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Arnold School of Public Health

Communication sciences and disorders welcomes intellectual disability expert Liz Will

April 17, 2024 | Erin Bluvas,

While otherwise a great experience, Liz Will’s undergraduate university didn’t offer many research opportunities. She found them anyway – getting hooked on her work in a behavioral neuroscience lab and building on her expertise ever since.

After graduating with a psychology degree, the Charlotte, North Carolina native found a position in outpatient mental health. She was part of a team that worked with kids diagnosed with an array of conditions, including autism.

Liz Will
Liz Will is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. 

“It was a stressful job because of the nature of our mental health system, but it was also motivating,” says Will, who provided one-on-one support for a student with autism and co-occurring intellectual disability through the school system. “I loved this work, but it had its own challenges, such has how to best support my student when the system was failing him.”

Inspired to learn more about psychology and human development, she enrolled in a master’s program at Vanderbilt University, which was known for its training around autism and other developmental disabilities. After working on research projects across different settings, Will realized that the autism population had more research, more resources, and more treatment options compared to other groups with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

She enrolled in the Ph.D. in Applied Developmental Science program at Colorado State University to dig deeper into intellectual disability as a field of study. During this time, she developed expertise in cognitive processes and executive function profiles in children with genetic conditions associated with intellectual disability. Although conducting research with children up to ten years old, she zeroed in on the birth to five years as the primary age period of interest to her work. 

When looking for postdoctoral training opportunities, Carolina Distinguished Professor of Psychology Jane Roberts was the only scientist in the country who could offer the opportunity for Will to merge her background in intellectual disability with co-occurring autism. She joined Roberts’ Neurodevelopmental Disability Lab as an NIH-funded Postdoctoral Research Fellow and spent the next four years with the team.

In addition to mentoring several Magellan Scholars, Will advanced her skills in securing extramural funding and implementing research projects. She served as a co-investigator on a $3.1 million R01 grant Roberts led to better understand fragile X syndrome and secured her own funding to look at the long-term progression of children with co-occurring autism and Down syndrome.

I was excited to join the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders as many of the groups I work with experience varying communication difficulties – almost always qualifying for speech therapy and often struggling with social communication.

Liz Will

When Will completed her fellowship in 2021, she continued her work with the lab as a research assistant professor. By this time, she had collected a lot of data and built relationships with many families and agencies in support of this work. She had also been awarded $1 million from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to map the early development and impairments, including motor skills and communication abilities, in infants with Down Syndrome.

“I have been following the same cohort of kids since I arrived at USC and have worked to foster community relationships with local organizations and partners over the years,” Will says. “I was excited to join the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders as many of the groups I work with experience varying communication difficulties – almost always qualifying for speech therapy and often struggling with social communication.”

"Dr. Will is an outstanding instructor and is able to share her clinical research experiences in the classroom with graduate students who are training to be clinical scientists," says department chair Jean Neils-Strunjas

The assistant professor is looking forward to collaborating with colleagues in her department and across the Arnold School and USC. Though much of her work focuses on early childhood, many individuals with intellectual disabilities – such as those with Down syndrome – experience accelerated cognitive and physical aging.

“Aging is such a strong research theme within the Arnold School, and I’m looking forward to investigating the needs of adults with Down syndrome as well,” Will says. “The school is also known for its overall research reputation and its commitment to supporting faculty in their efforts to conduct impactful research.”


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