The Joseph P. Kennedy Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities Research Center (Kennedy Center) was established to promote collaborative research in the causes, prevention and treatment of mental retardation and developmental disabilities. The members are a multidisciplinary group of scientists who have active research programs in areas related to understanding brain function and the cause of developmental abnormalities. Operating under the umbrella of a Program Project grant, as well as their own individual funding, Center members share research facilities and promote an interdisciplinary research agenda.
The Center’s longstanding Program Project is titled “The Biological Basis of Mental Retardation” (Nancy Schwartz, PhD, Principal Investigator). Its goal is to define the principles governing normal nervous system developmental processes that may lead to brain dysfunction and mental retardation. The Center’s research under the general rubric of mental retardation and developmental disabilities currently focus mainly on studies of mechanisms of neurodegeneration which affect brain development and function, skeletal dysplasias which affect growth and maturation, and signaling pathways which affect migration and differentiation, which are funded by R01s to Dr. Dawson and Dr. Schwartz. In addition, Dr. Dawson has a long-standing interest in Batten’s Disease and is funded by the Batten Foundation. The overall research grant support is awarded mostly by NIH and this year’s grants total well over $1,000,000 in direct costs.
The Kennedy Center provides rigorous training to young researchers, clinicians and students through a variety of programs and tailors research programs based on the interest of the individual researcher. Dr. Schwartz is Director of the MD/PhD Growth, Development and Disabilities Training Program (GDDTP), the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP), the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Med into Grad Program (HHMI – MIG), and the new Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) graduate program. The GDDTP offers basic science training for investigation in a broad range of disciplines by supporting students in a joint MD/PhD program and has successfully been pursued for the past 40 years. The PREP is an opportunity for underrepresented minorities who hold a recent bachelor’s degree in science to work as laboratory technicians for one year at the University of Chicago, while participating in academic activities designed to help them prepare for successful application to an advanced degree program. The IMSD promotes diversity in science by providing research training, mentoring and educational opportunities for new graduate students from groups defined by NIH as persons who would benefit from academic and professional enhancements before and during their progression through PhD programs to completion. All of these educational programs are funded by the NIH. The HHMI-MIG Translational Training Program engages students in both basic biological and clinical research, and bridges the gap between highly specialized research and human disease processes in the context of a formal PhD program. The Center also offers resources to other sections in the department with a seminar series, visiting lectureships and several shared research facilities.