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FPG Faculty Fellow profile: Brianne Tomaszewski

Brianne Tomaszewski; woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair stands outside smiling in the sun

FPG Faculty Fellow profile: Brianne Tomaszewski

September 19, 2023

While the research portfolio of UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute (FPG) Faculty Fellow Brianne Tomaszewski, PhD, includes a wide range of projects, a focus on supporting the autonomy of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) is central to all her work. Her group recently named itself the Self-Determined Participation and Community Engagement team (the SPACE team) because its projects encourage community participation and examine ways those with IDD who are transitioning into adulthood can create lives they define as meaningful.

With a background in human development and family studies, Tomaszewski—an applied developmental scientist who is an assistant professor at UNC’s TEACCH Autism Program—takes a lifespan approach to engaging families with children and adults with IDD. She notes that the earlier parents start thinking about adolescence and adulthood, the better outcomes their children will have. Tomaszewski’s current federally and foundation-funded projects focus on employment, post-secondary education, and the transition to adulthood.

She is the director of Heels UP, an immersive and inclusive college opportunity at Carolina for students with IDD to take summer session courses on campus. This summer, Tomaszewski piloted a residential program for students with IDD during their summer session course. These students were provided with supports toward reaching their goals such as using public transportation, cooking dinner, and completing a college course, creating an inclusive environment.

As principal investigator of the North Carolina Community Collaboration for Employment, WorkTogether NC (worktogethernc.com) funded by the federal Administration for Community Living, Tomaszewski leads this community-based collaboration through collective impact working with adults with IDD, local and state-level policymakers, and service providers. She is also co-PI on a Department of Defense-funded clinical trial of the TEACCH School Transition to Employment and Postsecondary Education Program (T-STEP), a community college-based transition program for autistic adults without intellectual disabilities.

Her most recent research collaboration is the PACE program (Physical Activity and Community EmPOWERment) for which she is co-principal investigator with Kara Hume, PhD, also an FPG Faculty Fellow. The program, funded with a $3.5 million grant from the National Institute of Health, consists of pilot testing Step It Up—a supported self-managed exercise program—and Power Hour—an inclusive exercise class. Power Hour, designed to build the capacity of community gym partners, will support community exercise professionals in leading classes both for adults with and without IDD.

Tomaszewski’s path to research began when she worked as a direct support professional in college where she provided meaningful community experiences to people of all ages with IDD. As she took children and adults in her community of Marquette, Michigan to museums, the beach, the library, and on hikes, she realized that her passion was supporting individuals in having meaningful lives. She decided that researching evidence-based programs was the best way to make this happen. In graduate school, she noticed a lack of programming for adults and adolescents with IDD, as well as a dearth of jobs for these individuals upon finishing high school.

“With my research projects, I hope that we can provide resources—that are freely available for families, individuals with disabilities, educators and support staff—to help individuals have meaningful community participation in reaching their goals,” says Tomaszewski.

“With my research projects, I hope that we can provide resources—that are freely available for families, individuals with disabilities, educators and support staff—to help individuals have meaningful community participation in reaching their goals,” says Tomaszewski. “We want to support adults whether they decide to go to college, get a job, live on their own or with roommates.” She hopes that her team’s work leads to more inclusive communities and envisions gyms offering classes for individuals with and without disabilities, employers hiring individuals with disabilities, and post-secondary education opportunities offered throughout the UNC system, at community colleges, and at HBCUs.

Tomaszewski loves being part of the community at FPG, where she completed her postdoc under the mentorship of Senior Research Scientist Samuel Odom, PhD. She says Odom and the FPG autism team helped her learn about school-based research, which is similar to the community-based work she does. Seeing how strong interdisciplinary teams work together provided her with a model she works to emulate.

That positive experience continues in her current role as an FPG Faculty Fellow, which offers her broader perspectives on research and collaborations. Through her fellowship, she has become aware of potential partnerships she has pursued with the State of North Carolina and community organizations. She recently submitted a grant to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services for a vocational rehabilitation and employment services program. Without exposure through FPG to these types of connections, she says she would not have realized that a grant contract with the state could be a way to build her research agenda.

Tomaszewski names FPG resources such as the Data Management and Analysis Core, the Information and Technology Services team, and the instructional design of Senior Implementation Specialist Wendy Morgan, PhD, as critical to her work. “As a fellow, I am grateful for seminars and trainings and being around implementation scientists and technical assistance specialists and learning about different projects,” she says. “I value the professional development opportunities that we have access to as fellows.”