April 22, 2010

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s future bright: Dykens

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center's future bright: Dykens

Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D., is challenging her 285 faculty investigators, members and staff in more than 20 academic departments to build on the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s past and present successes to become “even greater.”

Her recent State of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center address was Dykens’ first since being named permanent director last August. She replaced Pat Levitt, Ph.D., who departed in 2008 for the University of Southern California.

Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D.

Elisabeth Dykens, Ph.D.

“The Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is doing great, but we could be even greater,” Dykens said. “Our mission is to facilitate discoveries and best practices that make positive differences in the lives of persons with developmental disabilities and their families. The fact that one in five children has a developmental disability provides a renewed importance of our mission.”

VKC is a premier research, training, diagnosis and treatment center focused on development and developmental disabilities; Dykens’ area of expertise is the mental health challenges and unique strengths of persons with genetic syndromes.

Dykens enumerated the many factors today that contribute to the center’s well being, chief among them being a University-wide center within Vanderbilt. She also cited supportive, facilitative administration; talented, interdisciplinary faculty, trainees, and staff; federal grants that provide VKC with a stable infrastructure; and mission-driven work.

The center’s historical roots, which include being the nation’s second Eunice Kennedy Shriver Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (IDDRC), are also a strength, she said.

In addition to being an IDDRC, VKC prospers as a national University Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities (UCEDD), and a national Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities Training Program. Dykens stressed how these distinct components are woven together in VKC research, service and training missions.

The UCEDD has 47 programs that, collectively, serve all of Tennessee’s 95 counties. Its programs address education and early intervention, health and mental health, quality of life, recreation and the arts, and will soon address employment of persons with disabilities

Dykens offered ideas for next steps in research on basic mechanisms, for example, focusing on shared mechanisms across IDD etiologies, using induced pluripotent stem cells to elucidate basic mechanisms, focusing on genetic disorders and building on Vanderbilt’s strengths in personalized medicine.

In the areas of health and mental health, next steps may include building infrastructures related to Down syndrome or autism. Dykens laid out the need to reduce disparities in health and mental health research and treatment.

“We are an eclectic group of seasoned and new researchers and staff,” Dykens said. “And I challenge us all to work together so that, to borrow the words of founding director Nicholas Hobbs, the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center has a tremendous thrust forward for the good.”

Dykens’s address is available on the VKC website at http://kc.vanderbilt.edu.