2013 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Brian M. D’Onofrio

Indiana University

What is the focus of your award-winning research?
My research explores the mechanisms through which environmental risks, such as pregnancy-related, parental, and neighborhood factors, influence child and adolescent morbidity and mortality. Researchers have identified risks that predict subsequent antisocial behavior, depression, neurocognitive problems, severe mental illness, and suicide. The underlying causal mechanisms through which many risk factors come to be associated with mortality and morbidity are not known, however. Because researchers will only be able to identify causal risk factors by using multiple perspectives, I am currently utilizing three general approaches to study the processes that underlie the associations between risk factors and numerous indices of mortality and morbidity: 1) quasi-experimental approaches, such as sibling, co-twin, and offspring of siblings/twins comparisons; 2) longitudinal analyses; and 3) intervention studies.

How did you develop an interest in this area?
I have always been intrigued by family relationships and psychological development. I first became fascinated with psychological science, however, as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. Pursuing clinical science, in particular, enabled me to combine my passion for serving others with the intellectual stimulation of applying the best scientific methods to better understand the causes and treatments of mental disorders.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
I have had the privilege to work with a group of phenomenal researchers in multiple disciplines as part of my training. While I was an undergraduate student, Mavis Hetherington introduced me to the scientific study of family systems, and Steve Nock instilled in me a great appreciation for the necessity of using the best sampling strategies when studying families. While working as a post-baccalaureate research associate, Lindon Eaves stressed the importance of thoroughly testing competing scientific hypotheses. My main research advisor in graduate school, Eric Turkheimer, always encouraged me to never be satisfied with the accepted “facts” in psychological or behavior genetic research, and he continues to inspire me by his use of sophisticated approaches to answer important psychological questions. As a graduate student, Robert Emery taught me the importance of spanning various scientific disciplines, especially when studying familial risks. I now have the tremendous opportunity to work with several outstanding research collaborators, such as Jack Bates, Ben Lahey, and Paul Lichtenstein, whose work is inspiring and groundbreaking. And, my colleagues at Indiana University provide countless examples of how interdisciplinary research and training can advance psychological science. Finally, my graduate and postdoctoral students continue to open up exciting avenues of research for me.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
My early success is due to the confluence of many factors. First, my mentors and research colleagues have greatly facilitated my research program by unselfishly providing me opportunities for growth and collaboration. I am indebted to their generosity. Second, I have received unparalleled support from my colleagues at Indiana University, especially in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. My colleagues have worked hard to break down the barriers between traditionally disparate areas of study to foster interdisciplinary research, which provides an incredibly collaborative environment. The university and the department have generously provided me exceptional resources and protected time to focus on my research. Last, but certainly not least, my family has continually encouraged and supported me to pursue my research and career goals.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I am honored and humbled to win the award, especially as I join such a prestigious group of previous recipients. On a personal level, receiving this award validates my dedication to clinical science, as I try to answer important questions about the etiology and treatment of mental disorders. The award is also an acknowledgement of the dedication and support of my mentors, collaborators, colleagues, and family.