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Autism Researchers Receive Outstanding Faculty Service Award

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For their distinguished service to students, Jason K. Baker and Rachel M. Fenning, assistant professors of child and adolescent studies, are the co-recipients of the Alumni Association’s 2016 Outstanding Faculty Service Award.

“I cannot imagine my experience over the last four years without their mentorship,” wrote senior psychology major Jacquelyn Moffitt in her nomination letter. “Drs. Fenning and Baker have sought out and provided me with experiences rarely given to students, especially at the undergraduate level, enabling me to begin to establish myself in research and prepare for my future studies.”

Moffitt continues, “Beyond the classroom and beyond the lab, Drs. Fenning and Baker truly care about their students as people, wanting and encouraging the best for each and every one of their students.”

For Baker and Fenning, the award is meaningful because it celebrates the role professors play as mentors.

“Reading the nomination letter was sort of an award in and of itself,” said Fenning. “For us, it’s really important that we connect with our students. That means having a good understanding of their interests, their motivations, their passions and the ways in which we might be able to facilitate their personal and professional goals.”

Baker and Fenning, who grew up in Orange County and met as graduate students through a joint research project between Penn State and UCLA, joined the Titan faculty in 2011. It was a unique situation since the couple are married and work in the same field.

“We saw a single ad for this department and we both applied for it, thinking we would be competing for it,” said Baker. “As it turns out, they didn’t tell us that they actually had two open positions.”

Soon after they arrived, Erica J. Howell, assistant professor of special education, approached them about co-founding the CSUF Center for Autism – one of two such centers in Orange County. Working to advance support for an estimated one in 68 children who have autism, the center allows students and faculty to engage in all aspects of learning from teaching and service to research and advocacy.

“We have so many families that need good, highly-trained professionals to stay here in our community to support them,” said Fenning. “So much of what we’ve done, both in the coursework we’ve developed and in our lab, is focused on the training of future professionals and helping them understand how we apply what we learn through science and research to improve families’ daily experiences.”

In addition, Baker and Fenning recently received a $412,000 grant to study the emotional patterns of children with autism spectrum disorder, funded by the National Institutes of Health-Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

“Cal State Fullerton has been great in the sense that they really reward and foster innovation. The amount of support that we’ve had to do all these things we’ve wanted to do is amazing,” said Baker. “The fact that we are helping students to find a passion within the work that we personally care about, and that they are going out and helping children and families in the community that we grew up in – there’s nothing better than that.”