Karen J. Parker, Ph.D.

Truong-Tan Broadcom Endowed Professor, Principal Investigator (P.I.)

I am a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, where I hold several departmental leadership positions. These include serving as Chair of the Major Laboratories Steering Committee and as Associate Chair for Research Strategy and Oversight. I also have a courtesy faculty appointment in Stanford’s Department of Comparative Medicine, and I am an affiliate scientist at the California National Primate Research Center.

At Stanford, I direct the Social Neurosciences Research Program. We seek to advance understanding of the biological basis of social functioning across a range of species and to translate these fundamental insights to drive diagnostic and treatment advances for patients with social impairment. My core research interests include: oxytocin and vasopressin signaling pathways, development of valid animal models for streamlined translation and clinical impact, and biomarker discovery and therapeutic testing in children on the autism spectrum.

I recently wrote an invited narrative review charting my scientific journey and detailing my personal and professional experiences in the field of social neuroscience. You can read it here. Briefly, I was born in Boulder, CO, and raised in suburban Chicago. I received my undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Michigan. My interest in the biological mechanisms underlying social functioning emerged in Dr. Theresa Lee’s Biopsychology Laboratory and continues to meaningfully inform my own laboratory’s current research program. My dissertation research helped elucidate the critical roles of two neuropeptides, oxytocin, and vasopressin, in regulating social behavior in rodents. My research, which employed behavioral, pharmacological, and cellular techniques, demonstrated that release and specific receptor patterns of oxytocin and vasopressin in key brain areas of the extended neural amygdala pathway were required for the formation of social bonds and the development of paternal care.

My doctoral research on social bonds catalyzed my interest in how attachment relationships, and their disruption, influenced infant development and adult function. As a postdoctoral fellow, I traded studying meadow voles in the snowy Midwest for studying squirrel monkeys in sunny California, where I completed additional training with Dr. David Lyons and Dr. Alan Schatzberg at Stanford University. When I began my postdoctoral research, the prevailing view of psychiatry neuroscience was one of developmental neuropathology. As I learned more about this paradigm, I became interested in understanding what it failed to address: Identifying key factors that confer resilience, rather than vulnerability, to later stressors. To this end, I developed with my mentors the first monkey model of stress resilience and systematically characterized the complex behavioral and biological substrates of this phenotype.

Following my postdoctoral training, I was recruited into a faculty position at Stanford University. As a basic science researcher in a clinical department, I became interested in translating how the biological systems I was studying in animals might provide insight into the pathophysiology of neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric disorders. Since, I have initiated a series of interwoven studies to elucidate the biological mechanisms underlying complex social functioning, both in novel monkey models and in people with social difficulties. For example, my research team is currently testing the efficacy of a new medication to improve social functioning in children on the autism spectrum, based on research findings from our animal work. (Please see the Parker Lab’s ongoing research studies and publications to learn more about our research program.)

When I am not writing grants or mentoring students in the laboratory, I enjoy traveling, cooking, hiking in the local redwood tree forests with my Australian shepherds, and spending time with my family.