“I wanted to join a lab where research was being conducted in parallel with community advocacy.” —Tasneem Issa ’18


Tasneem Issa ’18
Spring Lake Park, Minnesota
Biology, Neurobiology Emphasis

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD), commonly referred to as autism, refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with communication and social skills, as well as repetitive and restricted behaviors. Over the summer, I had the privilege of conducting autism research in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Minnesota.

My interest in autism began when I moved to the United States eight years ago and learned of the high rate of autism in the Somali community. The prevalence of autism in Somali children in Minneapolis is 1 in 32, compared to the nationwide prevalence of 1 in 68. Additionally, Somali children here are disproportionately diagnosed with “autism with severe intellectual disability.”

In Minnesota, there is a gap between the Somali American community and the autism research community. This gap has led to a lack of research knowledge and awareness about ASD-related issues and reduced community input on research questions. As a result, needed services and resources have not been reaching the community. Recognizing this gap, I wanted to join a lab where research was being conducted in parallel with community advocacy. The blend of research and community outreach I found in Dr. Suma Jacob’s lab is rare.

As a Data Science Fellow, I worked with a team of independent clinicians and researchers on a variety of projects. I contributed to a clinical trial investigating the effects of intranasal oxytocin on social information processing by doing analysis and literature reviews for future publications. I also prepared behavioral data that tracked the eyes of participants.

There are multiple factors that contribute to an ASD diagnosis and I am particularly interested in the genetic components, so I took advantage of the opportunity to shadow at another lab that analyzed the genetics for this study. Additionally, I worked on SPARK, a national study investigating the genetics that play a role in ASD. SPARK aims to recruit 50,000 individuals with autism and their parents. Families can participate from home by registering online and providing a saliva sample. I recruited families into this study and followed up with them to make sure they sent their samples in for analysis.

This year, I am developing my senior project for my Community and Global Health concentration in collaboration with the Jacob Lab. I have proposed conducting a survey of Twin Cities Somali parents and community members to understand their experiences and views on what causes ASD. A similar survey was conducted in Toronto, Canada, which also has a large Somali population, and I plan to compare the results. I hope this and similar projects will help to bridge the gap between the Somali autism community and the research world.

Tasneem’s research was funded in part by a grant to Macalester College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Program.


February 8 2018

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