Cover Story

Genes and Behavior Focus of King’s College Centre

The nature-nurture wars are over, and both sides won. A few minutes of conversation with Robert Plomin is enough to understand how pointless it is to engage in any further debate over which is more important, our genes or our environment.

“It’s time to roll up our sleeves and recognize that both nature and nurture are important,” says Plomin. “It’s time to study the complexities between nature and nurture in development. We shouldn’t waste our time arguing which one is important. We need to develop research strategies that allow us to put them together, and that’s exactly what our Centre was founded to do.”

An APS Fellow and Charter Member, Plomin is deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry (SGDP) Centre within the Institute of Psychiatry in King’s College, London, England. In that role he stands at the nature-nurture crossroads, training interdisciplinary scientists in the exploration of both genetic and environmental influences on human development, behaviors and cognition.

The Chicago native did his undergraduate work at DePaul University, then graduate studies at the University of Texas, Austin, which had a course in behavioral genetics that Gardner Lindzey had started “during the Sputnik era,” he says, the first in a psychology department. Plomin took the course and was hooked. “I had not heard of ‘behavioral genetics’ before going to Texas. I got turned on to it and I’ve been interested in it ever since.”

Doctorate in hand, Plomin went to the University of Colorado, Boulder, in 1974 where he received appointments to both the psychology faculty and the Institute for Behavioral Genetics, the only one in the world at the time. In 1986, he moved to Penn State’s College of Health and Human Development to set up its interdisciplinary Center for Developmental and Health Genetics.

Then, in 1994, Michael Rudder – “the most well known psychiatric researcher around” – enticed him to London to start the interdisciplinary SGDP Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry. “I’ve always been involved in interdisciplinary training,” Plomin says.

The Centre, started “from scratch,” now has 150 students and staff housed in a new 60,000-square-foot, five-story building. It is funded by $25 million in grants.

“Even by U.S. standards, that’s a very big deal,” Plomin says. “It’s an explosive, exciting place to be. The faculty is relatively new and they’ve been brought together because they want to do this. It’s not a question of having to go out and dragoon anyone into coming to the Centre.”

In addition to its research staff, the Centre has 22 faculty members, about a fourth of them from the U.S. The faculty is necessarily diverse. “There are very few people who have expertise in all of these domains,” says Plomin, “so we have people ranging from epidemiologists on the social side to molecular geneticists.”

He currently has 25 students in the four-year doctoral program, adding five each year. Another 10 are enrolled in post-doctoral studies. “Everyone we bring to the Centre,” Plomin says, “students as well as faculty, is interested in the bull’s eye that lies at the center of these overlapping themes” – social, genetic and developmental psychiatry.

Both students and faculty are about evenly divided between geneticists and social scientists. “Even though the social scientists on our staff may not know about genetics, they want to know about it and bring genetics into their research,” Plomin says. “And geneticists don’t want to do genetic research just on the cellular level, they also want to do research at the psychological level of analysis. It really is interdisciplinary rather than just multidisciplinary.”

The Centre also attracts the cream of the European student crop, he says. “The one nice thing about being in England or Europe is the quality of students you get. It is very, very high. It might be because there aren’t that many good training programs for students in England and Europe. Traditionally, there is no training in the European model. You are just given a project and told to go away and do it for three years. Then, when you’ve completed your assignment, you get your degree. You learn on your own what you need to know.” That might work well enough, he says, but the best European students seem to prefer the American-style doctoral training offered at the Centre.

All PhD candidates are fully funded. A little less than a fourth of them are American. A major problem is finding funding for those American students, Plomin says, because with the exception of Fulbright Scholarships, American grant money can’t be used for study in Europe, and European funding can only be used to support Europeans. “It makes it difficult for us to support American students, and we’re very keen on it.”

What the Centre is preparing is the vanguard of a generation of scientists who can move easily back and forth across the nature-nurture boundaries exploring the pathways between genes and behavior at all of levels of analysis.

“It means you can study environmental influences in genetically sensitive designs,” he says. “Once you recognize that genetics is important as well as environmental factors, you take them both seriously. If you don’t take genetics seriously, you never really know if you’re studying the environment.”

He’s especially interested in what he calls “top-down” behavioral influences. “So much of the emphasis in genetics is bottom-up. It starts with cells and the production of proteins at very basic neuro-anatomical levels of the brain, but that’s a long way from behavior. What we’re interested in doing is putting most of our energy into top-down approaches that start with behavior and work down toward the mind and the brain and DNA. Because we think this top-down behavioral level of analysis – the behavior of the whole organism rather than the cell – will pay off much more quickly in terms of diagnosis and treatment and, especially, prevention.

“Even in the medical and biological areas, the interest now is in complex traits,” Plomin says, “not just single-gene disorders, of which there are thousands. Most of the psychological problems are influenced by genetics, but there are no examples of single gene disorders. So the name of the game right now across the life sciences is complex traits, and the interplay of environment and development. Where it’s played out most tellingly is in the area of behavior. Almost by definition behavior is the most complex of all traits.”

Unfortunately, few scientists today are well equipped to examine that nature-nurture interplay. That’s the talent pool his Centre seeks to stock. “There isn’t anybody who would disagree that this interdisciplinary approach is an important way to go,” Plomin says. “But people differ in their ability to handle interdisciplinary approaches. That’s why we spend a lot of time interviewing students and faculty for our place. I’m not a genetic determinist, but I do think sometime that interdisciplinary researchers are born and not made.”

He explains that not all students are suited for the ambiguities of interdisciplinary research. “Most of the time you have to trust other people, you have to collaborate with others, because it isn’t always clear where the research is going. Some people find that exciting and stimulating, but others prefer to hoe some more narrow furrow that’s already worked out, where you know what the parameters are and what you’ll be doing 10 years from now. In interdisciplinary research, you really don’t know what you’ll be doing five years from now because new things come along, things change so quickly. And that can’t be more so than in the field of neuro-science and genetics.”

The way to develop that talent pool, he says, is through breadth of exposure and experience. “Some of our people are molecular geneticists by training and what we’re giving them is the psychological domains. Conversely, we have a lot of psychology students who are learning about the genetic aspects. The goal of our training is to give people exposure to all of these areas. You can’t give them expertise in all of them, it’s just too much, but you can give them an environment, an atmosphere that’s collaborative and interdisciplinary, where they learn to work with other people. The only way to move forward here is with collaboration.”

Some who enter as psychologists end up doing work as geneticists, and some who enter as geneticists end up doing developmental psychology. That’s just fine with Plomin. “Success from my point of view is if you end up having someone doing something that is totally different from what they thought they’d do when they came into the program.”

His first two graduates landed “amazing jobs,” Plomin says. Both now have prestigious post doctoral fellowships – one is with the Human Genome project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the other is on a Royal Society Fellowship at Oxford University, both what Plomin calls “hard core molecular genetics places” that are excited by the same challenge that excites him, bringing together both genetic and environmental influences to study complex traits.

It also demonstrates that graduates with interdisciplinary training have two big advantages over those in traditional programs.

“One is that they are at the cutting edge,” Plomin says. “What they learn isn’t likely to be passé when they get their PhD And the second is that they are trained to be expert in several different areas, so that when they go out on the job market, the employer isn’t hiring just one person, but three or four for the price of one. They have experience in both cellular level genetics and in developmental psychology. They offer a lot of value to any place that hires them.”

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