Steering Committee Interview: Donna Ferriero, MD, MS



The Newborn Brain Society was co-founded by many people who work together behind the scenes, each contributing in their own way.  One very important group is the Steering Committee, which consists of seven members that advise the society and help maintain our mission, vision, and objectives. The chair of this committee is Dr. Donna Ferriero, a distinguished Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at UCSF, as well as the director of Neonatal Brain Disorder Laboratories and founder, and former co-director, of the Newborn Brain Research Institute at UCSF.


Dr. Ferriero started in the field of Newborn Brain Care through a passion for developmental and neurobiology, which coupled nicely with her research around the developing brain. Since then, Dr. Ferriero has made countless contributions to the field. One in particular that she says is “probably one of [her] best achievements” is “setting up the world’s first neurologic intensive care nursery.” She did this alongside colleague David Rowitch, and since its conception, the neuro-intensive care nursery has helped improve the lives of so many babies and their families.


Dr. Ferriero is also very interested in research and is currently the director of the Neonatal Brain Disorder Laboratories and founder, and former co- director, of the Newborn Brain Research Institute at UCSF. Dr. Ferriero’s research has focused on “defining the relationship of selectively vulnerable populations of neural cells during maturation-dependent injury.” In this capacity she focuses on searching for groups of neural cells that may be more susceptible to damage through injuries that change over time as the baby matures.


Dr. Ferriero has been involved in research surrounding newborn strokes, and has discovered that what works for an adult, or even a term infant, may not work for a premature baby. She says, “I think some of [my] early publications showing how the brain is injured, and probably one of the most important ones that kind of changed the way we looked at things, was an experiment we did with a transgenic animal that was protected from injury at the adult age. But, we did it in the newborn age and the exact opposite happened. And so that was the first time where we showed that something that worked and was good in the mature brain wasn’t so, and was in fact deleterious, in the immature brain.” Since this discovery, this notion has become standard and “people are now in tune to that and are working very hard to figure out what’s important and to figure out the right timing, the right dose, at critical stages.”


Over the years, Dr. Ferriero has published over 300 publications to share her discoveries with the world. She says, “I enjoyed writing the [above] review article – probably 10 or more years ago – in the New England Journal,” though she cites the publications showing how much care differs for preterm infants, as opposed to adults, as her favorite, due to its important implications in the field.


Through her many contributions to the field, Dr. Ferriero has accumulated several awards ranging from the Chancellor’s Award for the Advancement of Women, to the Thomas Willis Lecture Award. Despite this, Dr. Ferriero distinguishes one of them, the Maureen Andrew mentoring award, as one of her favorites “because mentoring is what I love to do the most. It is the greatest thing about being an academic. It is to be able to teach and bring up young people and help them with their career trajectory.” This passion for mentoring has allowed her to dedicate much of her time to teaching countless predoctoral students, postdoctoral fellows and residents, and faculty, both formally and informally. She explains the importance of mentoring, saying, “I think you have to create a pipeline for a field to advance. And the way you do that is by showing people the field and encouraging them to pursue their own interests in that field.” Dr. Ferriero is a big advocate for helping students find their own path through the field. She advises others to “follow your passions – you should be passionate about what you do and that will lead you down the right path.”


As a renowned veteran in the field of Newborn Brain Care, Dr. Ferriero has seen the field come a long way since its conception. When asked about one of the most important things the field has accomplished, she responded, “I think obviously therapeutic hypothermia, having the first therapy for hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy.” Though Dr. Ferriero cites that as a great accomplishment, she is quick to point out that it is imperative that more be done with it, saying, “Now we have to find more because it doesn’t help everybody, and we need to figure out what else we can add to it. And also, it can only be used in a select group of babies, so we need to look at therapies for the premature brain and therapies for babies with strokes, seizures and the like.”


Dr. Ferriero also mentioned some areas that she hopes the field will move towards, saying “I think I’d like to see people continue to use advanced imaging techniques to inform our care and science. I’d like us to have a continued focus on the very premature baby because more and more babies are being born extremely prematurely and many of them have cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities, so I’d like to see emphasis on their care.” She says, “I think the hardest thing to do in our field is to try to understand mechanisms because we’re on a very steep slope of change. As we’re studying the brain, it’s changing minute by minute as opposed to the adult brain, which is static, right? It’s fully developed, it’s where it’s at. But in the immature brain you’re on this steep slope and what you might do here at time X may be different than what needs to be done hours later at time Y so that is very challenging.”


To share her research and knowledge with others and create a network within the field, Dr. Ferriero has spent a lot of time participating in lectures and seminars presenting her work and learning from others about theirs. She stresses the importance of creating such a network and said, “here I’d like to give kudos to Mohamed El-Dib and Terrie Inder for getting the Newborn Brain Society off the ground. It’s growing by leaps and bounds daily, and it’s so important because it gets the message out there both in terms of educational venues with the webinars, and research areas, so I think that’s fabulous… I hope it will continue to get young people interested. That pipeline I talked about. I think this is the perfect mechanism to create and foster that pipeline.” Dr. Ferriero also mentioned some of the challenges she foresees in the future of the NBS, specifically, “just trying to keep us all together. It’s a big world and we don’t see each other all the time. It’s very challenging right now. I think Zoom has created a new world for us… because without having meetings where you interact and network with people is very hard. So, I think it’s challenging if you can’t be with people to discuss ideas and exchange ideas.”


As the former president of the Child Neurology Society and the American Pediatric Society, as well as being Physician in Chief of UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, Dr. Ferriero knows a lot about what it takes to be a good leader and how to maintain an organization’s success. She shared some of her insights with us by saying “I think something I’ve learned from being a leader is to listen. So, I think a good listener is a good leader. Bringing multiple voices into the room to have conversations will inform the path forward.” She expresses her hopes that the field will bring forth more diverse voices, as she believes “the biggest challenge we have is to create more diversity and inclusion. I think our field has very few people of color and I think creating an international climate can help that. So, I think embracing diversity should be one of our biggest goals.”


Dr. Ferriero has experienced an incredible journey in the field of the Newborn Brain and beyond and contributed greatly to how far research has come today. Her many contributions have impacted the field immensely and we are all so lucky to be able to learn from her through the Newborn Brain Society. When asked if she would go back and do anything differently she answered without hesitation, “nope…I’m happy. I love doing what I do.”

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