Simons Searchlight Staff
Gabi Burkholz, MSPH Boston Children’s Hospital
Gabi Burkholz earned her BA in Politics and Health: Science, Society, and Policy with minors in Legal Studies and Social Justice/Social Policy from Brandeis University in 2021. She then went on to obtain an MSPH in Health Education and Health Communication from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in 2023. She has a wide array of clinical and field experience including studies related to children’s health, global health, infectious disease, and LGBTQ+ sexual health. Currently, Gabi works as a Research Outreach Coordinator at Boston Children’s Hospital working on communications and outreach for Simons Searchlight. In her free time, she enjoys watching reality competition shows, listening to podcasts, reading, doing brain teasers, and going to Red Sox games at Fenway Park.
Vanessa Boop, BA Geisinger
Vanessa Boop graduated from Elizabethtown College May 2023, with her degree in Psychology. Vanessa also minored in Women and Gender studies during her time at Etown. She was hired by Geisinger May of 2023 to be a Research Assistant for Simons Searchlight. In her free time, Vanessa enjoys working out, watching YouTube and Tik Tok, and spending time with friends and family.
Katina Calakos, PhD Boston Children’s Hospital
Katina is a neuroscientist who joined the Simons Searchlight team in February 2023. She helps collect, maintain, analyze, and report clinical data to support the Simons Searchlight mission. She previously spent over a decade conducting research studies of neuropsychiatric and neurodegenerative conditions. Katina earned her Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Yale University, and her B.A. in Neuroscience & Behavior at Barnard College. In her free time, Katina enjoys cooking, traveling, dancing, and spending time with her family and friends.
Wendy Chung, MD, PhD Boston Children’s Hospital
Wendy Chung serves as the principal investigator of Simons Searchlight, overseeing all aspects of Simons Searchlight development, with an emphasis on genetic research components of the project. She is also the principal investigator for the Simons Searchlight study, which characterizes behavior and brain structure and function in participants with genetic variants believed to play a role in autism spectrum disorders. As principal investigator of Simons Searchlight, she is leading the effort to manage the research program in individuals with autism and other rare genetic neurodevelopmental disorders, evaluating opportunities to develop new treatments including medications such as arbaclofen, and developing novel outcome measures to evaluate the efficacy of these treatments. She is involved in identifying novel genes for autism and characterizing the clinical features associated with these novel genes.
A clinical and molecular geneticist, Chung received a B.A. in biochemistry and economics from Cornell University, an M.D. from Cornell University Medical College, and a Ph.D. in genetics from Rockefeller University. She is currently the Chief of Pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital and on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, where she performs human genetics research. At Boston Children’s Hospital, she clinically assesses children with autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disabilities and uses advanced genomic diagnostic methods, including whole-genome sequencing, to identify the underlying genetic basis for neurological conditions. In her work, she strives to facilitate the integration of genetic medicine into all areas of healthcare in a medically, scientifically and ethically sound, accessible and cost-effective manner.
Chung has received the American Academy of Pediatrics Young Investigator Award, a career development award from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and is a member of the Dade County Hall of Fame. A renowned teacher and mentor, she has won many awards for teaching, including the Charles W. Bohmfalk Award for Distinguished Contributions to Teaching, the American Medical Women’s Association Mentor Award, and the Columbia University Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching. In 2014, Chung delivered a frequently viewed TED Talk, “What We Know About Autism.”
LeeAnne Green Snyder, PhD Simons Foundation
LeeAnne Green Snyder is a licensed pediatric neuropsychologist and has been working with families, students and researchers in the field of neurodevelopmental disabilities for over 25 years. She began her studies with the first investigation of oxytocin changes in autism, and went on to work with the Simons Foundation Autism Research initiative on their genetic cohorts, the Simons Simplex Collection and Simons Searchlight, over 10 years ago. LeeAnne helps to manage the collection, care and use of the Simons Searchlight phenotyping data, so that researchers around the world, and ultimately families, will benefit from this resource.
Claire Jones, MS, CGC Geisinger
Claire Jones graduated from King’s College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with a minor in mathematics in May 2018. She then attended the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) for her Master of Science in Genetic Counseling degree and graduated in May 2022. She also completed the Va-LEND (Virginia Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities) interdisciplinary program, which is committed to the preparation of professionals, family members and individuals with disabilities in childhood neurodevelopmental disabilities. Claire joined the Simons Searchlight team in 2023 as a genetic counselor, working on variant interpretation and helping families understand their genetic testing results. While not working on Simons Searchlight, Claire is a clinical genetic counselor working in a neurodevelopmental pediatric clinic. Outside of work, Claire enjoys cross-stitching, reading, traveling, and spending time with her friends and family.
Erica Jones, MA Boston Children’s Hospital
Erica holds a Master of Arts degree in Communication with Integrated Marketing Communication Concentration from Suffolk University in Boston, MA. Her professional career has been dedicated to the nonprofit, education, and communications industries. Her work has focused on researching, building, and coordinating programs that amplify untapped voices, causes, and stories. She is passionate about how storytelling and targeted messaging can create long-lasting impact and positive change. No matter which hat she’s wearing, her goal is simple — to empower and support organizations and thought leaders to drive measurable results through game-changing outreach campaigns, partnerships, relationship building, events, and strategic communications initiatives. Erica is thrilled to join Simons Searchlight and bring these skills to such a passionate team. When not working, Erica enjoys competitive puzzling, exploring nature, cooking, and traveling!
Misia Kowanda, PhD, MSc, CGC Geisinger
Misia graduated from McGill University with a PhD in Biology, where she was focusing on molecular biology and genetics, with the humble fruit fly being her model organism. Before she went on to get a master’s in genetic counseling from Sarah Lawrence College, she worked on a natural history study for individuals with Peroxisomal Biogenesis Disorders. Her Genetic Counseling master’s project focused on environmental exposures of people with Leber Hereditary Optic Neuropathy. In her free time, she enjoys running, dancing and hiking.
Jamie Lundy, GC, MS Geisinger
Jamie Lundy graduated from Lycoming College with a Bachelor of Science degree in Biology with a minor in Psychology in December 2018. She then attended the University of Pennsylvania for her Master of Science in Genetic Counseling degree and graduated in May 2021. Her thesis project focused on parental perceptions and opinions of their child’s genetic testing for hearing loss. Jamie joined the Simons Searchlight team in 2021 as a genetic counselor working on variant interpretation and helping families navigate the complexities of their genetic information and genetic testing results. While not working on Simons Searchlight, Jamie is a clinical genetic counselor in pediatric neurology. Outside of work, Jamie enjoys playing with her dog, reading and traveling.
Aidan Sandhoefner, BS Geisinger
Aidan graduated from the University of California, Davis, with a BS in Cognitive Science and a minor in Linguistics. There, he wrote his senior honors thesis on the role of parents’ mental state language on their children’s language production and cognition and later served as a lab manager for a study of episodic memory in typically developing toddlers. After two years teaching English at a public school in Madrid, Aidan has returned to the United States and he currently works as a psychometrist technician at Geisinger’s Autism & Developmental Medicine Institute in Pennsylvania. While in that position, Aidan jumped at the chance to join the Simons Searchlight team and has been assisting with family registration and biospecimen collection since June of 2023. When he’s not at work, Aidan enjoys spending his time cooking, foraging, knitting and playing racquetball.
Alisha Sarakki, MPH Boston Children’s Hospital
Alisha Sarakki joined the foundation in January 2023 as a Research Coordinator with Simons Searchlight. She works closely with her team to help coordinate conferences, design data reports, and communicate relevant scientific findings to both the research and participant community. Before joining, she worked as a Project Coordinator at Columbia University on several COVID-19 epidemiology studies and telehealth program evaluations. She has also worked on studies related to maternal health, urologic cancer, and dance physiology. Alisha holds a BA from Scripps College and an MPH from Columbia University.
Kaitlyn Singer, MS Geisinger
Kaitlyn Singer earned her BS in Health Science with a Pre-Professional focus from Lock Haven University in 2011 and then completed her MS in Biomedical Anthropology at Binghamton University in 2014. During her time at graduate school, she was involved in research that looked at the effects of modernization on health as well as working on a multi-focus research project that studied Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. After graduate school, she worked as a Oncology and Hematology Clinical Research Coordinator. When Kaitlyn is not working, she enjoys being with her friends and family, trail running or hiking, attending concerts, traveling, reading and attempting new recipes.
Cora Taylor, PhD Geisinger
Cora Taylor is an assistant professor and clinical psychologist at Geisinger and principal investigator for Simons Searchlight. Prior to coming to Geisinger, Dr. Taylor completed her graduate training at the University of Tennessee, and a research and clinical postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University. She has expertise in the diagnostic evaluation of children with a range of developmental concerns. At Geisinger, Dr. Taylor conducts research, and leads the phenotypic battery selection and administration on a variety of current research protocols at Geisinger, with a focus on the phenotypic characterization of individuals with rare genetic conditions. Dr. Taylor has experience in engaging families and family-based organizations for rare genetic conditions in research through online participation that is offered internationally to interested patients and families.
Jennifer Tjernagel, MS Boston Children’s Hospital
As project manager for the Simons Searchlight, Jennifer Tjernagel is responsible for managing study progress from initiation through data analysis. Previously, she was project manager for the Simons Simplex Collection, working through the University of Michigan. Before her work with the foundation, Tjernagel spent ten years in the pharmaceutical industry as an associate director of statistical analysis and reporting at Pfizer Global Research and Development, and also worked as a biostatistician for the University of Michigan Cardiology Department. She earned an undergraduate degree in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame, and an M.S. in biostatistics from the University of Michigan. Tjernagel joined the staff in 2010.
Lauren Walsh, MA Geisinger
Lauren Walsh received a BA in Cellular Neuroscience from Colgate University in 2015 and an MA in Psychological and Brain Science from Boston University in 2016. She has research experience on a range of studies from animal models to clinical genomics. Lauren currently works as a project manager at the Geisinger in Pennsylvania, where she works in part on both Simons Searchlight and SPARK. In her free time, Lauren enjoys watching football, cooking, and doing crossword puzzles.
Curtis Weaver, BS Geisinger
Curtis Weaver graduated from Bucknell University with a degree in Biology in May 2019. He also obtained a minor in Spanish. After working with firefly genomes as a senior, he became interested in the applications of genetic research. He was hired through Geisinger as a Research Assistant for the Simons Searchlight and SPARK projects and is planning on eventually obtaining a graduate degree. In his free time, he enjoys reading, playing field hockey, and playing video games with friends.