By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Dr. Deborah Finkel, professor of psychology and director of the graduate Master of Interdisciplinary Studies program at IU Southeast, has been elected president of the Behavior Genetics Association (BGA).
Founded in 1970, the BGA is an international organization of leading scholars that promotes the scientific study of the interrelationship of genetic mechanisms and behavior, aids in the education and training of research workers in the field, and helps to make knowledge in its subject area more accessible and understandable for the general public. Traditionally strong in studies of twins and families, the BGA is also moving strongly in the area of gene finding.
The appointment is for three years, with duties ranging from program chair of the annual BGA conference to chair of the awards committee.
Behavior genetics explores the influence of both genetics and environmental factors on the individual and group behavior of humans and animals. It is a field rooted in scientific and, indeed, philosophical history, as well as popular discourse — think “nature versus nurture” — but has been growing rapidly in recent years, in part due to advances in genetics.
Finkel has been a leading presence in the field and a member of the BGA since the mid-1980s, propelled by her interest in individual variation and the subtlety of the interactions among the myriad factors contributing to behavior.
Over the years, several students of Finkel have become inspired to devote their careers to this field, moving through Ph.D. programs to professorships or participating in major studies as research assistants, such as the long-running Louisville Twin Study.
Finkel will seek to build on the association’s core mission of developing research talent in order to keep the BGA at the forefront of this dynamic field.
“BGA has a strong record of nurturing the next generation of scholars, something I want to continue to advocate and expand during my term as President,” Finkel said.
The BGA publishes Behavior Genetics, the leading journal in the field, and hosts an international conference each year. Workshops on emerging topics, such as newly developed methods for collecting and analyzing data, help to build skills and advance discourse among researchers.
“With the mapping of the human genome and the expansion of methods for data analysis, there are always new things to learn,” Finkel said.
Another important focus of the BGA is public outreach. Members regularly share the results of research via articles in mass media such as the New York Times and other platforms. As with any scientific or technical discipline, there is a need for accuracy in reporting. The stakes are especially high in behavior genetics due to the potential influence of findings on public discourse and even policy.
“We try to counterbalance reports of ‘the gene for X’ with a more nuanced interpretation of the interplay of many genes and many environmental factors,” Finkel said.
As president-elect, Finkel is now organizing the program for the 2017 BGA conference, to be held in Oslo, Norway.