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Elsje van Bergen receives Early Career Impact Award

13 July 2022
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS) named VU-researcher Elsje van Bergen as the Early Career Impact Award winner on behalf of the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading for her scientific and outreach work on the interplay between genetic and environmental influences on individual differences in children’s academic skills.

Nature and Nurture 
Environmental interventions help improve reading skills in children both with and without a family risk for dyslexia, but those with a family risk need more intervention. Van Bergen: “Nature vs. Nurture is one of the oldest debates in psychology. This discourse has since evolved, acknowledging the interplay of both sides.” 
Shared genes 
Cause and effect of environmental mechanisms of parenting cannot be inferred without first considering genetic influences. Van Bergen explains that parents influence their children through both biological and environmental effects, using the example of reading ability. The effects of genetic inheritance and parenting form complex interplay. 

Van Bergen: “The parent’s DNA affects their own reading ability, which then influences the home environment they create, such as the number of books they own. The family’s reading habits, as indicated by the number of books in a home, can then affect the child’s reading ability. However, to study such environmental effects, researchers first need to account for the genetic confound, as both the child’s reading skills and the number of books in a home are correlated with the parents’ genes. This nuance has important implications for parenting research more broadly.” 
Complex story 
Other research on the relationship between factors such as the number of books in a home and the child’s reading proficiency has led to popular press articles presenting that these environmental factors cause children to learn better. Van Bergen: “However, the story is more complex. Just because you see a link between something in the home environment and a child’s functioning, you cannot immediately conclude cause and effect. Therefore, my research focuses on examining cause and effect after controlling for genetic confounds. This specificity can help identify which environmental targets to focus on in interventions — an important consideration for resource allocation.” 
About Elsje van Bergen 
Elsje van Bergen obtained her PhD from the University of Amsterdam, was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, and is now an Associate Professor in Biological Psychology and the Netherlands Twin Register at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Her research integrates educational, psychological, and genetic sciences to study influences on children’s educational skills. She employs data from family members, such as parents and twins, and measured DNA. 

More information
The Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences (FABBS)
Copyright photo Elsje van Bergen: Nikki Hubers