Alumnus earns Fulbright for research in South Africa

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.”