Brian M. D’Onofrio

Brian M. D’Onofrio

Indiana University, USA

What does your research focus on?
My research focuses on identifying the mechanisms through which environmental factors, such as pregnancy-related, parental, and neighborhood risks, are associated with child and adolescent psychopathology. I am currently utilizing three approaches to specify these developmental processes: (1) quasi-experimental designs, including the comparison of differentially exposed siblings, twins, and offspring of twins; (2) longitudinal analyses; and (3) randomized-control, intervention studies.

What drew you to this line of research? Why is it exciting to you?
I have always been intrigued by family relationships and psychological development. Why do some couples divorce? How do parents influence their children? Why are siblings so different? But, I first became fascinated with psychological science as an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia. I was (and continue to be) energized by the opportunity to study the causes and treatments of mental health problems because these are associated with enormous pain and suffering. Throughout my career I also have become more and more convinced of the importance of using the best possible research methods possible. In my clinical work, my teaching, and involvement in policy discussions I am constantly reminded of the dangers of relying on poor psychological science (or no science at all). It is a joy, therefore, to help push the field forward (albeit slightly) and teach students the importance of psychological science.

Who were/are your mentors or 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 the family (with all of its complexity), 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 that the search for truth requires the utmost intellectual rigor. 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 research approaches to answer important psychological questions. As a graduate, student Robert Emery also taught me the importance of spanning various scientific disciplines, especially when studying familial risks.

To what do you attribute your success in the science?
From an early age my parents taught me to ask questions, search for answers, and work hard. My success in academia is due to this background and a number of other critical factors. First, as described above, the generosity of my mentors was truly significant. Second, I now have the tremendous opportunity to work with a several research collaborators, such as Ben Lahey and Paul Lichtenstein, whose work is inspiring and groundbreaking. Third, to be perfectly honest, trying to keep up with my talented graduate students has lead to wonderful and unexpected research avenues. Fourth, a great deal of my success is also due to my colleagues at Indiana University, especially in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. They have provided me with countless interdisciplinary opportunities, an incredibly collaborative environment, phenomenal resources, and protected time to focus on my research. Finally, I have been blessed with an incredibly supportive wife and two amazing young boys (who also have taught me the importance of studying child effects!).

What’s your future research agenda?
In the immediate future I am expanding the scope of my research to examine early neurodevelopmental problems and am placing a greater emphasis on prenatal risk factors. Broadly speaking, though, I plan to combine: (a) powerful quasi-experimental research designs, (b) excellent measurement of environmental and biological risk factors, and (c) a developmental framework to better understand the etiology of child and adolescent psychopathology.

Any advice for even younger psychological scientists? What would you tell someone just now entering graduate school or getting their PhD?
First, I recommend young scientists read one of my favorite articles, “The Importance of Stupidity in Research” by Martin Schwartz (it is only 1 page). The article emphasizes that students must humbly acknowledge and embrace our general ignorance in order to excel at research. Second, I recommend students search out mentorship and training from multiple researchers across several areas of study. Balancing the demands for both breadth and depth is difficult, especially for students, but psychological science is becoming increasingly more interdisciplinary and translational. Third, I recommend young scientists seek excellent training in quantitative methods. Regardless of your field of study, the ability to articulate your hypotheses analytically is essential for carefully testing them. Finally, make it a priority to create a schedule so that you can work efficiently and have time for your family, friends, and community. While you are working, make sure you are working (e.g., no Facebook). And, while you are relaxing, make sure you aren’t working (e.g., no checking email).

What publication are you most proud of or feel has been most important to your career?
My colleagues and I wanted to rigorously test the widely accepted inference that maternal smoking during pregnancy causes offspring behavior problems by using multiple research methods in one paper, including the comparison of differentially exposed siblings, offspring of siblings, and offspring of twins. The findings were the first in a string of quasi-experimental studies by our research group and others that suggest maternal smoking does not have a direct, causal influence on offspring antisocial behavior and related problems (in contrast to pregnancy-related outcomes, such as preterm birth).

D’Onofrio, B. M., Van Hulle, C. A., Waldman, I. D., Rodgers, J. L., Harden, K. P., Rathouz, P. J., Lahey, B. B. (2008). Smoking during pregnancy and offspring externalizing problems: An exploration of genetic and environmental confounds. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 139-164.

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