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Dr Michelle Fernandes, a Clinical Lecturer at the Department of Paediatrics, Research Fellow at the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, and Associate Fellow at Green Templeton College has been selected as a finalist for the Medical Research Council (MRC) Impact Prize 2023, for her cross-disciplinary research in international early child development.

Dr Michelle Fernandes, an MRC Clinical Research Training Fellow and Clinical Lecturer in Paediatrics, has been selected by the MRC Prize Committee as a finalist for the Impact Prize 2023: Early Career Impact in recognition of her achievements as a pioneer in early brain science and international early child development research. Her work applies a ‘whole-child’ approach to early child development involving the pillars of early identification, intervention and impact, towards making a positive difference to the most vulnerable children, internationally, at risk of developmental delay.

Dr Fernandes’ submission is titled: The INTER-NDA: An open-source international toolkit for the simplified, rapid identification of children with developmental delay at age 2 years. It encompasses her research with the INTERGROWTH-21st Project, the INTERBIO-21st study and multi-national collaborators in leading the development and dissemination of a novel, low-cost, international toolkit for the simplified and rapid identification of young children at risk of developmental delay by non-specialist assessors. The toolkit includes a standardised, developmental assessment (the INTERGROWTH-21st Neurodevelopment Assessment, (INTER-NDA);; its automated, web-based calculator; a bespoke educational programme and a checklist to ensure its correct implementation in research, clinical practice, and health programmes globally.

The nomination is also for Dr Fernandes’ leadership in constructing the first international, prescriptive standards of early child development and her research findings from the INTERGROWTH-21st project showing that that healthy, well-nourished children across diverse geographies, populations and cultures achieve very similar neurodevelopmental outcomes at age 2 if their basic health, nutritional and socio-environmental needs during early life are met (Villar, Fernandes, et al. Nature Communications. 2019). This fundamental biological finding stimulated important debate about the scientific and ethical rationale behind racially-adjusted norms for neurocognitive outcomes (Fernandes, Ayede and Blackmon, Nature Reviews Neurology 2022). The nomination also focuses on Dr Fernandes’ role in training over 300 international assessors from 19 countries in the INTER-NDA toolkit and, together with regional collaborators, in formalising capacity development units in early developmental screening in the Caribbean, South India, Nigeria and Slovakia.

The INTER-NDA toolkit is a major innovation in the field of global child health because
it was created specifically to meet the gaps in current early child developmental assessments. Dr Fernandes said: “Approximately one in five children under five globally is at risk of developmental delay. Owing to a lack of screening resources, many do not receive the interventions they require within the golden window of brain development – the first two years of life – because they are only identified at school age or later. The INTER-NDA toolkit addresses this gap and has, since its development in 2014, been applied to over 22,000 children from 19 countries. The next steps in its roll out are to ensure that all children globally are assessed using the INTER-NDA at two-years-old and to extend its use to younger age groups, enabling us to identify those at risk as early as possible.”

Professor Georg Hollander, Head of the Department of Paediatrics, and Hoffmann and Action Research Professor of Developmental Medicine, said: “We are delighted that Michelle’s pioneering research has been recognised by the MRC as a finalist for the 2023 Positive Impact award. The Department of Paediatrics is a global leader in the research, delivery and advancement of the health and care of children and adolescents and Dr. Fernandes’ research is an outstanding example of this. Her work has had, and continues to have, a profound and positive effect on the lives of numerous children worldwide and we wish her every success for her work”

Professor Krina Zondervan, Head of the Nuffield Department of Women’s & Reproductive Health, said: “To be selected a finalist for the MRC Impact Prize 2023 is a fantastic achievement, and well-deserved recognition of Michelle’s remarkable work in identifying development delay in young children. A project with truly global impact – we are all rooting for her in the final”.

Professor José Villar, co-Principal Investigator of the INTERGROWTH-21st Project, said: “The INTERGROWTH-21st international network of institutions are very happy that Dr Fernandes’ long standing work on child development assessment globally has been recognised by the UK MRC Impact Prize committee. Her work on large scale early child development surveillance is crucial to the implementation of programs in this area, and in furthering the understanding of the complex interactions between health, growth and development from early pregnancy into early childhood. We privileged to have her in our worldwide network.”

Professor Patrick Chinnery, Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council, said: “Celebrating excellence in research both nationally and internationally, the MRC Impact Prizes recognise the remarkable accomplishments of our research community. The 2023 finalists epitomise an exceptional array of disciplines and backgrounds, underscoring the diverse talent propelling science and innovation to new heights.”

The MRC Impact Prize is designed to celebrate the leadership and dedication of selected early career researchers. It provides financial support for them to further advance the outreach and impact of their research. The winners and commended entries of the prize will be announced at an MRC Awards Ceremony in May 2024.

Dr Fernandes’ work has previously been recognised by the Medical Research Council, National Institute of Health Research, National Institutes of Health, USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the World Health Organisation, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, and the Neonatal Society. Dr Fernandes was appointed Director of Early Brain Science at the Oxford Maternal and Perinatal Health Institute in 2023.

Within the University of Oxford, Dr Fernandes’ research is jointly undertaken at the Oxford University Department of Paediatrics, the Nuffield Department of Women’s and Reproductive Health and the Oxford Maternal and Perinatal Health Institute.