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COS Alumnus earns Fulbright for research in South Africa

by Angela Herring

When Dan Marsden, S’13, vis­ited South Africa for a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram in the summer of 2012, it wasn’t the stun­ning views from Cape Town’s Table Moun­tain or the safari in Kruger National Park that most cap­ti­vated him. Rather, it was a stag­gering sta­tistic: More than 7 per­cent of the chil­dren born to South African mothers suffer from fetal alcohol spec­trum dis­or­ders. In fact, South Africa’s FASD rate is higher than that of any other country in the world.

The con­di­tion, which ranges in severity from full-​​blown fetal alcohol syn­drome to more mild cases, is asso­ci­ated with devel­op­mental, behav­ioral, and phys­ical ail­ments throughout the life­time of the afflicted.

While much is being done to edu­cate mothers about the effect of alcohol con­sump­tion during preg­nancy, as well as to reduce the rate of alco­holism throughout the pop­u­la­tion, Marsden has become inter­ested in another, less well under­stood factor: the role of paternal sub­stance use in the devel­op­ment of an FASD child.

In April, Marsden received a Ful­bright research grant to explore this ques­tion. Starting in Sep­tember, he hopes to recruit at least 30 South African men who have fathered chil­dren born with a fetal alcohol spec­trum dis­order. Another 30 will serve as random con­trols. Working with a research group led by pro­fessor Soraya Seedat of South Africa’s Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity, Marsden will admin­ister ques­tion­naires to the fathers and col­lect blood, finger, and toe­nail samples.

The study’s goal is to deter­mine whether sub­stance abuse has any effect on the later suc­cess of a child with one of these dis­or­ders, said Marsden, who will be looking for evi­dence of alcohol, drug, and tobacco use in his subjects.

“When a child with fetal alcohol syn­drome is born, as he goes through life, the gap between him or her and his peers just grows and grows, whereas chil­dren without fetal alcohol spec­trum dis­or­ders develop nor­mally and these guys get left behind,” Marsden said. “I’d be very sur­prised to find that there’s no cor­re­la­tion what­so­ever between paternal behav­iors and that gap.”

While the data he col­lects will pro­vide a good base­line for under­standing that gap, he hopes that it will also pro­vide a foun­da­tion for a longer-​​term study aimed at improving pedi­atric health.

Cur­rently an EMT on Mass­a­chu­setts’ North Shore, Marsden plans to attend med­ical school in the near future. “When I think of what kind of doctor I want to be, I think of a patient pop­u­la­tion that I can really feel for,” he said, “and chil­dren are the ones I really sym­pa­thize with the most.”

Marsden—who had not con­sid­ered applying for a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship until Northeastern’s Office of Fel­low­ships  pre­sented him with the opportunity—credits his edu­ca­tion with preparing him for the next stop on his pro­fes­sional journey.

“North­eastern,” he said, “showed me the value of cre­ating knowl­edge, which is what I’m going to South Africa to do.”

Originally published in news@Northeastern on June 5, 2014

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