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University Gazette

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Odom directs FPG’s focus on research to practice

odom_sam_400Far behind a busy Chapel Hill roadway, an unassuming gray building with a green awning sits alone on a hill, yet blends inconspicuously into a complex of buildings surrounding it. Only a tiny sign, “Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute,” guides visitors to its front door.

Appearances are deceiving, though. Inside this humble building is one of the leading research institutes in the country.

Here, because research ties directly to the problems of everyday life, FPG investigators find many ways to put their findings into practice. As a result, children in early care settings and those with developmental disabilities as well as families, caregivers and teachers benefit in a meaningful way.

That’s what FPG director Sam Odom finds so rewarding about his work.

“The notion of science to practice – what we call implementation science – has always been a driving force within FPG, and it’s one of the things that drew me here,” he said.

That precedent was set by the late James Gallagher, one of the institute’s first directors, some 40 years ago, and it continues today through the work of Odom and his colleagues.

At FPG, Odom explained, investigators and faculty fellows from a variety of disciplines conduct research that identifies the processes of childhood development. Most of that work is applied, in that each team designs programs that promote the development and education of young children and youth.

The researchers not only work with teachers to translate research into practice, they also evaluate programs and their outcomes on children.

North Carolina and beyond

“We have projects that work here in North Carolina and across the country,” Odom said. “A large group focuses on how to implement the research across a variety of human services.”

Odom is excited that the work of the institute benefits the people of North Carolina.

“We generate information that informs policies,” he said. “When we see policymakers making decisions about services for preschool children in North Carolina or Georgia, they’re using information that we have gathered through our research.

“We have worked with the state to design programs that are federally funded and that support the early childhood education mission of the state. But we also have a broader perspective and hope to have an impact nationally and internationally.”

Odom came to Carolina in 1996 as the William Friday Distinguished Professor of Child Development and Family Studies in the School of Education following several years on the faculty of Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

A professorship at Indiana University called him away in 1999, but he returned to UNC in 2006 to resume his faculty position and to manage FPG’s business and fiscal operations. As director, he also helps identify research programs that might be funded through federal education agencies.

Autism spectrum disorders, developmental disabilities, inclusion and special education are among Odom’s areas of expertise, which he has cultivated over a long career highlighted by several significant awards for his work. Most recently, he won the Theodor Hellbrugge Foundation’s prestigious Arnold Lucius Gesell Prize for extraordinary contributions in research and service in the field of child development.

Focus on Autism

Currently, Odom’s research focuses on autism, an interest that began during his postdoctoral work at the University of Pittsburgh and was intensified during his 2000–01 term on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Educational Interventions for Children with Autism.

“At Pittsburgh, I had an opportunity to work with an investigator, specifically on ways to design programs for young children with autism that engaged them socially in settings with typically developing children,” he said.

At the beginning of his career, when he taught preschool special education in Knoxville, Tenn., there were children with autism in his classroom, and Odom said it became clear that their needs were different from the needs of the other children with disabilities.

“They benefit from a structured, predictable setting that promotes communication and social interaction, but that is fairly routine,” Odom said.

Although a cure for autism has not yet been found, Odom said, “the field’s increasing understanding of effective practices, as well as its ability to make use of them, will lead to many more positive outcomes for children and families.”

Currently, the Odom group’s autism research expands beyond early childhood. He currently heads the pioneering Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders, which is developing a comprehensive treatment model specifically designed for high school students.

Support for adapting research to address pressing current needs is one reason Odom has found his career at Carolina so rewarding.

“UNC is a tremendous place to work,” he said. “Being able to come here was hugely gratifying. Over the years, the University has been a very supportive home for FPG. In turn, FPG has continued to take to heart the University’s research and teaching mission in all that we do.”