Dan Tylee is clear on why he enrolled in Upstate’s MD/PhD program.
“I came here because I’m interested in mental health and human development,” he said. “I wanted to be as close to human subjects and applied translational research as possible.”
Dan recently received a two-year, pre-doctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks that carries an annual $30,000 award covering his stipend and additional expenses.
Autism, and Autism Spectrum Disorder, are terms for a group of complex disorders of brain development, according to Autism Speaks. The disorders are characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication, and by repetitive behaviors.
“Different sets of genetic factors may contribute to autism in different individuals,” Dan said. “Yet very few studies actually attempt to identify or model genetic subgroups within autism. I think what made my proposal stand out was the design, which explicitly seeks to identify and model these subgroups.”
Dan is beginning his fourth year at Upstate and is a student in the lab of Stephen Glatt, PhD, associate professor of Neuroscience & Physiology, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.
His interest in mental health and the link between biology and psychology intensified when he volunteered at a psychiatric clinic near his home on Long Island. Dan noticed that patients under treatment for mental illness might be prescribed different medications over the course of three or four visits.
“I shadowed a psychiatrist, and I wondered why a certain medication might help one person, but might provide no benefit for another person,” he said. Rather than rely on trial and error, Dan believes “a biologically based diagnosis can shorten the gap to effective treatment.”
That shadowing experience, and the questions it raised, brought him to Upstate. “From psychology to biology, should I study it or treat it?” Dan said of his post-graduate path. “I decided to do both if I could.”
The MD/PhD program, which trains students for careers as physician-scientists who blend clinical practice with research, was a perfect fit.
The majority of Dan’s work in Dr. Glatt’s lab will involve autism, but he’ll also contribute to studies of post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is one of six major mental illnesses his lab is investigating, and many of these disorders appear to share common genetic risk factors, Dan said. The others are schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
“We’re looking at all these disorders to try to identify genetic factors associated with resilience,” Dan said. “Other researchers have shown these disorders share a portion of genetic liability. We’ll look at healthy people with the high-risk genetic factor and try to see how they keep from developing symptoms.
“In the future it’s going to be important to move past a categorical understanding of these disorders, in order to study core symptoms,” Dan said, noting that some types of symptoms, like impulsivity, are a prominent feature of several different disorders.
The Autism Speaks fellowship will allow Dan to pursue three major aims:
1. Identify genetically based subgroups in Autism Spectrum Disorder, using computers to find clustering that best fits the data set.
2. Develop classifiers from genetic data to distinguish people with autism from those who don’t. (Knowing that early intervention programs help those diagnosed on the spectrum, a genetic test might help diagnose quicker and close the gap to treatment.)
3. Identify genetic factors that might protect against the development of autism in individuals with “high genetic loading.”
“This is a really cool time to be in psychiatry,” Dan said. “In the next 20 years, I think we will see new treatments that seek to augment the body’s immune and inflammatory responses in ways to improve symptoms and alter the disease course.”
Six things to know about Dan Tylee:
- He listens to music while exercising, working in the lab and to elevate his mood – he prefers instrumental numbers. “Words get in the way,” he said. “The emotion comes across in the music.”
- He coordinated and spoke at a 2012 TEDx community-building event in Rochester.
- He helped run a neuro-anatomy lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center for two years.
- His interests include Eastern religion, mindfulness and the writings of spiritualist Eckhart Tolle; he hopes to incorporate those into his clinical practice.
- He’s from Long Island, and graduated from SUNY Geneseo in 2010 with a degree in psychology.
- He’s very happy at Upstate. “I love what I’m doing here,” he said.