2019 Janet Taylor Spence Award
University of Minnesota
Please briefly describe your research interests.
My research interests center on parsing and understanding etiology in mental illness when experiments are infeasible. We use various genetically informative designs to do this, ranging from twin/adoption studies to population studies with measured genetic relatedness to transgenic animal studies. To improve our understanding of environmental influences, we also work to incorporate new measurement technologies to obtain improved measures of environmental context (like GPS location) to complement self-report questionnaires.
What was the seminal event, or series of events, that led you to an interest in your award-winning research?
It’s actually sort of hard to reconstruct, in part because much of it wasn’t particularly planned out. In large part, I’ve had the luxury of working with really great people and have been intellectually curious about a wide variety of topics, including clinical psychology, forensic psychology, philosophy of science, behavioral genetics, and methodology/statistics.
Among the events that most stand out in my mind, as I write this, is when I volunteered with Will Grove, faculty in clinical psychology at the University of Minnesota, on issues in forensic psychology and violence prediction. It was fun, and Will then supported my application to graduate school at Minnesota. I became immersed in quantitative aspects of clinical psychology and behavioral genetics, both topics around which a great deal of expertise was and is available at Minnesota. I then transitioned to work with Bill Iacono and Matt McGue on longitudinal twin studies and a large – at that time, 10,000 people was large – genome-wide association study of drug use and dependence. The genetics research was a perfect combination of exciting science, big data computing, and methodology. It was great. I got hooked, and this continues to be a major area of my research program.
Things worked out and I made what in hindsight was an unusual but awesome decision, maybe the best in my short career. I took a postdoc position outside of my field, with Gonçalo Abecasis in Biostatistics at the University of Michigan. I can’t recommend this sort of experience enough, to take a leap and go outside your comfort zone to challenge yourself and learn something new. Working with Gonçalo and the many other faculty, postdocs, and students in biostat at Michigan, I picked up skills and perspectives that I find particularly valuable today. This perspective continued to be broadened at the University of Colorado Boulder, where I was lucky once again to find very good mentors and, dare I say, friends among the faculty.
I think I’ve been particularly fortunate, as my mentors have provided me with a great deal of support years after my time training with them. Maybe it’s almost too true for me, because I have ended up where everything began, at the University of Minnesota, where I now call my former mentors my co-workers. I work more independently now than before, obviously, but I still depend on my former mentors, my current colleagues, and now my students, for a great deal of advice and support, and honestly I hope that will remain true throughout my career and I am able to pay it forward to the next generation.
Tell us about one of the accomplishments you are most proud of within this area of research. What factors led to your success?
I don’t know if “pride” is the way I think about my own work, but that is definitely the word I would use when thinking about my colleagues and especially my advisees. I am immensely proud of my colleagues here at Minnesota, and I am thrilled to be among such a distinguished group of psychologists. It has been a privilege to work with students and postdocs over the years, observing them develop from new graduate students into independent scientists. It was a little disconcerting initially, but in hindsight a lot of fun, when my students became more expert in their topics of research than I was.
Starting a lab and training students is perhaps the most difficult job we have. Once again, I have found mentorship to be invaluable as I transitioned from postdoc to faculty member, from directly managing a small handful of projects myself to leading a lab of students and postdocs. I can’t count the number of hours I sought advice from my colleagues at CU Boulder.
What contributions, or contributors, to psychological science do you feel have had a major impact on your career path?
All the folks I name-dropped above have fostered in me a scientific perspective that is quantitative, skeptical, data-driven, and collegial. Will Grove started me on that path 15 years ago, and I haven’t looked back since.
I also must say that much of the work I do is team science and extremely collaborative, requiring help from many, many scientists around the globe. These scientists take the time to share their data and expertise to make some of my work possible. Of course, it isn’t really “my” work in any usual sense, given all the people involved. I just get to come along for the ride. The only time I regret it is when I have to enter the names, affiliations, and contact information for 130 authors at the time of manuscript submission…
What questions do you hope to tackle in the future?
The ultimate goal, for me at least, is to make inroads to understand gene-environment interplay in human behavior, with a focus on mental illness and addiction. That’s both an old question and a tall order, but now as ever it is an exciting time to be a clinical psychologist and behavioral geneticist. We are working with new data-collection techniques and experimental tools that rapidly generate a large amount of information on a large number of people (e.g., genome sequencing, electronic health records) or in model systems (e.g., CRISPR’d cell lines or model organisms) that allow new and powerful approaches to old questions.
What does winning this award mean to you both personally and professionally?
I would suggest that the award reinforces the idea that psychology – including clinical – is a large tent, encompassing a broad range of scientific questions and techniques. The next generation of clinical psychologists and behavioral geneticists, some of whom I hope to train, will become increasingly adept at spanning disciplinary boundaries, with high quantitative and methodological rigor, a nose for important questions, good ways to answer them, and the willingness to be wrong in the face of good data.