Blythe A. Corbett, Ph.D. : SENSE Lab Director

Dr. Corbett joined the Vanderbilt faculty in August 2010 and is currently a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Investigator with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. She is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in pediatric neuropsychology.

Dr. Corbett’s Primary Contributions to Science:

Examination of the diurnal regulation of hormones in children with ASD
One of the cornerstones of the SENSE research program is examining the rhythmicity and responsivity of the stress hormone cortisol and the associations with factors, such as novelty, age, pubertal development and sensory functioning that can affect it. Cortisol has a normal circadian rhythm with a peak in the morning to include the cortisol awakening response (CAR) and decline throughout the day with the lowest level in the evening. Across multiple studies, research in the lab has shown that children with ASD evidence significant variability in the day-to-day regulation of cortisol, and elevated evening values, which have been associated with changes and cumulative stress throughout the day.

Study of social behavior and stress responsivity in children with ASD
Dr. Corbett has been examining social and emotional functioning as it pertains to stress-responsive neurobiological systems, including the Limbic-Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical (LHPA) axis. Across a series of studies, Dr. Corbett and her collaborators have shown significant elevations in cortisol in response to various social and nonsocial stimuli when compared to typically developing children of the same age and gender. For example, studies have demonstrated that the context in which the social situation occurs is vital in determining stress response in ASD.  Using a standardized lab-based protocol known to reliably activate the LHPA axis, this research showed that in contrast to children with TD, children with ASD did not find social evaluative threat to be stressful.  However, using her ecologically valid Peer Interaction Paradigm in which children play in a natural context, we have shown that many children with ASD show significant stress during benign social interactions with peers.

Development of novel peer-mediated paradigms and treatments for children with ASD.
Typically developing peers are incorporated into nearly every aspect of SENSE research as research subjects, research confederates (junior research assistants) and as trained interventionists through peer-mediated approaches. Peers can play a pivotal role in treatment for children with ASD. Most notably, Dr. Corbett developed SENSE Theatre®, a peer-mediated, theatre-based intervention in which peers serve as “expert models” of social communication and flexible thinking.  Findings from randomized control trial studies show that SENSE Theatre® has contributed to significant immediate and generalized gains in social cognition, social interaction and reciprocal communication in youth with ASD.

Scientific Metrics

Current Members

Rachael A. Muscatello, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

Rachael Muscatello, Graduate StudentRachael is a postdoctoral research fellow in the SENSE Lab, and she previously completed her dissertation research with Dr. Corbett in the Vanderbilt Neuroscience Graduate Program. Rachael’s research interests include examining multiple methods to measure physiological stress and multiple stress systems, such as salivary cortisol (Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) and heart rate variability (Autonomic Nervous System). She is further interested in the relationships between stress and age, puberty, anxiety, depression, and social functioning in youth with ASD. Rachael also maintains interest relevant clinical experiences, and she continues to gain expertise in diagnostic and neuropsychological measurements.

Rachael earned her B.S. in Neuroscience from the College of William and Mary in 2015, where she worked as a student research assistant investigating the effects of fetal alcohol exposure on zebrafish learning and memory. Rachael is a 2017 Autism Speaks Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellow for her project “Physiological Response Patterns in Children with ASD to Predict Internalizing Symptoms”.

Outside of the lab, Rachael enjoys seeing new movies and playing with her cats, Minnie and Stewart while updating their social media profiles.

Current publications: https://scholar.google.com/citations?user=zdorGKsAAAAJ&hl=en

Email: Rachael.a.muscatello.1@vumc.org

Jessica Schwartzman, Ph.D., Postdoctoral Fellow

Jessica is a clinical and research postdoctoral fellow at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of the SENSE lab. In her clinical work, Jessica receives training in diagnostic and neuropsychological assessments for youth with Autism and other pediatric populations, as well as training in individual and group interventions for youth and adults from diverse populations. Her research interests in the lab include investigating depression in adolescents with autism and parenting experiences among parents of children with autism. Jessica recently received her PhD in Clinical Psychology, Child and Family Emphasis, from Palo Alto University following her clinical internship at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Prior to graduate school, Jessica earned her B.S. in Psychobiology from UCLA in 2012 and worked in developmental disabilities research at UCLA. In graduate school, Jessica worked in research at the Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research Program (ADDRP) at Stanford University on several early intervention studies and she developed a resilience training for parents of children with Autism for her dissertation. Her clinical training in graduate school included evidence-based interventions for youth and families and training in neuropsychological assessments, with an emphasis in culturally-sensitive interventions and assessments for Latinx populations. 

When Jessica is not working, she can be found in the outdoors with her dog, Sasha, attending concerts, and trying new restaurants in town.

Email: Jessica.schwartzman@vumc.org

 

Mark E. Klemencic, Clinical/Translational Research Coordinator

Mark is a research coordinator in the SENSE Lab whose primary role involves the facilitation of two of Dr. Corbett’s Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs) funded by the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 Investigating Social Competence in Youth with Autism: A Multisite RCT and R33 Enhancing Social Competence in Adults with ASD: A Pilot RCT). Both of these projects examine neuropsychological treatment outcomes associated with SENSE Theatre®, a novel theatrical-based intervention program.

Aligning with the goals of this program–and with a background in theatre himself–one of Mark’s primary research interests involves the efficacy of performance-based treatment modalities in targeting social communication deficits in individuals with ASD across the lifespan. Additionally, Mark is interested in the endocrinological facets of ASD, particularly as they relate to social stress.

Prior to joining the SENSE Lab, Mark obtained a B.S. in Psychology, with a neuroscience focus, from The Pennsylvania State University in 2018. In the near future, Mark hopes to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

Contact: mark.e.klemencic@vumc.org 

 

Rachel Calvosa, Research Assistant

Rachel Calvosa is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, where she received a Bachelor’s of Science in Child Development and Neuroscience. Her academic interests include developmental psychology and brain development, especially in the context of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Rachel has worked with the SENSE Lab as a student for two years, and is grateful for the opportunity to learn more about psychosocial aspects of ASD as well as interventions for adolescents and young adults. As an advocate for the positive impact of performing arts, she especially loves seeing how SENSE Theatre® utilizes the power of performance to help build connections and confidence.

Rachel eventually plans to pursue a PhD in Neuroscience or Developmental Psychology, and she cannot wait to help contribute to research here at Vanderbilt.

Contact: rachel.calvosa.2@vumc.org

 

Aaron Pachol, Research Assistant

Aaron Pachol is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University, where he received a Bachelor of Science degree in both Neuroscience and European History. Aaron’s academic interests include developmental psychology and neuromotor movements, especially in terms of stress, as well as the history of revolutions and technology. He has worked with the SENSE Lab as an undergraduate student for a year and is excited to learn more about the development of adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While not an experienced stage performer, he is excited to participate in SENSE Theatre® and bring a positive energy to promote positive mental health.

Aaron eventually plans to apply to M.D. or Ph.D. programs within the next few years and is appreciative of the opportunity to be apart of the SENSE Lab family here at Vanderbilt.

When he is out of the lab, Aaron enjoys cheering on his hometown Chicago Cubs and exploring the best local restaurants.

Contact: aaron.pachol@vumc.org

 

Jennifer H. Pilkington, M.S., CCC-SLP, Speech/Language Pathologist

Jennifer is a certified speech/language pathologist with over 30 years of experience at Vanderbilt University Medical Center/Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), particularly communication development in very young children. She has been involved with the SENSE Lab since 2017 when she was presented with an opportunity to collaborate with the Lab through the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences. As the result of this collaboration, she has become interested and passionate about ASD across the lifespan. Even though, Jennifer retired in December, 2019 from full time employment at Vanderbilt, she retained her Clinical Faculty status and continues to work consultatively in the Lab. She collects and codes research data and participates in the intervention study, SENSE Theatre®.

When Jennifer is not working, she can be found with her French Bulldogs (Piper and Stella) and buzzing around the skies with her husband who is an avid aviator. She loves to be outdoors with family, enjoys a variety of genres of music, reading and continuous learning.

Contact: jennifer.pilkington@vumc.org

Hannah Hyatt Hartnett, SSP, M.Ed,                        Clinical Psychology Intern

Hannah is a predoctoral clinical psychology intern at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and a member of the SENSE lab. As part of her clinical training at VUMC, Hannah is involved in conducting neuropsychological assessments of both adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder and medically complex pediatric populations. Hannah is also involved with group based interventions for adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder, including the SENSE theater intervention. Hannah’s clinical research interests include neurodevelopmental assessment, complex health issues in neurodevelopmental populations, school-based mental health, early identification in autism spectrum disorder, and increasing universal screening and training for autism spectrum disorder in medical, public, and community health settings. Hannah is in her final year as a PsyD student at the University of Houston- Clear Lake for a doctorate in health services psychology (combined clinical and school program). Prior to enrolling in her doctorate, Hannah worked as a licensed school psychologist and received a specialist masters degree in school psychology as well as a masters degree in educational psychology. Hannah also received her B.A. in Psychology from Texas State University. Hannah has worked extensively within the neurodevelopmental community in research, public, and clinical settings and completed a LEND neurodevelopmental fellowship at the University of Texas Health Science Center. Hannah has also participated in various research projects within academic institutions and public schools with an emphasis on providing social skills interventions as well as clinical drug trials for individuals with autism. 

Outside of work, Hannah enjoys spending time with her family which includes her 14 month old daughter, husband and three dogs. Hannah is from Texas and is always on the hunt for good Mexican food!

 

Former Students from Recent Years

Kale Edmiston, Ph.D.

Kale Edmiston, Graduate Student

Dr. Kale Edmiston received his PhD from the Vanderbilt Neuroscience program in 2015 and now works as an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. He obtained a B.A. in liberal arts from Hampshire College in 2007. He then worked as a research assistant at The Yale Mood Disorders Research Program. It was at this time that Kale became interested in the neural correlates of adolescent social and emotional development. His dissertation research in the SENSE lab involved using functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationship between brain activity, stress, face processing, and social behavior in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders.

In addition to his neuroscience research interests, Kale is committed to supporting the career development of underrepresented groups in the sciences. During his time at Vanderbilt, Kale served as an advisory member of the Vanderbilt Program for LGBTI Health with an interest in healthcare access for transgender people. When he is not hard at work on these projects, he enjoys spending time with his partner and their two dogs. For a list of current publications, please see: http://tinyurl.com/EKEdmiston

Scott Blain

Scott Blain, Research CollaboratorScott is a collaborator and former member of the SENSE Lab. He is currently an NSF Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota: Twin Cities. There, his research focuses on the neural and genetic bases of individual differences in social behavior across a range of neuro-typical and psychiatric populations.

While in the SENSE Lab as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, Scott spearheaded projects focused on music cognition in ASD, behavioral manifestations of stress, and the use of hair cortisol as a bio-marker of chronic stress. Other involvement included contributions to work on sensory sensitivity in ASD, the impact of SENSE Theatre on Anxiety, and piloting a videogame-based paradigm to measure social stress in adolescents. He was also involved in SENSE Theatre as a pianist and actor. Scott has published work with Dr. Corbett in Autism Research, Autism, and Frontiers, and has presented work at conferences including the Society for Music Perception and Cognition, Society for Social Neuroscience, Association for Psychology Science, and Society for Affective Science. 

At Vanderbilt, Scott was also involved in research with Dr. Sohee Park, Dr. Reyna Gordon, and Dr. Rachel Aaron. Outside of research, Scott enjoys playing piano, reading, and eating a variety of tasty foods. In the future, Scott hopes to create a program of translational research at the intersection of Personality, Psychiatry, and Social Neuroscience.