New faculty profile: Donna Werling explores genes associated with autism

Donna Werling joined the UW–Madison faculty in October 2019 as an assistant professor in the Department of Genetics.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago.

What is your educational/professional background?
I have a B.S. in psychology from Duke University, and a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA. I did a postdoc in the psychiatry department at UCSF.

How did you get into your field of research?
I have several cousins on the autism spectrum, one of whom I used to babysit for growing up, and while in high school, my aunt and uncle employed me as part of his behavioral therapy team. I was not an especially adept therapist, but I found myself amazed at how little was understood about autism at the time and was fascinated by the questions of how and why the autistic brain functions the way that it does. That interest sent me down the path of reading and learning about autism, and eventually getting involved in research. I am fascinated by the links between biology and the way that humans think and behave, and genetics can provide a very direct route to identifying the biological phenomena that contribute to specific conditions like autism.

What is the main goal of your current research program?
The overarching goal of my research is to understand the biological factors that contribute to risk for autism and other neuropsychiatric conditions. One such factor is sex – autism is diagnosed 3-4 times more frequently in males than females, and so a major focus of my work is to understand how sex-differential biology influences the risk for, and presentation of, autism. Genetics is another risk factor, and I also aim to identify specific genes and genetic variants that are associated with autism and to explore how these variants impact brain development.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison has a long history of excellence in research on neurodevelopmental conditions, and I was excited by the possibility of contributing to this ongoing mission. Also, nearly every person I met during my campus visits had something positive to say about living in Madison and working at UW, which only added to the appeal.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I actually did a campus visit at UW-Madison back in high school when I was deciding where to apply to college – I remember it was cold, windy, and seemed huge, and because of its size, I wound up deciding not to apply! But 16 years later, my perspective has changed, and I am very excited to have the opportunity to build a career here.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
When analyzing data, be sure to adjust your significance threshold for multiple testing!

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
I got interested in this area of research because my cousin was not benefiting from behavioral treatments, and I thought that better biological knowledge about autism and related conditions could only help us understand and treat affected individuals. My work is still motivated by this idea that understanding biology will lead us to interventions and therapeutics that can improve patients’ quality of life, and hopefully I will be able to see some of these tangible benefits during the course of my research career.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
The “default” body plan for a developing human has female-typical external anatomy, and it is only in the presence of (and sensitivity to) testosterone, secreted by a fetus’s gonads during gestation, that a fetus will develop male-typical external anatomy. This means that the developing brain is also exposed to sex hormones during prenatal development, suggesting that neurobiological sex differences could be present before birth – before societal norms or even puberty have the chance to shape brain development and function.

What are your hobbies/other interests?
I do various recreational athletic activities (CrossFit, obstacle course racing, softball), occasional baking, and trying to entertain my one-year-old son and wear out my dog on a daily basis.