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Pioneering Epidemiologist and ‘Science Tooth Fairy’ to join Department of Sociology at Purdue

Erin Dunn

An expert epidemiologist whose research on genetics, epigenetics, childhood adversity, and baby teeth has earned her the moniker “The Science Tooth Fairy” is the most recent recruiting success in the Moveable Dream Hire program. Erin C. Dunn, ScD, MPH, will leave Harvard and the Massachusetts General Hospital to join Purdue’s Department of Sociology as Professor, directing a new university-wide interdisciplinary center focused on sociogenomics. The center’s goals are ambitious: to bring the genomics revolution to the social sciences and deepen the inclusion of social science research in genetic studies.

“I am pleased to welcome Erin to the Purdue faculty,” said David A. Reingold, senior vice president for policy planning and Justin S. Morrill Dean of Liberal Arts. “She is an exceptional social scientist who is redefining our understanding of the biological and social determinants of health. Her vision and leadership position us to emerge as a leader in liberal arts scholarship.”

Dr. Dunn is uniquely positioned to develop the sociogenomics center. Dunn is a social and psychiatric epidemiologist with expertise in genetics and epigenetics. Her research lab, the Dunn Lab, uses interdisciplinary approaches to better understand the social and biological factors that influence risk for depression among women, children, and adolescents. She has built national and international research collaborations that have helped to define the biological and psychosocial impact of early adversity on mental health. Dunn led several genetic association studies and gene-environment interaction studies that were the first of their kind, including publishing some of the first genome-wide association studies of depression risk in non-European ancestry populations and the first genome-wide environment interaction study of depression.

Dunn is also known for her pioneering work studying children’s baby teeth, using the structure of early tooth development as a novel biomarker of children’s stress and adversity exposure linked to psychiatric outcomes. For example, in 2022, Dunn launched the Stories Teeth Record of Newborn Growth (STRONG) Study, a collaborative effort bringing together researchers, practitioners, and experts from the Massachusetts General Hospital and greater Boston community to understand if baby teeth recorded mother’s exposure to the Boston Marathon Bombing and Manhunt events during pregnancy and in the first year of her child’s life. Dunn’s research group encourages parents to donate their children’s baby teeth to science to contribute to their growing datasets. Participants in Dunn’s tooth research studies also receive a copy of the children’s book The Science Tooth Fairy © her team wrote describing the work they do with teeth.

“We are fortunate to have Dr. Erin Dunn as our new colleague in the Department of Sociology,” said Linda Renzulli, department head and professor of sociology. “She is an extraordinary scholar who bridges disciplinary boundaries to answer pressing social science questions surrounding the life course and its effects on mental health and other behavioral outcomes. Her work is ground-breaking in sociology, uncovering the role of sensitive periods in development. As the Director of the Sociogenomics Initiative, she will help forge new theoretical directions, methodological innovations, and understand the genetic and social basis for social behavior among a group of highly talented scholars.”

The talent-based Moveable Dream Hires program is piloted by the deans and provost to attract high-performing, top-caliber faculty to Purdue even when the topic-based openings in a given year do not match the moveable talent. It complements typical topic-based faculty searches across the University and enables the recruitment of faculty who may not be actively on the job market. These recruits are tenure-track or tenured faculty.

“I see this sociogenomics center as an opportunity to do critical translational work—starting first with helping social scientists identify strategies to bring genetics into their work to strengthen it,” said Dunn. “I also see this as an opportunity to encourage geneticists and those already working in genetics to build more solid partnerships with experts in the social sciences.”

Dunn is currently an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an Associate Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and is affiliated with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard, and the Henry and Allison McCance Center for Brain Health at MGH. Her research has been recognized by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America through the Donald F. Klein Early Career Investigator Award and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation through the Gerald R. Klerman Award, Honorable Mention. She is a 2017 recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health-funded Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists (BRAINS). In 2018, she was awarded a Rising Star award from One Mind. In 2020, Dunn received a research mentoring award from the Department of Psychiatry at MGH. Dunn is a first-generation college student.

“The health and societal problems we must solve are far too great for any one discipline to solve them on their own,” Dunn added. “We need to work together through these kinds of interdisciplinary collaborations. Knowing the biology alone is not enough.”

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