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Feature

Matthew McGue

New regents professor Matt McGue is one of the world's foremost researchers in the fields of behavioral and epidemiological genetics.

Getting at the root of human behavior

New regents professor Matthew McGue is interested in why and how we differ

By Pauline Oo

July 10, 2007

Matthew McGue wanted to become a high school math teacher, but in college he took a psychology class and soon became enamored with the topic of individual differences. Today, McGue, one of five newly named regents professors--the University of Minnesota's highest faculty rank--is among the world's leading behavioral geneticists. He is known for, among other things, his longitudinal studies on twins and adopted children that focus on adolescent substance abuse and aging.

"How people change and why they change is just a fascinating question, especially the transition from adolescence to early adulthood," says McGue, who joined the Department of Psychology faculty in 1985. "You're getting individuals as they leave their homes and they're setting their own life course, and [you get to see] how they navigate that and what's the impact of their previous life on the choices that they make."

The California-born McGue received a doctorate from the U in 1981. He cofounded and codirects the Minnesota Twin Family Study and the Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study, both longitudinal studies following twins, non-twin siblings, and adoptees from preadolescence into adulthood. Combined, the projects include some 2,500 families--or 10,000 participants--who visit the U's psychology labs every three years for comprehensive daylong assessments.

McGue has shown that the origins of many cases of adult substance abuse can be traced to childhood. Specifically, children who experiment with tobacco, alcohol, or other substances or who are sexually active at an early age are at extremely high risk for developing serious antisocial, drug, and alcohol problems and nicotine addiction by the time they reach their early 20s.

"It's not just genetics that underlie alcoholism," says McGue. "It's a set of experiences that may be very difficult to ever fully understand. We're never going to be able to talk to a 40-year-old alcoholic and understand how he really came to be alcoholic. He'll have forgotten key experiences along the way. His drinking would perhaps bias his recall of events ... you really have to see people as they change over time to try to understand why they change."

Another element of his work reveals that siblings are likely to be more important than parents in affecting adolescent substance behavior and delinquency.

"Let's say you have a 12-year-old girl, a 15-year-old, and a parent," says McGue. "Psychology would tell you that the 12-year-old is trying to be like her middle-aged mother, but really, who she's trying to model is her 15-year-old sister. Parents are important when you talk about achievement. But they are less important than we thought when you're talking about rule breaking. Siblings may be a more potent force within a family."

The other end of the life spectrum

McGue has played a pivotal role in launching several landmark longitudinal studies on late-life development with his Danish colleagues. Twice a year, the father of two adopted children hops on a plane for Denmark, where he spends anywhere from two weeks to a month. In a twin study there, the researchers are trying to determine if a person's experiences and environment in middle age influence how they function at age 70, 80, and 90.

Five new regents professors

Five faculty members were named regents professors on June 8, 2007.

Frank Bates, chemical engineering and materials science, Institute of Technology

Richard Leppert, cultural studies and comparative literature, College of Liberal Arts

Elaine Tyler May, American studies and history, College of Liberal Arts

Matt McGue, psychology, College of Liberal Arts

Peter Reich, forest resources, College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences

Their appointments bring the total number of regents professors to 25, en route to 30 by 2010. Currently, each receives a salary stipend of $20,000 per year and an additional $30,000 research stipend. See the news release on their selection for more information.

"Aging is not a sexy topic for people," he says. "It's too bad. More people really should go into [this area of study] because there is a real shift in the population structure, and understanding the implications of that shift, and in some cases, trying to intervene--keeping people productive for longer periods of time and happy--I think are very important questions."

Speaking of aging, the 55-year-old McGue, who served as psychology department chair from 1999 to 2001, quips that he might not be around to see the end of the Danish study on middle-aged twins.

Ah, a down side of longitudinal studies. Or, maybe not, depending on whom you ask.

"Science is cumulative, and the contribution of any one person, at best, is going to be small compared to the overall progression of knowledge in the sciences," says McGue. "But your hope is that you make a contribution that other people will pick up and build on. Fifty years from now, nobody will talk about any of us here, but they might be working in the areas that we helped contribute to."

Of teaching and students

In the classroom, McGue's contributions are equally commendable. His course in behavioral genetics is among the highest rated in the psychology department, and his statistical analysis of twin, family, and longitudinal data is considered the primary vehicle for graduate students to learn these methods.

"His classes were extremely well organized and thorough in content. He always challenged us to consider research issues from new perspectives and asked us very penetrating questions," says former student Yoon-Mi Hur, who founded a nationwide twin registry in his South Korean homeland. "By his own example, Professor McGue taught me the value of helping others and the importance of commitment."

If McGue had become the high school math teacher he'd dreamed about becoming, instead of a behavioral geneticist at one of the world's foremost hubs of twin research, would he have raked up as many accolades as he has? Probably. According to McGue, we have both our genes and family environment to thank for our ability and achievement.

When asked to name the best part about his job, McGue replies:

"It's the energy of the students every fall and those families [of new students who visit the campus in August] that is actually the most enjoyable part of what I do. People outside universities don't know what a benefit those things are."