2013 Janet Taylor Spence Award

Yulia Kovas

Goldsmiths, University of London

What is the focus of your award-winning research?
The focus of my research is to understand the processes of gene-environment interplay in shaping individual differences in learning, ability, academic motivation, and achievement. My research and the research of my colleagues all over the world has demonstrated that all educationally relevant cognitive and behavioral traits are influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Genetic effects stem from many genes of small effect. Moreover, the same genes may have different effects in different environments, such as different cultural setups and different curricula. I believe that through understanding these mechanisms we will be able to optimize educational practices by individualizing them to the needs of each learner.

How did you develop an interest in this area?
When I was still a student at the State Pedagogical University in St Petersburg, Russia, I was teaching at a primary and secondary school. Faced with incredible individual differences in learning, I became curious about the sources of this variation. Later, I studied psychology at the University of London, and then was lucky to get into a PhD program at King’s College, University of London, under the supervision of Prof. Robert Plomin, a leading expert in behavioral genetics. This PhD program equipped me with new interdisciplinary tools, as well as access to the unique twin sample — Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) — a longitudinal, representative, large-scale twin study that focuses on understanding the complex genetic and environmental influences on child development.

Who are your mentors and/or biggest psychological influences?
My mentor and biggest psychological influence is Professor Robert Plomin. I admire his scientific curiosity, his interdisciplinary expertise, the support he gives to his students and colleagues, and his generosity. I owe my success to him. I have also been incredibly lucky with my numerous international collaborators. Several leading scientists involved in running twin studies in Russia, the United States, and Canada have become very close collaborators and friends.

What unique factors have contributed to your early success?
Professor Plomin’s mentorship, my fascination with individual differences, and incredible luck.

What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
Professionally, it means that the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural research into individual differences in learning, ability, motivation, and academic achievement is acknowledged as important by the prestigious society. Personally, I am honored and extremely happy to receive this award, not just for myself, but acknowledging all the collaborators, without whom this achievement would not be possible.