A Letter from Dani Dumitriu MD, PhD – The New Director of the Nurture Science Program

Within a month of my arrival to Columbia University Irving Medical Center in 2018, I was introduced to Dr. Martha G. Welch, founding director of the Nurture Science Program (NSP). We had an immediate meeting of the minds – and an instant emotional connection, realizing we shared a common goal: to bring emotional connection into the lives of every single child, and to do that through pediatrics.

Now, three years after joining NSP as Director for Translational Research, I’m very pleased to announce that I am assuming the title of Director of the NSP. I look forward to building upon Dr. Welch’s visionary work, and disseminating the science and practice of emotional connection to improve the lives of children and families. 

My passion for fostering emotional connection can be traced all the way back to my childhood, when I first developed an interest in resilience. I thought that if we could identify the neurobiological basis for resilience, we could shift the very nature of how medicine is practiced: instead of focusing primarily on treating disease, we could develop strategies aimed at fostering the development of resiliency circuits, thereby preventing disease from ever emerging. The earlier we start, the more impact we can make in helping people live longer, healthier lives.

To pursue these goals, I received my MD and PhD in neurosciences at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, followed by a pediatric residency and research fellowship in pediatric environmental health, also at Mount Sinai. In November 2018, I joined Columbia University Irving Medical Center as an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics in Psychiatry. There, I opened the DOOR lab (Developmental Origins Of Resilience) and developed a novel animal model to probe the brain mechanisms of stress-resilience in mice. When I wasn’t working with rodents, I was caring for newborns in the Well Baby Nursery at the Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital.

It is this split focus on animals and humans—on basic research and clinical practice—that has informed my values as a scientist and physician, and has shaped my leadership model. In the medical profession, we spend so many years learning, training, becoming experts in our highly specialized lanes—either we research and publish, or we treat patients. And the more specialized and siloed we get, the less we talk to each other. But research and clinical practice serve and inform each other—everyone benefits when medicine is not modular, but integrated.

That was why I was so excited to meet Dr. Welch and learn about the work being done at NSP. Not only did we realize we shared similar scientific and personal goals, but we approached those goals from unique and different, but complementary, directions. Dr. Welch is clinician-researcher with great intuition for what emotional connection is, what it looks like, and how to build it. I think of myself as more of a researcher-clinician, with a constant eye for asking “how and why does that actually work”, and realized I could be instrumental in furthering Dr. Welch’s clinical and scientific insights in a way that could lead to broader study and wider adoption. I mentioned earlier that we had a meeting of minds—but really, it was also a meeting of hearts. 

Together, Dr. Welch and I were going to bring Family Nurture Intervention (FNI) into the Well Baby Nursery at Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. In the chaotic weeks that followed, I became the designated COVID attending in the Well Baby Nursery, taking care of moms and babies for up to 14 hours a day. I realized I had the largest natural experiment in early life stress and mother-infant separation in recent history unfolding before my very eyes, so I co-founded the COMBO Initiative. Through COMBO, we documented the impact the virus and the pandemic were having on fetal, child, and maternal health, in real time, with the goal of putting early intervention strategies into effect as soon as possible. 

COMBO was spearheaded out of the NSP but quickly grew to be a multidisciplinary effort involving hundreds of physicians, researchers, students, and staff —a truly wonderful representation of the power of collective impact. I believe that our findings will aid in the understanding of not only the effects of this worldwide event on the “COVID generation,” but also of emotional connection on the resilience of parents and children. We have to date gathered hundreds of videos of mother-baby pairs, which the NSP team is currently analyzing using the Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS), the measure of emotional connection that Dr. Welch developed in collaboration with Dr. Amie Hane.

It is an exciting time to be taking on a leadership position at NSP. Last year the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement on the importance of relational health in fostering resilience and building a stronger, healthier, happier next generation. We are poised to be an integral part of this movement, and to enter an exponential phase in the examination and dissemination of parent-child emotional connection. 

My goal for the next decade is to more deeply elucidate the mechanisms by which emotional connection emerges between a parent and their child.  I want to collaborate with key partners across and beyond Columbia University, and in particular with Reach Out and Read and the Center for the Study of Social Policy, to usher in a new era in pediatrics—one in which we foster parent-child emotional connection toward a future of social resiliency. 

It will be impossible for me to fill Dr. Welch’s shoes, but I am enormously grateful to her for entrusting me with such an honor. We are poised to walk into a future where doctors and families understand the importance of relational health on a mechanistic level, and utilize that understanding to foster emotional connections for this generation and beyond.

Thank you and best wishes,

Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD
Director, Columbia Nurture Science Program