Scientist Patricia Rodier, Trailblazer in Early Origins of Autism, Dies

May. 7, 2012
Patricia Rodier, Ph.D.

Patricia Rodier, Ph.D., the first scientist to formulate and study the idea that autism can originate long before a child is born, died May 3 at Strong Memorial Hospital. She was 68.

An embryologist specializing in the nervous system, Dr. Rodier completely changed the way we think about the development of autism. While many believed that the disorder arose very late in pregnancy or in the early part of an infant’s life, Dr. Rodier’s research turned that widely held, but unproven, belief upside down. Her work established that genetic and environmental factors can also spur the development of the disorder as early as three weeks into a pregnancy, when the first cells of the nervous system start to develop.

Building on this work, Dr. Rodier went on to identify one of the first genes linked to autism. The gene – HOXA1 – plays a crucial role in early brain development and likely underlies the development of the disorder in some cases.

A professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, Dr. Rodier was also a world expert on mercury toxicity, studying how single exposures to the chemical during pregnancy influence a baby’s brain development. To this day, much of the research being done on mercury exposure and birth defects is based on Dr. Rodier’s early findings.

A testament to her extraordinary expertise in both areas, Dr. Rodier was called to serve as a key government witness for the highly publicized court cases regarding vaccines containing thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, playing a key role showing that the preservative and vaccines have no link whatsoever to autism.

While many will recall Dr. Rodier’s fiery red hair and distinct sense of style, those closest to her say it was her sweet, warm and gentle personality that made her stand out. “Even when she was critiquing something you did, it was like she was giving you a compliment because she did it so nicely; it would take you a minute to realize what she was actually saying,” said Christopher J Stodgell, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology who came to the Medical Center to work with Dr. Rodier 16 years ago.

James R. Woods, M.D., the Henry A. Thiede Professor and Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said, “Patty was the quintessential researcher and a talented writer with an inquisitive mind. Her death is a great loss to the academic world. Our hearts go out to her family.”

Dr. Rodier began her career at the Medical Center in 1980. Though her Ph.D. was in psychology, she learned anatomy and embryology as a post-doctoral fellow and went on to teach anatomy at the medical school from the time she arrived through the early 1990’s.

“Dr. Rodier taught anatomy to half the physicians in Rochester and was a very accomplished basic scientist whose landmark work in the neurotoxicology of mercury, in addition to the effects of genetics and environment on early brain development in autism, significantly impacted scientific understanding of these disorders,” said Susan Hyman, M.D., an autism expert at the Medical Center who worked closely with Dr. Rodier. “Dr. Rodier was the recipient of many NIH grants that not only supported her basic science but fostered visionary translational investigations here at the Medical Center and around the world.”

Dr. Rodier’s research, coupled with advanced clinical work conducted at the Medical Center, brought the autism program national recognition. The program was designated by the National Institutes of Health as one of 10 Collaborative Programs for Excellence in Autism in the United States from 1998 to 2008.

Elaine Francis, Ph.D., the former national program director for the Environmental Protection Agency and incoming president-elect for the Teratology Society, the major organization focused on birth defects research, education and prevention, added, “When I first joined the Teratology Society, Patty was incredibly nice and always willing to provide advice on my career path. I looked to her as a scientific “big sister.” While at EPA, I often cited the research products that came out of an EPA grant to Patty’s lab as a model of how our funding could have a significant impact. She was a great scientist, with incredible composure, and exquisite style.”

Following many years studying the effects of mercury and other chemicals on the nervous system, Dr. Rodier turned her focus to autism in 1994 after learning that researchers had discovered a high rate of autism in people who had been exposed to thalidomide in the 1960s; they had been exposed in the first month of gestation, before the time when thalidomide causes limb defects. Some of the autistic children born to mothers who took thalidomide also had misshapen ears, as well as abnormalities in the nerves of the head and face.

Dr. Rodier knew from her work in embryology that facial nerves develop during this time period, sometime between the 20th and the 24th day after conception, thus she wondered if autism might have something to do with the damage to the facial nerves. She then assembled a multidisciplinary team of scientists ranging from molecular biologists, psychologists, geneticists, pharmacologists and pediatricians to tackle the problem by investigating the genetics of autism and developing an animal model of the disorder.

Dr. Rodier grew up in Roanoke, Va., and received her M.A. and Ph.D. in psychology at the University of Virginia. Aside from her research, she had a passion for travel and art, frequently visiting museums around the world with her husband. She also loved the opera and was an avid sports fan, able to recite statistics on any sport, from professional baseball to NCAA basketball.

Above all, Stodgell said, “Patty was a humanist – she cared deeply about doing what was right for people. There are stacks and stacks of plaques and certificates acknowledging her outstanding work just lying on the floor in her office. While she was happy to be honored for her work, it wasn’t what drove her. She really just wanted to help people.”

Dr. Rodier is survived by her husband, Robert Kern, her twin sister, Donna Zahorik, a younger brother, Steven Martin, and two stepchildren, Dr. Jeremy Kern and Dr. Rebecca Kern.

Upon her death, Dr. Rodier wished her body to be donated to the Anatomical Gift Program at the University of Rochester Medical School to further medical education. A memorial to honor and celebrate Dr. Rodier’s life will be held this summer at a date to be determined. 

The family asks that any donations in Dr. Rodier’s honor be made to the Autism Science Foundation.