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 Reznick

J. Steven Reznick, Ph.D.  PEARLS Founding Member (deceased)

Dr. J. Steven Reznick was a Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for 18 years, an extraordinary developmental scientist, and a founding member of PEARLS. He was the lead investigator on the study to revise and expand the age norms for the First Years Inventory (FYI) --- a screening tool for infants at-risk for ASD. Dr. Reznick’s research covered a broad range of topics in infant cognitive development with far-reaching implications for children’s health and well-being. Dr. Reznick passed away on July 5,  2016, after living with ALS for 3 years. As we mourn the passing of our long-time colleague and dear friend, we take solace in his lasting legacy of courage and inspiration.

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. Turner-Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and an Investigator with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities. In July 2014, she took the position as Assistant Director of the UNC TEACCH Autism Program. Her research focuses on children and adolescents with autism. Dr. Turner-Brown received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Vanderbilt University in 2005. She completed a predoctoral internship and post-doctoral fellowship with Division TEACCH and an NICHD funded fellowship in Neurodevelopmental Disorders at UNC. Dr. Turner-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. Turner-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. 

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 Assistant Professor in the Department of Kinesiology at UW-Madison. Dr. Ausderau completed her postdoctoral fellowship at UNC Chapel Hill, working with the Sensory Experiences Project.  At SEP, she directed Study 5, Sensory Experiences in Children with Autism. Dr. Ausderau 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 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 works as a part time research assistant with the Sensory Experiences Project. After graduating from Duke University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in public policy, she became interested in environmental health and childhood neurodevelopment. She is now a PhD student in epidemiology at UNC. In her free time, Melissa enjoys touring the various Durham food trucks, gardening, eating tacos, and running analyses in SAS.



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.