Jennifer A. Pinto-Martin, PhD, MPH

Viola MacInnes/Independence Professor of Nursing

Professor of Epidemiology, Perelman School of Medicine

University Ombudsperson

Faculty Fellow, Perry World House

When epidemiologist Jennifer A. Pinto-Martin was the project director on the Neonatal Brain Hemorrhage Study at Columbia University in the mid 1980s, she noticed that many of the pre-term babies were diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Curious as to why the ASD rate was so high, Dr. Pinto-Martin began studying risk factors for ASD. Her findings have led to better screening for pre-term babies and the establishment of a CDC-funded center of excellence for ASD at Penn Nursing, which she joined in 1990.

By identifying modifiable risk factors for Autism Spectrum Disorder and informing the public, we can help prevent this devastating disorder. 


  • PhD, University of California, 1984
  • MPH, University of California, 1982
  • BA, Stanford University, 1978


Dr. Pinto-Martin directs the Master of Public Health Program, a partnership between the schools of nursing, social work, and medicine. The multi-disciplinary program brings together faculty and students from many of Penn’s 12 schools. Through the program, nursing students can earn a dual degree in nursing and public health.


In her study of prematurity and ASD, Dr. Pinto-Martin found that babies weighing less than 4.5 pounds had a five-fold increased risk for ASD. Published in Pediatrics, the study was named by TIME magazine as one of the Top Ten Parenting Findings of 2011. This increased risk, confirmed by other researchers, has led to an effort to establish standardized screening of pre-term babies to identify red flags for autism. 

The Nation’s Largest Study of ASD Risk Factors 

Dr. Pinto-Martin directs the Pennsylvania Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology, one of six CDC-funded regional centers that together are conducting the Study to Explore Early Development (SEED). SEED is the largest study in the United States to help identify risk factors for ASD and other developmental disabilities. 

Identifying Risk Factors for ASD 

Since 2006, more than 3,700 families with children ages two through five have enrolled in SEED, which includes an interview, questionnaires, and clinic visits. SEED researchers have already confirmed several modifiable risk factors, including advanced parental age and pre-term delivery . If the mother is over age 35 or the father is over age 40, the risk for ASD increases, with the greatest risk if both parents are older. Couples can consider this in family planning. The risk of ASD due to pre-term delivery can be reduced through early and regular prenatal care.   

The researchers continue to enroll families. Dr. Pinto-Martin and the Penn center are currently conducting analyses on several other important issues, including the impact of eating behaviors in children with ASD on the risk of obesity.

Opportunities to Learn and Collaborate at Penn Nursing

The Pennsylvania Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities Research and Epidemiology is comprised of researchers, public health professionals, educators, and clinicians at Penn Nursing and the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Undergraduate nursing students participate in the center’s activities through the work-study program. Some doctoral students assist in research and use the data for their dissertations. Dr. Pinto-Martin mentors graduate students who are passionate about research, particularly in epidemiology and ASD.

Selected Career Highlights

  • Secretary, International Society for Autism Research  
  • Consultant, NIH Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee for  
  • Member, Scientific Review Committee, National Institutes of Neurological Diseases and Stroke, American Public Health Association, and Society for Epidemiological Research  
  • Senior Scholar, Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics  
  • Senior Scholar, Leonard Davis Institute for Health Economics

Accepting Mentees?

  • Yes

Accepting Fellows?

  • Yes

Related Stories

The Environmental Justice League

Penn Nursing is committed to training the next generation of nurses on sustainability and the climate crisis, retooling its curriculum, transforming its physical footprint, and conducting research on how the environment affects vulnerable populations.

Read MoreThe Environmental Justice League