Interview with Philipp Koellinger

19 October 2015

As per September Philipp Koellinger and his group join the Complex Trait Genetics section of the Center of Neurogenomics and Cognitive Research. Philipp Koellinger did both his Master and PhD summa cum laude in economics at the Humboldt University Berlin, Germany. He subsequently was appointed at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, and the University of Amsterdam before he moved to the VU University where his Chair is ‘Genoeconomics’. His research has been awarded with several prestigious grants, most recently with an ERC Consolidator grant.

Genes and economics? Please explain!

Similar to personality traits and many medical conditions, economic preferences and outcomes are partly heritable. It would be very useful to know the genetic variants that are behind this heritability. For example, many of the variants will also be related to health outcomes and will help us to better understand the etiology of some diseases. Also, somewhat counter-intuitively, genetic insights will help social scientists in the future to make better sense of how the environment influences human behavior and economic outcomes.

My group is currently laying the ground-work for these applications by conducting large-scale genome-wide association studies on outcomes such as well-being, risk preferences, and educational attainment.

Why are you interested in genes for educational attainment?

Educational attainment is one of the best available predictors for many social and medical outcomes. It is relevant for everyone. It is also a moderately heritable trait that is easy to measure and that can be studied in extremely large samples. This makes educational attainment the “poster child” for the type of work we are doing. Many interesting insights have already emerged from our genetic association studies on educational attainment. For example, we have learnt that educational attainment is a genetically extremely complex trait. Thousands of different genetic variants play a role, but the effect of every single variant is only tiny. Our most recent work suggests that many of the genes that are involved in educational attainment play a role in neural development, often prenatally. Also, we find clear evidence that the influence of these genes on educational attainment strongly depends on the environment and the prevalent schooling system.

Are your findings relevant for health related issues?

Yes, absolutely! For example, the genetic variants we discovered in our studies on educational attainment predict absence of dementia and neuroticism. They are also involved in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Interestingly, some of the genetic variants that have a positive effect on educational attainment seem to increase the risk for schizophrenia – an intriguing finding that warrants further investigations.

You bring two PhD students, what is their role in your team?

Yes, Fleur Meddens and Richard Karlsson Linner are both doing their PhD with me in genoeconomics. They are involved in many of the projects we are currently working on, including exciting studies on the genetics of happiness and on epigenetic effects that might paly a role in educational attainment.

What do you expect that the VU in general, and the Complex Trait Genetic group in particular have to offer you?

Coming to the VU felt a little bit like coming home after a long journey. I have already worked for many years with many of my new colleagues at the VU. We share common interests, we help each other, and we are passionate about our work. For the type of research we are doing, the CTG lab at the VU is a fantastic place to be at.