Making a Global Impact: The DOCTRID Institute

October 21, 2013
DOCTORID researchers work with Professor Michael Leahy to build what is expected to become a trusted international source for evidence-based practices.

DOCTORID researchers work with Professor Michael Leahy to build what is expected to become a trusted international source for evidence-based practices.

Michigan State University is leading an international effort to create life-changing solutions for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The DOCTRID Research Institute was launched three years ago by the rehabilitation counseling faculty in the MSU College of Education and the large-scale Daughters of Charity Service in Ireland. The interdisciplinary venture has since expanded to include eight universities in Ireland and one other U.S. institution, the University of Massachusetts Medical School—all with teams of experts ready to collaborate in fields varying from special education and engineering to medicine and genetics.

DOCTRID (Daughters of Charity Technology and Research in Intellectual Disabilities) will be one of the world’s largest connected efforts to improve life for individuals with intellectual disabilities such as autism and what was formerly referred to as mental retardation through innovative research.

As research priorities and shared resources were being finalized earlier this year, the institute received a major boost: $11.3 million from the European Union’s Marie Curie COFUND to fund 40 post-doctoral positions. The scholars selected for those positions will begin working at one of DOCTRID’s partnering universities starting in fall 2014.

“This gives us extraordinary capacity to address important questions at each university,” said DOCTRID Director and MSU Professor Michael Leahy, who has been establishing connections with European partners in the rehabilitation and disability field for many years.

MSU will get up to seven of the post-docs funded by the EU. In addition, three Hegarty Fellows joined the DOCTRID research team this summer, with funding from MSU. The fellowship is named after the late Sister Martha Hegarty of the Daughters of Charity, a visionary leader in developing DOCTRID.

More international grant funding is in the works.

Tackling the big issues

“This was my dream post-doc,” said Carolyn Shivers, who accepted the Hegarty Fellowship on the heels of completing her doctorate in developmental psychology at Vanderbilt University. “Everything I’ve learned has just amazed me—the number of people who are working together and devoted to improving lives for people with disabilities.”

DOCTORIDPartnersShivers and the other Hegarty Fellows, Stacy Clifford and June Chen, are mapping out the contributions they will make to DOCTRID. They are working closely with faculty mentors from the MSU College of Education and will be co-located at MSU and one of the Irish universities, rotating every six months over two years.

Like all scholars associated with DOCTRID, the goal is for the fellows to conduct some of their own research while also collaborating and sharing information with other researchers on the big issues facing individuals with intellectual disability, across the entire lifespan and range of function.

For example, Shivers is interested in a particular piece of the support network needed by children with autism: their siblings. She plans to create and test a program that would train brothers and sisters to provide interventions focused on teaching social skills to their siblings with autism. This is particularly important as individuals with severe autism live longer and outlive their parents.

What’s next?

DOCTRID held a conference in Dublin during October 2013, with participants including researchers and service providers plus leaders such as MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, Acting Provost June Youatt and College of Education Dean Donald Heller. The EU post-doc program will be officially launched, along with a series of meetings and research presentations.

Like all aspects of MSU, the institute will remain focused on making an impact on real people, and the homes and communities they live in.

“Our hope is that DOCTRID will become an internationally trusted source of information about evidence-based practices,” said Shivers. “The work we do should translate into laws and programs, and most importantly, new and improved services for those with intellectual disabilities.”

Faculty from across MSU, not just the College of Education, will be involved in DOCTRID-related work. Many projects will also tie into the Research in Autism, Intellectual and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (RAIND) initiative on campus, an effort to increase and connect existing research in those areas (see graphic).

“Disability clearly is part of MSU’s mission, and not just a program here or there,” said Leahy.