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International Conference 2024 - Keynote Speaker: Dr Elsje van Bergen

Thursday 12 October 2023

Dr Elsje van Bergen is Associate Professor in biological psychology and educational genetics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She has a PhD in educational sciences from the University of Amsterdam, and has previously held postdoctoral research fellowships in developmental psychology at the University of Oxford.

Children differ in how easily they learn at school. Dr Elsje van Bergen studies the causes and consequences of those individual differences in learning. To study educational achievement and difficulties, she integrates theories and methods from psychology, education, and genetics. For example, she studies the causal effects between reading skills and reading enjoyment. In general, she studies the complex interplay between genetic predispositions and environmental experiences on educational outcomes. This interplay is especially important in intergenerational transmission, so the question why learning difficulties tend to run in families.

She has received numerous prestigious personal grants, including the Rubicon, VENI, and VIDI from the Dutch Research Council (NWO) and the ERC Starting Grant from the European Research Council. Honours include awards from the Society for the Scientific Study of Reading, the Association for Psychological Science, and the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences. Dr Elsje van Bergen is a fellow of the Amsterdam Young Academy and of the (Swiss) Jacobs Foundation.

Q & A with Dr Elsje van Bergen, Associate Professor...

What do you love about being a researcher/educator?

As a scientist, I'm passionate about unravelling the mysteries of individual differences in learning. What excites me the most is the opportunity to bridge the gap between genetics and education, exploring how genetic predispositions and environmental experiences together shape crucial skills like reading and math. What drives my passion for science is the academic freedom, mentoring of talented researchers, the thrill of discovery, and the potential to make a meaningful impact on science and education.

What are you working on right now?

Parents do not only provide their children with the home environment, but also with the genes. So if we want to discover why dyslexia and dyscalculia runs in families, and how the home environment truly impacts learning, we need to study both children’s home environment and their genetic predispositions. I’m intrigued by how children’s environmental experiences and genetic predispositions are braided together. To try to solve the puzzle, we conduct large-scale studies with data on family members. For some studies, we also measure people’s DNA.

Why is it important and what impact do you hope it will have?

I challenge assumptions about the direct link between the home environment and children's outcomes by emphasising the need to consider genetic influences. We aim to pinpoint the specific elements within the home environment that genuinely affect children's learning. By doing so, we provide tools for researchers to better estimate the environment's direct impact, controlling for genetic factors. Ultimately, my work aims to improve educational practices by avoiding unfounded parent blame and promoting systems that cater to every child's unique needs.

Where can I find out more?

For more information about my research, you can visit my website: Academics may want to check out my latest publications on Google Scholar.

What other historic or current research are you particularly interested in and why?

I am particularly intrigued by the exciting advancements in polygenic scoring. Polygenic scoring, which involves analysing millions of genetic markers to assess an individual's genetic predisposition to various traits, including educational outcomes, has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of how genetics and the environment shape learning. We know that correlation does not imply causation. Polygenic scoring represents a promising frontier in educational genetics that helps us study cause and effect.

What do you hope will be researched in the future?

I hope to see more researchers embracing interdisciplinary approaches that bridge the fields of genetics and developmental science when studying the environment's impact on children's outcomes. Building upon our position paper, it's crucial that researchers take genetics into account to avoid drawing erroneous conclusions regarding causation. As we move forward, it would be promising to witness the widespread adoption of methods outlined in our paper, such as the Familial Control Method, to mitigate the influence of genetic confounding. However, until then, I’m on a mission to ensure that developmental scientists acknowledge genetic confound as a limitation and exercise caution in making environmental causal statements, as this could inadvertently lead to unwarranted parental blame. Article: Nurture might be nature: cautionary tales and proposed solutions

If you could recommend one book or article to a member of the public interested in dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties, it would be:

I’d recommend a blog post by Professor Dorothy Bishop, my mentor at Oxford. The blog is called Parent talk and child language, and challenges the idea that limited parental language input directly causes child language problems. She urges readers to consider multiple causal models, including the influence of genetics on language development, and emphasises the need for comprehensive research to identify effective interventions for children at genetic risk. Blog: Parent talk and child language

Tell us something interesting!

During my academic journey, I had the wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in the UK. I lived in Aberdeen and York for 8 months during my studies, and later, after completing my PhD, I spent 2.5 years in Oxford. The UK holds a special place in my heart and feels like a second home to me.

Outside of academia, I have a passion for acrobatics, yoga, and pole sport. These physical activities provide a welcome balance to the intellectual challenges of academia. Being upside down finally stops my brain from thinking about work! On a personal note, my husband and I are proud parents of two young children. They remind me daily of the importance of the work we do, as does the British Dyslexia Association community, to ensure that all children have the opportunity to learn and thrive.