Martha G. Welch MD Takes on Role of Founding Director Emeritus of the Nurture Science Program

After leading the Nurture Science Program with vision, dedication and passion for 14 years, Dr. Martha Welch, MD, DFAPA, is stepping aside as Director. Dr. Welch, co-founded the program in 2008. She will continue to contribute to the program, and will assume the title of Founding Director Emeritus. 

The Nurture Science Program is well positioned to build on the foundation that Dr. Welch has provided. Dani Dumitriu, MD, PhD, is the new Director of the NSP. Dr. Dumitriu joined the program three years ago and is currently working on the neuroscience of human connection and resilience.

In announcing these changes, Dr. Jordan Orange, chair of pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and pediatrician-in-chief of New York-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, said, “I want to thank Dr. Welch for her vision, impact and dedication to the program and the university.”

Under Dr. Welch’s leadership, the Nurture Science Program has conducted research in early childhood development, hormonal signaling, mother-child autonomic nervous system regulation, and the gut-brain axis. This work has provided the scientific foundation for research and clinical tools used in neonatal and pediatric settings, including Family Nurture Intervention and the Welch Emotional Connection Screen (WECS). 

The Nurture Science Program’s work has improved and enriched the lives of many people. And it all grew out of a life-changing insight that Dr. Welch had 50 years ago.

A Paradigm Shift

There are few moments in life that are so defining that you realize in real time that you will never see things the same way again. 

For Dr. Welch one of those moments came in the early 1970s, as she watched parents and children play in Central Park. “I realized that the connection between mom and child and dad and child was a state and not a trait of either person,” she says. 

This fundamental shift in perspective — that the connection between parent and child was a shared state, a mutual connection between the two, rather than a reflection of some inherent trait of parent or child — changed everything for her. It became clear to her that any parent and child could share this state of connectedness. It wasn’t that some parents were “good” and others “bad.” It wasn’t about the children’s traits either. Parents and children just had to be given the opportunities and support they needed to connect with each other. 

At the time Dr. Welch, a psychiatrist, was doing clinical work with children and their families. And this idea was a game changer. “I was almost shaking with excitement and hope that this insight could help children and their families,” Dr. Welch remembers. She thought that if she could teach that observation to pediatricians on the frontline of infant and childcare, it could help so many families. This insight, paired with her deep desire to help children and their families, dramatically changed the course of her career. 

Turning to Research

Dr. Welch shared her insight with anyone who would listen. She wrote a successful book, which was translated into several languages. But it became clear to her that to really explain the state of connection between parents and children she needed to do research. 

“I realized I was looking at a physiological state, not a psychological one,” she says. “I believed I could explain my nurture hormone hypothesis for brain gut and mother child affiliation and demonstrate that approach intervention could be efficacious, effective and scalable.” 

So, Dr. Welch turned from clinical practice to laboratory research. She found a home for this work at Columbia University. Dr. Welch’s vision for elucidating the biological underpinnings of nurture and emotional connection became a reality thanks to the contributions of fellow scientists and clinicians as well as close collaborations with generous and visionary funders. The program grew from laboratory research to include clinical research as well. Dr. Welch completely dedicated herself to the program’s mission of translating research findings into effective emotional connection practices, and to implementing and disseminating these practices to improve the health and well-being of children and families worldwide.

“I am deeply grateful to everyone who has contributed to this mission,” says Dr. Welch. “It was my team’s dedication to helping families and their steadfast contributions to the vision for this work that inspired me to continue as long as I have.”

Looking to the Future

“I’ve had the thrill of discovery science from molecules to animals to families,” says Dr. Welch. “And now I have the gratification of participating in the welcome leadership transition made possible by Dr. Dumitriu.”

“I’m enormously grateful to Martha for entrusting me with such incredible honor,” said Dr. Dumitriu. She noted that this transition has been discussed for some time. “Because when we met we realized that we had the same exact goal, which was to bring emotional connection into the lives of every single child.”

The Nurture Science Program is poised to make great strides in the coming years. “We all look forward to building up on Dr. Welch’s substantive vision,” said Dr. Orange, “and seeing the science and practice of emotional connection elevate the children and families we care for.”