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Yale alum builds a crucial bridge for psychiatry researchers

Over the course of an eventful life, Herb Allison, M.B.A., a 1965 alumnus of Yale College, has found himself in many situations that could make the calmest of us feel anxious. He spent four years as an officer in the U.S. Navy, including a year in Vietnam. After obtaining a business degree at Stanford, he climbed aboard the roller coaster of the financial industry, first at Merrill Lynch, where he rose to become president and chief operating officer. He was president and CEO of TIAA-CREF, stewarding hundreds of millions of dollars in retirement accounts. Near the peak of the financial crisis in 2008, when the U.S. government placed the much-in-the-news mortgage lender Fannie Mae into conservatorship, he was appointed its president and CEO. In 2009, after the company stabilized, he was tapped to serve as Assistant Secretary for Financial Stability at the U.S. Department of the Treasury, a.k.a. “the TARP Czar.”

But for all that, the stressful periods that have perhaps made the deepest personal mark on Allison began during his high school years and continued while he was an undergraduate at Yale, when he suffered from a persistent series of panic attacks that he now recognizes was a severe anxiety disorder.

Those experiences were the inspiration for a $3 million gift from Allison’s family foundation to the School of Medicine to establish a Psychiatry Research Scholars Program under the aegis of the Yale Child Study Center (CSC) and the Department of Psychiatry.

“I became interested in this field because I know people who have these illnesses, and I myself, when I was an undergraduate at Yale, suffered from anxiety attacks that were very difficult to deal with,” Allison recalls. “These disorders weren’t understood—people told me to just ‘get over it’—and there were no effective drugs at the time either. It slowed me down, and a few times a year it even shut me down, undermining my self-confidence.”

Under the direction of Matthew W. State, M.D., Ph.D., the Donald J. Cohen Professor in the CSC and deputy chair for research in the Department of Psychiatry, the new initiative will provide grant support to talented junior faculty to bridge what State says is the most vulnerable period for young researchers—the first years after training, when risky independent research projects cannot yet garner the federal grant monies that provide scientists with more predictable funding. In times of uncertain government support for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), this period in a young researcher’s career has become especially fraught.

“This program is particularly important for psychiatry and for child psychiatry,” says State, also professor of genetics and co-director of the Yale Program on Neurogenetics, “because we’re at a point where we’re beginning to understand the basic mechanisms of these diseases, and we need the next generation desperately to be able to leverage that knowledge with the latest technology. These next several years will be the time when we will finally start to crack this, and we can’t afford to lose these people.” The new program, says State, “gives free rein to young faculty to do high-risk, interesting things early in their career, which is exactly what we need to do.”

For Allison, it was a happy discovery that his alma mater was a center of world-class research on precisely the sorts of psychiatric illnesses he would like to target: in addition to anxiety disorders, Allison hopes to see the gift provide support for research on depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Tourette syndrome, which receive far less research funding than better-known disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

“I was a liberal arts major, and I never encountered anybody at the medical school,” says Allison. “But over the last year and a half I’ve gotten to how important the research at Yale has been, and how promising it is. If this is thought of as seed money that can attract additional funding, so much the better.”

In addition to nurturing scientific talent, Allison has focused his donation on increasing collaborations between researchers who approach psychiatric disorders from diverse perspectives. “This type of illness is about the most complex there is, because there are genetic causes, developmental causes, and the environment, and there has to be a coordinated approach—genomics, pharmacology, neuroscience, and psychiatry—to understand them.”

The initiative took root in Allison’s conversations with Yale CSC Director Fred R. Volkmar, M.D., the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology; John H. Krystal, M.D., the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Professor of Translational Research and chair of the Department of Psychiatry; and State, who says that Allison was thinking big: “‘I want you to do something transformative,’ he said, ‘What are the big ideas?’ And we concluded that the impact of this program would be both immediate and lasting, not just understanding these disorders, but moving toward treatment. This is a huge win-win.”

The inaugural Psychiatry Research Scholars will receive their first funding in September, and State says the three individuals chosen exemplify the range of research interests, and the range of career stages, the program is designed to support.

Tamara Vanderwal, M.D., M.Div., just completed her clinical training at Yale this past July, and she will make use of the new funding to support her neuroimaging research on the development of the “social brain” in toddlers and young children.

Thomas Fernandez, M.D., an instructor at the CSC, will dramatically expand his research, which receives partial funding from the National Institute of Mental Health, in psychiatric genetics, focusing on Tourette syndrome, motor stereotypies, and anxiety.

An expert on OCD, Christopher Pittenger, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, in the CSC, and of psychology, has received some external funding for his work, but he is pursuing a line of research that State says “has the potential to make major contributions to the understanding and treatment of Tourette disorder.” This work “has great promise to garner NIH funding with a relatively modest amount of additional investment” from the new gift, State says.

“If this new effort can hasten the day when these illnesses are better understood,” Allison says, “then the gift of our family’s foundation will have provided a little bit to help in that direction.”