Jason Boardman’s research focuses on the social determinants of health with an emphasis on the gene-environment interactions related to health behaviors. He teaches undergraduate and graduate-level courses in statistics, social demography, and the sociology of race and ethnicity.
Nature or Nurture
During the past two decades we have witnessed incredible progress in our collective scientific efforts to understand the human genome and how genes contribute to traits like height, physical health, and mental health. The original work in this area approached this question from a “nature OR nurture” perspective. But it is increasingly clear that most phenomena are best described as “nature AND nurture.” That is, to consider the role of genes in predicting health behaviors such as smoking, without considering the physical, social, and historical context in which smoking behaviors take place, only captures a limited part of the story.
Work in this area uses the expression “G x E” in which G is gene and E is environment and the “by” suggests that genes and environments interact with one another. For example, some have shown that individuals with a specific genotype are particularly sensitive to the effects of stressful life events (as evidenced by increased risk of depression) while those with a different genotype barely respond to these environmental stressors. Many use the language of orchids and dandelions to differentiate these two groups in which orchids only thrive in a very particular environment but dandelions pretty much look the same regardless of how much sunlight or water they receive.
My work uses this framework but focuses on the social and cultural environments in which one interacts with others as a determinant of genetic influence. For example, we’ve shown the genetic tendencies to become a regular smoker are triggered among adolescents who attend schools in which the most popular students also smoke the most. Genes are important but they also require this environmental trigger to have a meaningful influence on the risk of smoking. Again, as with most phenomena, this is Nature AND Nurture. My research stresses the need to consider the broad social environment (e.g., schools, neighborhoods, state of residence) as critical components of the environment.