Skip to main content

ETR's Kirby Summit Rises Again

ETR's Kirby Summit Rises Again

By Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES | March 6, 2018
Senior Editor, ETR

The Kirby Summit is a one-of-a kind experience. This small, invitational convening gathers experts from across the nation. They meet over two days to talk about promoting adolescent health and reducing health risks.

Okay, you’ve probably heard about other events similar to this. Why is the Kirby Summit so special? It brings together people from different disciplines and different schools of thought, then shakes it all up to see what happens.

The Summit is structured to reveal the kind of new “ah-ha’s” that can come from such rich intersections: people who are extraordinarily knowledgeable in one area meet up with people who are equally knowledgeable in another. Their specialties are somewhat related, but they rarely sit down at the same table to talk in depth about strategies and practices.

Some of Our "Ah-Ha" Moments

Adolescent Relationships

This year’s Summit brought together three main groups:

  1. Adolescent sexual and reproductive health experts
  2. Developmental scientists
  3. Researchers who explore the nature of adolescent romantic relationships

For the past several years, ETR has been exploring the impact of romantic relationships on sexual risk. Our evaluators have been testing interventions that bring more real-life context into sexual health education. The previous Kirby Summits, which focused on developmental neuroscience, emphasized how important this understanding is in creating more effective interventions.

What adolescents can see clearly in the classroom setting—e.g., “This behavioral choice is risky and I don’t want to do it”—isn’t nearly so certain for them in real life. The adolescent brain is naturally drawn to new experiences. It is highly influenced by peers, and motivated by feelings more than thoughts. These qualities don’t lend themselves to careful consideration of risks.

This year’s Summiteers looked at the science of adolescent romantic relationships, starting with some foundational discussions—how do we even define healthy relationships? There is no standardized definition. What are the essential elements? How can we create influences that guide adolescents toward healthier relationships? What should we emphasize in sexual health education?

Exploring, Synthesizing, Creating

Disrupt Your Thinking

The phrase “disrupt your thinking” is really a keystone of the Kirby Summit effort. ETR’s Chief Science Officer Karin Coyle has written a fine post on the ways past Summits have disrupted her thinking (and should disrupt yours). If you check the webpage for the Summit (here) you’ll find links to reports, briefs and posts that have come from the meetings.

Stay tuned for the conclusions drawn from the 2018 event. We will be developing further briefs, blog posts and maybe even some webinars. This group is coming up with some brilliant insights and we look forward to sharing them with you.

Disrupting Our Thinking, Consolidating Our Learning

Our Thanks

It’s always a privilege to participate in these exquisitely organized convenings. Our planning group totally kicks it—they do a fabulous event. Thanks to all of the participants for your enthusiasm, energy and brilliance. Thanks to The David and Lucille Packard Foundation for their support, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for letting us use their beautiful venue as a meeting site.

Most of all, of course, thanks to our friend and colleague Doug Kirby, in whose memory these Summits have been created. We missed his voice in our conversations, but he has inspired us to channel a quality of enlightened curiosity that was a hallmark of his work.

More to come!


Marcia Quackenbush, MS, MFT, MCHES, is Senior Editor at ETR. She can be reached at


Sign up for the ETR Health Newsletter.

Social Media :

  • YouTube
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram