Close this search box.

IBS Researchers Land Funding for Advanced Study of Gene-Environment Interactions

Postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students to increase their knowledge of demography and genetics in one of the first programs of its kind

Article by Jeff Thomas

Jason Boardman has made headlines studying the interactions between people’s genes and their environment, finding, for instance, that social factors trump genetic forces in forging friendships. Now, the University of Colorado Boulder sociologist is helping to launch an advanced training program, one of the first of its kind in the nation, to train young scholars in this cross-disciplinary field.

The National Institute on Aging has awarded Professor Boardman, from CU Boulder’s Institute of Behavioral Science (IBS), and Professor Michael Stallings from CU Boulder’s Institute for Behavioral Genetics (IBG), $595,666 over three years, to create a formal training program in the area.

Boardman was a tenure-track assistant professor in sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder in 2005 when he decided to expand his research in social demography, or the statistical study of human populations, to include behavioral and statistical genetics. “Essentially, I had to take graduate level studies in these areas,” Boardman said. “I didn’t have much of a background in many of those fields, so I was raising my hand a lot.”

Boardman decided to look at the intersection and interaction between social factors — such as where one lives or works or whom one socializes with — and genetic factors as both influence complex health behaviors, such as smoking. He has published on this topic extensively, and beginning next year, like-minded post- and pre-doctoral students will be able to as well in the new training program.

Boardman’s genetic research has previously been supported by a five-year award from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in the National Institutes of Health. This grant allowed Boardman to maintain his position as a faculty member but spend nearly half of his time studying genetics with researchers at IBG. 

Leaders of both IBS and IBG hailed the award: 

“This is a tangible vote of support at the national level for the successful collaboration between IBS and IBG,” John K. Hewitt, director of IBG, said. “It reaffirms the value of our efforts to develop innovative interdisciplinary graduate and postdoctoral training programs.”

"This new grant demonstrates the leadership that Jason has achieved in connecting social and behavioral science with a deep understanding of genetics, something that draws on the outstanding expertise of the two institutes and amplifies our ability to train the next generation of researchers," Myron P. Gutmann, director of IBS, added.

Demography and genetics postdoctoral researchers and doctoral students will be annually funded by the grant over three years to increase their respective knowledge of demography and genetics —demographers will study behavioral genetics, and behavioral geneticists will study demography. 

Three postdoctoral researchers, two of whom received support from NIH, have recently taken similar paths at the two research institutes, and have all been involved with innovative research projects, leading to tenure-track positions at leading universities.

Benjamin Domingue is now an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. During his time as a postdoctoral researcher with Boardman, he was supported by several funding mechanisms in an ad-hoc manner. The goal of this new program at CU Boulder is to replicate the training that Domingue received but in a more formal manner. Brooke Huibregtse, the first postdoctoral researcher appointed to the training program, said she is excited about the opportunity to integrate new approaches with her formal training in psychology.

“Investigating genetic risk factors is only one side of the coin; it is important to also consider the social context in which complex health behaviors develop,” she said. While there are now numerous research articles expanding on the study of the interaction between genes and environment, there is not a permanent training program today, according to Boardman. Reviewers noted that the strength of research from both the IBS and IBG, as well as researchers from CU Denver, was a significant factor in the decision to locate such a program at CU.

“This is an important indication that reviewers and NIH see this as the place to go to receive this very unique training,” Boardman said. “This training program will enable the next generation of scholars to tackle complex public-health issues such as increasing rates of obesity, individual differences in stress sensitivity, and complex and comorbid substance-use disorders with innovative and cutting-edge approaches.”

According to the proposal, IBS faculty members have expertise in areas that could not easily be duplicated by other research institutes, including the intersection of people’s genetics and their environment and its role in health outcomes, patterns of HIV/AIDS in Africa and healthy adolescent development.

“IBG has an incredibly strong and international reputation in research on genetic factors linked to different behaviors across the life course,” Boardman said. IBG “hosts annual workshops on twin modeling and advanced statistical genetics that are among the most popular courses on this topic in the country. Indeed, following a comprehensive external evaluation of IBG, one reviewer commented that IBG is, ‘a world leader that is unique in its extensive combination of human and animal model research studies of human behavioral variation.’”

Boardman said faculty members are still determining whether to offer an academic certificate for the program. Meanwhile, the interaction between IBS and IBG researchers continues to lead to interesting studies, including “wet lab” scientists such as IBG’s Tom Johnson, who studies molecular behavioral genetics using worms and mice.

“It’s amazing what comes up when we’re all together talking about this,” Boardman said.

This article was originally publoshed on CU's A&S Magazine. The original article can be read in it's entirety here.