How Circumstances “Turn Genes On and Off”

Professor Michael J. Shanahan, the new Director of the Jacobs Center for Productive Youth Development at the University of Zurich, talks about the differences between the Swiss and the US system and his plans for the Center in the years to come.

Professor Shanahan, you moved to Zurich from Chapel Hill, USA, with your family and joined the faculty at the University of Zurich last summer. How are you settling in?

Our family of four moved here about six months ago, and such an international move requires a great deal of time and patience. But the process has been smooth owing to the support of the Foundation and the collegiality in the departments of sociology and psychology, the beauty of the city and its surroundings, Zurich’s superb infrastructure, and the Swiss way of life. The “newness” of everything is quite invigorating.

Which differences between the US and the Swiss systems have surprised you most?

I am especially pleased by a number of differences: the Swiss university system has not adopted a “corporate model” to the extent that is seen in the US, and Swiss professors have marvelous administrative support, which allows us to focus on research and teaching. On the other hand, the US university system is increasingly encouraging the development of entrepreneurial skills among the students – both business and social entrepreneurship.  This produces a new type of student, one who is equally open to finding a job or creating a job or designing a program to help the less fortunate.

What is your impression of the Swiss research system and, in particular, the University of Zurich?

There is genuine enthusiasm for interdisciplinary research and great infrastructure. For example, I started a series on genetics and social science and all of my invitees participated with great enthusiasm. We have several exciting research workshops on genetics and neuroscience coming up at Schloss Marbach, which is an incredible resource.

The Jacobs Center at the University of Zurich has been created to address pressing research topics in child and youth development. What are, in your opinion, these “hot topics”?

Among advanced economies, the hot topic across the social sciences is inequality: what factors lead people down different paths in life and why are these paths so often passed from generation to generation? The paths of disadvantage for young people typically include poor schooling and lack of (meaningful) employment, which lead to challenges in establishing their own households.  These disadvantages often decrease productivity, well-being, and social cohesion. As an increasing number of young adults are marginalized, trust in society will decrease, leading to various forms of polarization and inefficiencies. We clearly see these problems already in the United States and I suspect similar trends in some European countries. The importance of putting young people on paths to success is thus crucially important for all of us.  Unfortunately, these problems may worsen in the next decade as robots, automation, and intelligent computer systems will replace millions of jobs throughout the Western world, quite possibly leading to yet lower levels of opportunity for entry-level positions in the labor markets, particularly for the less-educated.

How will the Jacobs Center address these topics in the next few years? What distinguishes the Center from other research institutes?

The Jacobs Center is a platform for interdisciplinary work. When I arrived, it was already home to two longitudinal studies that seek to understand pathways from childhood into adulthood, COCON and z-proso. COCON will continue to follow young Swiss people as they transition from educational systems to employment, and to identify the resources that help youth along the way. Z-proso will continue to study violence — the perpetrators, the victims, and the witnesses—and what it means when growing up. We recently have developed interdisciplinary extensions of Z-proso, working with a biostatistician, a neuroscientist, and scholars in psychology, sociology, and the medical school. We will be collecting state-of-the-art data that describes the Z-proso youth in terms of their social settings, genetics, hormonal variations, and brain-imaging. As the Center’s faculty fills and develops yet more research networks throughout Europe and North America, we will be seeing more such efforts launched.

What is your personal research agenda, and how does it relate to the priorities of the Jacobs Center?

My passion is combining genetic and social information to learn more about human behavior. I am especially interested in how circumstances “turn genes on and off” based on people’s life-long experiences, an area called “social genomics.” A key insight is that, based on experiences, young people begin to develop ways of perceiving the world. This has profound effects on their behavior and gene expression. Why do some young people perceive social settings as threatening, people as untrustworthy, and have a tendency to react in defensive and hostile ways? This behavior is counter-productive in classrooms, families, and workplaces and has its roots in both biology and social settings. I want to understand the social origins and biological consequences of these perceptual tendencies, and then develop tools to help youth approach the world in a positive way.

You characterize yourself as a “sociologist turned biologist”. Can you elaborate a bit on the challenges and opportunities of the transdisciplinary study of the development of children and youth?

The major challenge we face is, how to study highly complex systems, both in terms of linking biological, psychological, and behavioral levels, but also in terms of educating ourselves so that we can work intelligently with scientists from various disciplines. Professors and their students love such challenges – they create new problems at every stage of science from team-building to conceptualization to data collection to statistical analysis. Yet these challenges are worth confronting. We know that biology alone is not destiny but depends on social experiences. The better we can understand this give-and-take between circumstance and biology, the better-positioned we are to develop interventions to help people.

As you know, the Jacobs Foundation has a strong focus on identifying and supporting the most talented researchers early in their careers. Can you tell us a bit about your ideas to attract and develop early career researchers at the Center?

This is a very exciting time in the social sciences because the newly-minted doctoral students are often highly sophisticated in their skill sets, and they are pioneering new areas of study involving biology and behavior. Indeed, some of the very best early-career scholars are to be found in the Jacobs Research Fellowship program and also in LIFE, the international training program that is supported by the Jacobs Foundation. First and foremost, we hope to include these early career scientists in our research group with post-doctoral fellowships, with short-term visiting scientist awards, and by inviting them to workshops that focus on research problems. Second, in the long-term, we hope to develop a unique program that will train a new generation of scholars who are well-versed in several disciplinary approaches to the study of youth. Finally, we will be offering didactic workshops, the first of which takes place this summer, the International Summer School for Life Course Studies.

What does it mean for you as a researcher to work closely with a Foundation?

Quite simply, it is an honor to be working with the Jacobs Foundation because it is committed to the long-term study of youth and to improving the lives of young people. The Foundation clearly sees the connection between good science and intervention. To paraphrase Kurt Lewin, if you want to understand something, try to change it. The Foundation is also an intellectually exciting affiliation because it is constantly creating opportunities to learn and think with its Fellowship Program, its annual Jacobs Prize, and its many workshops, mini-conferences, and symposia.