Sophie von Stumm studies the causes and consequences of individual differences in cognitive development. Her research is driven by the question “Why do some brains work better than others?” and differently contextualized across the lifespan. For example in early life, she focuses on children’s differences in language development, while for adolescence and young adulthood, she studies differences in academic achievement and the accumulation of knowledge. Her research is interdisciplinary, integrating approaches from individual differences, behavioral genetics, and ‘big data’ into developmental psychology.
My plans for the fellowship period
During my fellowship, I will explore the genetic and environmental basis of individual differences in learning using a novel study design that focuses on monozygotic (MZ) twins. Because MZ twins come from the same fertilized egg or zygote, they are thought to be genetically identical like clones. However, very recent studies have shown that this is not entirely true: the DNA of two MZ twins in a pair can differ in some ways, specifically in de novo Copy Number Variations (CNV), structural changes in the genome. To date, no study has tested if CNV differences that can occur within an MZ twin pair are reliable and if they relate to the twins’ phenotypic resemblance.
To address this gap, I will select the MZ twin pairs, who are concordant and discordant for academic achievement, from an existing twin study. By comparing these two groups of MZ twins, I will test if they show CNV differences that are associated with academic achievement. Data will come from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) that initially enrolled over 15,000 families, who had twins in 1994 through 1996. This work will advance our understanding of the role of rare DNA variants for learning.
How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
My work informs the evidence base that we need to develop and implement successful interventions that improve children’s and youth’s learning. In particular, I will identify specific genetic and environmental factors that affect learning. Finding specific factors enables ‘personalizing’ education to match each individual student’s needs. Currently, educational settings too often employ a “one size fits all” approach. Although psychological research has shown since many years learning is more complex than that, we have only now developed the methods to develop and validate personalized education. Personalized education will take into account a student’s genetic predispositions, as well as his abilities, behavioral tendencies and interests, and tailor the curriculum accordingly. As a result, students will be more satisfied by their learning experiences and also accumulate greater knowledge and skills.