Emily Knight, M.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Neuroscience and Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. She received her B.S. in neuroscience at Bucknell University and completed her M.D./Ph.D. training at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. She went on to New York Presbyterian Weill Cornell campus for her general pediatrics residency. In 2018, she came to URMC as a fellow in Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics with a combined postdoctoral research fellowship in Neuroscience. Her research aims to understand neural mechanisms of sensory perception in individuals on the autism spectrum.
Can you summarize your research?
Using tools like electrophysiology (EEG) and neuroimaging, while incorporating some newer technologies like virtual reality we’re interested in identifying specific autism-related differences in the neural processing of visual, auditory, and other types of sensory stimuli in the brain. What is especially important to me is that we are looking at these questions through a translational lens. We are trying to understand how these mechanistic differences in sensory processing relate to real-world development and experiences for people on the autism spectrum. As we are building that knowledge base, we can then use it to help us refine diagnostic and intervention strategies that would be more directly linked to the underlying mechanisms and that would actually transform how we approach autism. That’s the future goal.
How did you become interested in this field?
I have always been interested in the brain. I think we can all probably relate to the experience of being tricked by a visual illusion, and mis-hearing lyrics or what someone said in a noisy party environment. It is those types of experiences that have always led me to wonder what is happening in the brain as it takes in the world around us. I became focused on autism during my undergraduate career. I was studying Neuroscience and was working as a summer teacher aid for students on the autism spectrum. It was very fun and rewarding, and it was also immediately clear to me that these students were processing and responding to things in the environment in a way that seemed different than their neurotypical peers in the classroom. When I delved into the neuroscience literature for an explanation, I realized there was a need for more research in this area, and that I could potentially contribute to that.
Why is it important to do research along with clinical work?
It is important to me to have a foot in both domains because I think it offers me a unique perspective. The studies that I have in the lab are directly inspired by observations in the clinic and questions that either the individuals on the autism spectrum or their families may ask. I can then bring them back to the lab and start to systematically dissect them using some of our neuroscience technology. Frequently, I have conversations with families where I will say, here’s what we know currently about the brain, but we are actively working on answering this question to develop new knowledge.
What led you to the University of Rochester?
I was drawn to the institutional tradition and commitment to advancing science in order to improve the health and lives of children in the community. That’s a challenging mission, and I am not alone at URMC. On a personal note, I grew up in the Rochester area so I’m able to give back to the community I was raised in, and that’s a big part of why I trained here and I am staying on as faculty.
Favorite piece of advice.
I take my inspiration from the children I see in the clinic, because children across the developmental spectrum are inherently curious, and not burdened by traditional expectations or viewpoints. Those are the same qualities you need to do good science. They have taught me that it is okay to challenge the status quo and that you need to maintain that sense of curiosity and wonder so that you can keep asking questions like, “why?” and “what if?” That’s how we can keep pushing boundaries forward.