Investigators and Staff

Grace BaranekGrace Baranek, Ph.D., OTR/L, FAOTA

Dr. Grace Baranek is a Professor in the Division of Occupational Science, and and Associate Chair for Research in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a part of PEARLS, she is the Principal Investigator of the Sensory Experiences Project funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, as well as the Early Development Project, a treatment study for infants at-risk for various developmental concerns including autism. She is also an investigator on several other grants, centers, and networks, and a fellow with the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. Her program of research aims to unravel the nature of sensory processing impairments in young children and the effects of these impairments on social engagement and daily activities. This interdisciplinary translational research connects novel scientific discoveries to practical applications for clinical assessment and intervention.  Her work demonstrates the importance of including sensory processing as well as social-communication risk factors for early identification of autism and related developmental disorders. She is a co-author of the First Year Inventory, a new screening tool for 12 month old infants.  Dr. Baranek is the author of numerous journal articles and book chapters, and is an internationally recognized expert in her field. She has served as a consultant with the AOTA Children and Youth ad hoc work group, and the National Academy of Science and National Institutes of Health to evaluate evidence-based practices for children with autism. She is also involved in various training and teaching activities with interdisciplinary students in master’s, doctoral, and post-doctoral programs.

Linda WatsonLinda Watson, Ed.D., CCC-SLP

Dr. Linda Watson is on the faculty in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a part of PEARLS, Dr. Watson is the Principal Investigator of the Early Development Project-2, which is testing the efficacy of a parent-mediated intervention called Adapted Responsive Teaching for one-year-olds identified as being at-risk for autism or other developmental disabilities.  She also serves as the site Principal Investigator for the Useful Speech Study, a longitudinal investigation of variables predicting speech and language outcomes for young children with autism who enter the study with few or no meaningful words.  For approximately 17 years Dr. Watson was primarily involved in educational or clinical services for children with autism and their families, and these experiences serve as the foundation for her current research interests and activities. She is involved with a number of collaborative research projects with other PEARLS researchers to study early development, screening, and intervention with children with autism. Dr. Watson also mentors graduate students with an interest in autism research, teaches an interdisciplinary autism research seminar, and provides continuing education presentations for professionals working with young children with autism at the local, state, and national levels. She is an author on a number of publications related to young children with autism and other disabilities.

Betsy CraisElizabeth Crais, Ph.D.

Dr. Elizabeth Crais is a Professor in the Division of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill, NC. Dr. Crais has been active within early intervention for over 30 years as a speech-language pathologist, university professor, clinical supervisor, and researcher. As a part of PEARLS, Dr. Crais is an investigator on the Early Development Project (EDP), the FYI Normative Study, and the Joint Attention and Symbolic Play Project (JASP).  Her research interests include gesture development in infants and toddlers with typical or atypical communication skills, early development of young children with autism, the implementation of family-centered services within assessment practices, and personnel preparation issues related to working with infants and toddlers. Dr. Crais’ current research includes two early intervention projects focused on young children with autism (one in infancy, one in preschool), work related to retrospective study of the early gestural development of young children later diagnosed with autism and a study looking at the development of communication repair strategies and play development in typically developing children. Dr. Crais has published a number of articles and book chapters and made numerous national and international presentations dealing with working with young children with special needs and their families. She is also the Director of the doctoral Autism Leadership Grant.

Steve ReznickJ. Steven Reznick, Ph.D.

Dr. J. Steven Reznick is a Professor of Psychology, Associate Dean for First Year Seminars and Academic Experiences, and HHMI Science Seminar Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  As a part of PEARLS, Dr. Reznick is an investigator on the Early Development Project (EDP), and principal investigator on an ongoing effort to update the First Year Inventory.  Dr. Reznick’s primary research interest is memory development in infants, but his research covers a broad range of topics including early detection of autism and effects of nutrition and environmental influences on cognitive development. Dr. Reznick is in his 14th year at UNC Chapel Hill. Before moving to Chapel Hill, he served on the faculty at Yale, and before that, he directed the Harvard Infant Study. Dr. Reznick’s Ph.D. is from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he has a Master’s degree from Wake Forest, and his undergraduate degree is from UNC – Chapel Hill.  Go Heels!

Aysenil Belger bAysenil Belger, Ph.D.

Aysenil Belger, Ph.D., is Director of Neuroimaging Research in Psychiatry, as well as Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. As a part of PEARLS, Dr. Belger is an investigator on the Sensory Experiences Project (SEP). Her research interests are focused on electrophysiological abnormalities in young children with autism and individuals at high risk for schizophrenia. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Her faculty page is located here.

Brian BoydBrian A. Boyd, Ph.D.

Brian A. Boyd, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy and a Fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. As part of PEARLS, he is the Principal Investigator on the Advancing Social-communication And Play (ASAP) project, Investigator on the Home TEACCHing Project (HTP), and an Investigator on the Sensory Experiences Project (SEP). He received his Ph.D. in Special Education from the University of Florida and completed his postdoctoral studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. His research interests are in autism spectrum disorders, behavioral interventions, repetitive and sensory-related behaviors, and early childhood special education. He is the author of a number of peer-reviewed journal articles focused on these topics.

Lauren Turner Brown bLauren Turner Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Brown is an Investigator with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. She participates in research that focuses on children and adolescents with autism. Dr. Brown received her Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 2005. She completed a predoctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship with Division TEACCH. She recently completed an NICHD funded fellowship in Neurodevelopmental Disorders at UNC. Dr. Brown’s research focuses on examining the efficacy of different methods of intervention for children with autism. She is involved in three intervention studies, including the Early Development Project, a study examining the efficacy of a TEACCH intervention program, and a group intervention for adolescents with autism. Dr. Brown is also interested in the early identification of autism, and is involved in research about the First Year Inventory, as an investigator with PEARLS. She is involved as a licensed psychologist with both Division TEACCH and the Carolina Center for Development and Learning.

Julie DanielsJulie Daniels, M.P.H., Ph.D.

Dr. Julie Daniels is an Associate Professor in Epidemiology and Maternal and Child Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  She is Principal Investigator for the NC Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology (NC-CADDRE), a study sponsored by the CDC, which aims to examine the prevalence of autism among school-age children, and factors that may contribute to developmental delays and autism in preschool children.  Dr. Daniels is a collaborator with PEARLS, and often contributes her expertise as a guest lecturer on epidemiological methods in autism.


Virginia DickieVirginia Dickie, Ph.D.

Dr. Virginia Dickie is an Associate Professor and serves as the Director for the Division of Occupational Science in the Department of Allied Health Sciences at UNC-CH. As a part of PEARLS, she is an investigator with the Sensory Experiences Project (SEP). She uses her anthropology training in ethnography to study sensory experiences in the context of daily activities and family occupations. She is the author of several leading publications on the topic of occupational science.


Linn WakefordLinn Wakeford, M.S., OTR/L

Linn's research and clinical interests center around young children with disabilities, particularly autism, and their families. In particular, she is interested in the ways in which parents, siblings, and peers contribute to the development of occupation and social engagement of young children with autism, and how intervention that supports reciprocity and other responsive behaviors in parents, siblings and peers may be used to support the development of occupation and social engagement for those children.


Bell Tower

Karla Ausderau, Ph.D, OTR/L

Dr. Karla Ausderau is an Adjunct Professor with the Sensory Experiences Project.  At SEP, she directs Study 5, Sensory Experiences in Children with Autism. Dr. Ausderau recently completed her studies in Occupational Science at University of Southern California where her emphasis was the experience of mothers with children with gastrostomy tubes.  Previously, Dr. Ausderau was the director of an interdisciplinary feeding clinic in Los Angeles.

Lisa BoydMelissa Beck, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

Dr. Beck received her Masters Degree in School Psychology from East Carolina University and her PhD in School Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Beck completed her internship and postdoctoral fellowship at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Child Clinical and Pediatric Psychology. She later served as the Outpatient Coordinator of the Pediatric Psychology Clinic and Consultation Service at the Kennedy Krieger Institute, and was also an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. After moving back to North Carolina in 2006, Dr. Beck spent several years at home with her husband and three children. She now works part-time as a member of the assessment team with the Early Development Project-2.

Christene TashjianChristene Tashjian, M.P.A.

Christene Tashjian, M.P.A, is the Project Coordinator for the Early Development Project-2.  Ms. Tashjian is a former special education teacher of students with learning disabilities and behavioral issues.  Prior to joining the EDP staff in January 2009, Ms. Tashjian was a Senior Research Scientist at RTI International in the Center for Research in Education for 14 years where she directed numerous federal contracts on various topics related to individuals with disabilities.  Ms. Tashjian received her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin.

Lisa BoydLisa Boyd, B.A.

Lisa Boyd serves as an interventionist on the Early Development Project, a treatment study for infants at risk for developmental delays including autism.  Prior to that she was the lead teacher in a therapeutic child care center at UNC Horizons Lisa graduated from Boston College with a Bachelor’s degree in psychology. She received training in Applied Behavior Analysis from the Reach School in Portland, ME.  Once a child is identified for participation in the Early Development Project, Lisa provides intervention using Responsive Teaching. She is passionate about early intervention.

Lisa BoydJessica Amsbary, MS, IFTS (Infant Toddler Family Specialist)

Jessica serves as an interventionist on the Early Development Project -2.  She graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and went on to get a master’s degree in Child Development from Erikson Institute in Chicago.  Jessica has been working in the field of Early Intervention and Autism for eight years, and loves being a part of the Early Development Project.  In her free time, Jessica enjoys playing soccer, running, reading, spending time with friends and family, and watching college football.


John BulluckJohn Bulluck, B.S.

As a part of PEARLS, John is a staff Research Associate working with The Sensory Experiences Project. John received his B.S. in Psychology from East Carolina University with a special interest in research and statistics. After graduating, John worked with children and families with autism for several years, then with HIV patients within the State Department of Public Health as well as other public health agencies. John also worked in private sector database design and software technology and uses this experience to enhance the research activities at SEP.

Melissa FurlongMelissa Furlong, B.S., M.P.P.

Melissa conducts assessments and works as a research assistant with the Sensory Experiences Project. After graduating from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she took a few years to explore public policy and public health, and is generally interested in using research to inform health policy and interventions. In her free time, Melissa enjoys touring the various Durham food trucks, gardening, and eating tacos.

Lucy StefaniLucy Stefani, B.A.

As a part of the Allied Health Sciences Department Lucy is a Research Assistant for the Early Development Project and the Useful Speech Study. Lucy received her B.A. in Psychology from Meredith College, where she spent two years practicing Applied Behavior Analysis with children in the Meredith Autism Program. Upon graduation Lucy spent several months in Los Angeles pursuing her interest in Film and Media. Lucy currently assists with media management, and fidelity for the Early Development Project. She also administers and codes assessments, and manages data for the Useful Speech Study.


Maura Tourian

Ashley Freuler, Ph.D.

Dr. Freuler is the Project Coordinator for PEARLS. She completed her doctorate work through the Division of Occupational Science at UNC where she studied under an interdisciplinary Autism Leadership Training Grant. She received a B.S. in Sociology from the University of Georgia, and an M.S. in Counseling from Mercer University. Ashley has worked with children and families in both public school and inpatient hospital settings as a mental health counselor and early intervention coordinator, and served as a graduate teaching assistant at Kansas State University while completing graduate coursework in Early Childhood Special Education. Her dissertation work focused on resilience processes and everyday routines for Military Families raising a child with Autism.