Karen J. Parker, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator

I was raised in the Chicago suburbs and 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 behaviors 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. I found my “research calling” when I joined the Stanford Autism Center at Lucile Packard Children’s hospital. 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 autism patients. My research team is also testing the efficacy of new medications to improve social functioning in socially impaired monkeys and in children with autism. (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, scuba diving, hiking in the local redwood tree forests with my Australian shepherd, and spending time with my family.