One Student’s View

It started out of politeness. The visiting professor’s seminars on “behavior genetics” weren’t compulsory, Michael Galsworthy recalls, “but I went out of politeness, often late and smartly dressed.”

That was in 1998. The London-born student was completing his undergraduate work in Nature Sciences at Cambridge University and going on job-seeking interviews at management consulting companies. Thus the “smart” clothes he’d still be wearing when he rushed into the seminars late.

“I didn’t even consider doing a PhD,” he says, “firstly, because no one was really advertising them to us, and secondly, because I wanted to acquire a breadth of new training and learning experiences. As far as I knew, PhDs in the UK involved three quiet years in a small lab communicating only with your boss and pursuing some comically narrow topic, which you quickly grew to hate.”

He’d been interested in genetics, but skeptical about seeking a graduate degree purely in genetics “when I had only had a few study-hours of the subject under my belt.” Cambridge offered a large “pick-and-mix course” in physical and life sciences that allowed him to tailor his studies to his interests year by year. “In my second year, I chose experimental psychology as one of my options and was fascinated by what I learned. So I specialized in psychology my final year.”

It was near the end of that final year that Robert Plomin, the visiting professor, entered his life. Some of what he heard in Plomin’s lectures he’d heard before, but in the final seminar, when Plomin talked about molecular genetics and psychology, Galsworthy found it “fascinating – not just because it combined my two major interests, but also because there were barely any data yet, it was a completely new area.”

Galsworthy was apparently an adventurer by nature, the sort of student Plomin was seeking. By the time he’d entered Cambridge, he’d already seen much of the world, including several years of school in Saudi Arabia and the U.S., plus a year working and traveling in South America.

The student hung around after the lecture to ask if any institutions would take on a PhD student in behavior genetics. Plomin told him about his Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre at King’s College that could offer him four years of learning and research in a deliberately interdisciplinary environment. He would not have to commit to a narrow area of research at the outset but would be broadly trained and could work with diverse research teams.

“I was instantly sold,” Galsworthy says. He interviewed, was accepted, obtained a grant and started at the Centre barely two months after his final exams at Cambridge.

It was heady from the start. “I was not only given training in-house and abroad, I was also required to develop my statistics by working with already-collected data from a huge national twin study. Within two months I was doing analyses for my first paper.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to have a first-author paper so early on, and working with a sample size of thousands. The results of that paper came out in the national and international media. Not that the study was earth-shattering, but the press clearly liked the link between genetics and girls outperforming boys in early verbal development. I found that clearly explaining scientific results and aims to a lay audience was quite a challenge, but also very rewarding.”

In his second year at the Centre Galsworthy and a fellow student set up a mouse behavior group under Plomin’s supervision. “This introduced me to a completely new crowd of scientists: animal behaviorists, neuroscientists and molecular geneticists that didn’t hunt genes, but ‘knocked them out.’ It was also a world where hardly anyone talked about individual differences or correlations. Everything was about strain differences and experimental manipulations. I sensed a vast niche that could benefit from psychometrics and quantitative genetics. The extensive use of correlation-based analyses within mouse behavior became the subject of my thesis and continues to be my area of focus in my post-doctoral research.”

Galsworthy received his PhD this year and now has a post-doctoral research position in the Division of Neuroanatomy and Behavior of the Institute of Anatomy, University of Zurich, Switzerland.

“I have my interdisciplinary PhD course and Robert Plomin to thank for the broad training across psychology and genetics and the opportunity to enter new fields equipped with such training. It was this particular fusion of individual differences and quantitative genetic approaches with animal behavior that opened so many excellent post-doctoral job offers for me.

“I would certainly recommend it to other psychological scientists. For a while, taking the interdisciplinary road is tough. You seem to be always the new na├»ve person asking for help. However, I believe constant ventures into unfamiliar areas keeps the insatiable scientist from jading, and you soon also find that you have rare combinations of skills which allow you to develop your own fusions, not merely put a small twist into what a supervisor hands down to you.”

He has presented research findings at conferences in an array of areas, from infant studies and psychiatric genetics to neuroscience and animal behavior.

“Perhaps most importantly,” he adds, “the interdisciplinary approach is fantastic for developing your statistical abilities and intuition.” For example, he says, those in quantitative behavior genetics use model-fitting techniques to decompose variance into complex sets of genetic and environmental components while “the gene-hunters are developing exquisite new statistical and computational techniques to pinpoint faint candidate-gene signals in the genome’s billions of base-pairs of DNA. Training in the statistics of all these areas not only allows you to talk the same code as all these researchers, but also gives you a much sharpened awareness of the ways in which to design experiments or tackle any data set before you.”

Observer Vol.16, No.6 June, 2003

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