor Blackford is a MERIT Award funded VA investigator and will be a great addition to the Omaha VA Research Service. Fun Fact: Jenni lived a block from me when she was a graduate student and I was a postdoc at Vanderbilt...and we never met then!