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Meet Danielle M. Dick, Ph.D.

Danielle Dick, PhDDanielle M. Dick, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Human and Molecular Genetics.

Writer Sherry Wasilow interviewed Dr. Dick from her office in the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University
.


SW: What is your current research focus?

DD: I am broadly interested in how genetic and environmental factors come together to impact the development of alcohol dependence and related problems. Because this is a very complex area, my research cuts across many different disciplines – ranging from psychology to genetics – and accordingly, my research includes many different types of projects.

SW: Describe the cross-disciplinary nature of your work.

DD: I am involved in big gene identification projects such as the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (http://zork.wustl.edu/niaaa/), where we are working to identify specific genes involved in the predisposition to alcohol dependence.

I also work on population-based twin samples such as the Finnish twin studies (www.twinstudy.helsinki.fi/) in which we are studying questions such as how the importance of genetic and environmental influences changes across development, and how environmental risk factors, such as parental monitoring and home atmosphere, peers, and neighborhood influences, interact with genetic predispositions.

Finally, I'm involved in longitudinal studies such as the Child Development Project (http://www.cdp.auburn.edu/) that have studied children from early in development into young adulthood. We are genotyping these individuals for the genes that come out of the big gene identification projects in order to understand what kids who are carrying genotypes that have been associated with increased risk of adult alcohol dependence look like as they are growing up. This will help us understand how identified genes contribute to pathways of risk across development, and how different environmental factors exacerbate or mitigate risk.

SW: How did you arrive at the current stage of your research?

DD: As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia (UVA), I took a class on abnormal psychology that focused on mental health and related disorders. I was fascinated by diseases related to the brain, as I realized just how little we knew about these conditions compared to most medical disorders and how much of a huge societal cost was associated with them. I switched my major from pre-med to psychology. During my fourth year at UVA, I volunteered on the psychiatric unit at the UVA hospital. I was struck and saddened by the revolving door aspect of mental-health treatment – that is, you see patients get better and then get worse and end up back on the psychiatric unit. It made me very interested in basic research. I felt like if I could understand the basic processes that lead up to the development of the disorder, I could help prevent these debilitating conditions and potentially improve people's lives.

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