Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow

Elliot Tucker-Drob

The University of Texas at Austin

Research focus
Elliot Tucker-Drob’s research program seeks to clarify dynamic developmental processes through which genetic variation combines and interacts with social, economic, and educational experiences to influence cognitive development, academic achievement, personality, and psychiatric health from infancy through adulthood. His work augments quantitative and statistical genetic methodologies with approaches from neuroscience, human ecology, education, and sociology. He co-founded and co-directs the Texas Twin Project, a large-scale study of over 3,000 child and adolescent twins that investigates social, economic, endocrine, and genetic influences on cognitive development, academic achievement, psychiatric health, behavioral risk, and their neurobiological underpinnings. Data from the Texas Twin Project serve as a primary basis for much of his ongoing research on child and adolescent development.

My plans for the fellowship period
Over the fellowship period, a main focus of my work will be on how multiple aspects of socioeconomic and scholastic disadvantage relate to hormonal, neural, and epigenetic processes, and how such biological processes relate to cognitive development and learning. Capitalizing on data from the Texas Twin Project, I will focus specifically on how the hormonal stress response system and epigenetic signatures of stress and accelerated aging relate to one another and to neurocognitive development and learning.

Research in basic molecular biology suggests dynamic co-regulation between hormonal and epigenetic systems. Research in animals has confirmed a role of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in epigenetic regulation of neuronal growth, learning, and memory. Human research indicates that the HPA axis, whose primary output is the stress hormone cortisol, is sensitive to socioeconomic privation, but a complete investigation linking socioeconomic, hormonal, and epigenetic processes to one another and to cognitive development and learning has yet to be undertaken. I will examine dynamic mechanisms through genotypes combined with socioeconomic and educational experience to influence cognitive development, academic learning, and their biological substrates.

How will my work change children’s and youth’s lives?
Cognitive abilities and academic skills are crucial for individual health and well-being, and for economic growth and productivity in society. Socioeconomic gaps in cognitive abilities and academic skills emerge in early childhood and widen across development. Understanding the social and biological mechanisms through which socioeconomic privation and scholastic disadvantage impact the neural structures and functions that undergird cognitive development is crucial to developing policies and interventions to promote learning in the population as a whole, while simultaneously reducing social disparities. My work will test several mechanisms for how disadvantaged social contexts “get under the skin” to influence neurocognitive development and learning in childhood. I expect that findings from this work will inform future social and educational policies and interventions to promote children’s learning and reduce social disparities in academic achievement and its downstream psychological, economic, and medical sequelae.