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Staff Genes in Behaviour and Health (Research)

On this page we share an overview of our excellent staff, please feel welcome to read about our fields of research and specific expertise.

Staff Genes in Behaviour and Health (Research)

In a brief summary we are:

Wonu Akingbuwa

Wonu Akingbuwa is a post-doctoral researcher in the field of statistical genetics, investigating the role of genetic variants in psychiatric traits across the allele frequency spectrum. The interdisciplinary nature of het academic training and research experience means that she has gained an appreciation for the importance of using different approaches to investigate psychiatric aetiologia. As such her main research interests lie in the integration of different analytical techniques in order to gain a well-rounded view of the processes underlying psychopathology. She has used methods such as structural equation modelling, polygenic score analyses, and rare variant analyses using exome sequenced data, to investigate different psychiatric phenotypes including schizophrenia and depression. She teaches the course Gene Finding: Genome-Wide Association Studies and beyond, alongside Jouke-Jan Hottenga.

Portrait picture of Wonu Akingbuwa

Meike Bartels

Meike Bartels is Professor in Genetics and Wellbeing at the department of Biological Psychology and the Director of the research Master Genes in Behaviour and Health. Instead of wondering why people are ill and invest largely in unraveling the risk factors, she wonders why so many people are protected or resilient. Why do many individuals stay healthy and happy even when faced with severe adversity? What are the protective factors? And finally, why are most people happy most of the time? Within her line of research, she wants to contribute to finding answer to these societally highly relevant questions by applying an interdisciplinary focus on genetics, environment, and its complex interplay. Her strong interest in individual differences is also reflected in the course Personalised Medicine and Health, that she coordinates in the research Master. In this course the past, present, and future of personalized medicine is discussed in detail to give the students more insight into the challenging, complex, but bright future of medicine with all the knowledge that is created based on behavioural and molecular genetic studies. The Master Genes in Behaviour and Health is headed by Meike Bartels, she also supervises the internship in the 2nd Masters year, together with Dorret Boomsma.

Portrait picture of Meike Bartels, she

Dorret Boomsma

Dorret Boomsma is professor in Behavior Genetics and a Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Professor. In her research and teaching she focuses on the causes of variation in human complex traits as a function of genotype and environment. To this end, she established the Netherlands Twin Register (https://tweelingenregister.vu.nl/ ), which has evolved into an important resource for studies in genetic and molecular epidemiology. Her research is highly collaborative, involving collaborations with other twin registers around the globe. Boomsma trained in psychophysiology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and in behavior genetics in Boulder, Colorado, USA. She combines empirical research with a keen interest in quantitative genetics and methodology. She supervised over 60 PhD students and her work has led to numerous papers and awards, including the Spinoza Prize. She was elected a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2002. International recognition includes the James Shields and Dobzhansky Award. Recent research breakthroughs involve the identification of the first genes for dizygotic twinning and a unique epigenetic profile for monozygotic twinning. Courses: Complex Trait Genetics, Boomsma also coordinates the internship of the Masters 2nd year.

Portrait picture Dorret Boomsma

Elsje van Bergen

Elsje van Bergen studies causes and consequences of individual differences in learning. She integrates theories and methods from psychology, education, and genetics to study educational achievement and difficulties. For example, she studies the interplay between genetic and environmental influences on educational skills like reading. Elsje van Bergen is an Associate Professor at Biological Psychology and LEARN!, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Before taking up this position she was a postdoctoral research fellow in developmental psychology at the University of Oxford. She obtained he PhD in educational sciences at the University of Amsterdam. She was a Rubicon Fellow, Oxford Junior Research Fellow (both 2012-2015), and Veni Fellow (2016-2020) and the recipient of early career awards from the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences. Courses: Coordinator of Internship I; Grant Writing and Science Communication Website: www.evanbergen.com Twitter: @drElsje and @NTRscience

Portrait picture Elsje van Bergen

Conor Dolan

Conor Dolan is a professor at the department of Biological Psychology (VU). His main interest is in genetic statistical modeling in the context of genetically informative designs (notably the classical twin design) with the aim of addressing interplay among genotypic and environmental variables. His recent work has addressed the use of polygenic scores in the study of interplay in genetically informative designs. Courses: Statistical programming in R and Python, Behavioural Genetics.

Portrait picture of Conor Dolan

Jenny van Dongen

Jenny van Dongen is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biological Psychology at the VU Amsterdam. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology (cum laude), a master’s degree in neurosciences (cum laude), and obtained her PhD (cum laude) in 2015 at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on her thesis entitled “(Epi) genetics and twins”. She is interested in how the interplay between the genome, epigenome (DNA methylation), and environment gives rise to variation in complex traits. She received grants from the Amsterdam Public Health Institute and the Amsterdam Reproduction and Development Institute to study epigenetic signatures of asthma and monozygotic twinning. She is the secretary of the research master Genes in Behaviour and Health. Courses: Epigenomics and Sequencing in Behaviour and Health, Complex Trait Genetics.

Portrait picture of Jenny van Dongen

Dennis van 't Ent

My research interest lies in investigating individual differences in brain structure and function and how these differences relate to individual variation in behavioral characteristics. To this end, I collect and analyze neuroimaging data (obtained primarily through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)) in genetically informative samples from monozygotic and dizygotic twins and additional relatives. In terms of the merits of this work, I would particularly like to highlight the results of collaborations with international consortia (such as the ENIGMA consortium). Combining genome, brain and behavior data from research institutes around the world results in large datasets with increased statistical power to find relevant differences. Large-sample studies powered by these collaborative efforts have provided important insights into the genetics of brain structure and function and the biological pathways of behavioral differences and neurological and psychiatric diseases. In the field of education, I am a coordinator and teacher of various courses in our bachelor's degree program in psychology. For the research master Genes in Behaviour and health I am involved in the coordination and teaching of the 1st year course Cardiovascular and Bain Imaging genetics.

Portrait picture of Dennis van 't Ent

Eco de Geus

The leitmotiv of de Geus’ research is the psychophysiological study of individual differences in behavior and health. Controlled experiments and genetic epidemiological strategies are used to test contribution of genes, stress and regular exercise to cardiovascular health and mental health. Mental health is studied by a variety of survey measures and diagnostic interviews (e.g. CIDI). Cardiovascular health is studied in the laboratory by recording cardiovascular, hormonal and metabolic responses to standardized conditions, and in “real life” by using ambulatory measurements of blood pressure, cortisol, and the autonomic nervous system with the VU University Ambulatory Monitoring System (VU-AMS, www.vu-ams.nl). This is a system de Geus developed for 24-hour recordings of peripheral physiology. It is currently used world-wide by over 50 research groups to study stress and emotion in naturalistic settings. In the study of psychological and cardiovascular health a genetic perspective is introduced by means of longitudinal twin family designs and molecular genetic approaches, including candidate gene studies and whole-genome association using SNPs. The genetic architecture of autonomic nervous system activity and regular exerciser behaviour are current focus areas of research. In these areas de Geus emphasizes the gene-environment correlation and interaction perspectives, e.g. by looking explicitly also at gene-stress and gene-exercise interactions, and the use of genetically informative studies to unravel causality.

Portrait picture of Eco de Geus

Michel Nivard

Michel Nivard's research focuses on using genetic and observational data to study the causal and observational relations between psychopathology, health, and social outcomes throughout development and into adulthood and old age. His main focus lies on the developing methods and conceptual models of (biological, developmental, sociological, and psychological) causes of individual differences in personality, various kinds of psychopathology, and cognitive development. His research is funded by NWO (Veni), ZonMw, National Institutes of Mental Health (R01) and he is a Jacobs Foundation Research Fellow between 2020-2022. Course: Nature of nurture: gene-environment correlation and interaction in the family

Portrait picture Michel Nivard

René Pool

René Pool has a background in medicinal chemistry (VU). He has received his PhD at the University of Amsterdam in the field of Computational Physics & Chemistry. Since 2012 he works as assistant professor at the department of Biological Psychology. Here he works on the metabolomics data sets collected by the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR). These data comprise hundreds of metabolic variables measured in over 6000 NTR subjects. Biologically, the metabolome can be viewed as an intermediate level in the framework starting at the genome and ending at biological function, e.g. behaviour. Metabolomics can therefore be utilized to gain detailed insights in biological (dis)function. The field of metabolomics brings together his interests in (bio)chemistry, in systems biology and in analyses of multi-dimensional data. Apart from metabolomics he actively manages the VU Biological Psychology polygenic risk score data resource comprising of risk scores in NTR for almost 250 phenotypes. As a result of his interest and experience in computational science, he is the faculty contact for High Performance Computing. Courses: Introduction to omics (RM Genes in Behaviour and Health), Molecular Genetics (Bachelor Psychology, third year)

Portrait picture of René Pool

Mathijs van der Zee

Van der Zee is connected to the VU for a long time, starting with Psychology, then Neurosciences, and after that he developed his PhD in exercise genetics. During his PhD he discovered his love for (statistical) programming. He has some experience with a variety of languages, but Python and R are his favourites. Currently he is employed as a postdoc, where he mainly focusses on the (further) programmatical development of the R packages for genetic analyses such as GenomicSEM. In the research master Van der Zee teaches the Python part of the Statistical Programming in R and Python course, the focus is on translating R-skills into Python skills. There is a huge benefit to being able to use both languages to the best of their abilities, as proper programming can make it trivial to do many different analyses on a bunch of traits easily and efficiently. Van der Zee: 'And what’s way more fun than doing one analysis? That’s right, doing a hundrerd.'

Portrait picture Mathijs van der Zee