Using my degree at IBG

I am often asked whether I “use” my degree for anything. I find that a strange question. What can a degree be used for? As a credit card? To get discounts on movies? My degree, alas, hangs forlornly on the basement wall.

The degree in question, is my PhD in genetic epidemiology; the study of how genetic and environmental factors affect disease. Since moving to Boulder in 2003, I have been gainfully employed, albeit very part time, at the Institute for Behavioral Genetics (affectionately known as IBG), which is a part of the University of Colorado (affectionately known as CU, which makes no sense, it should be U of C or UC).

IBG focuses on conducting research on the genetic and environmental bases of individual differences in behavior, for example drug abuse and conduct disorder and various related topics. Truly, that is simplifying things, though. There is so much going on at IBG, and so many employees, one cannot keep track of all the projects without carefully perusing the IBG website. At the yearly holiday party, I walk around searching for familiar faces from my department in the sea of people I hardly recognize.

Working at IBG has been fascinating. When I started, I had no background in behavioral genetics. Mostly, I had no knowledge of the “behavioral” part of behavioral genetics. I sat in meetings with a blank look on my face as acronyms for studies were tossed around, various disorders were discussed and people consulted on unfamiliar methodologies. Eventually, I learned the vernacular and no longer felt like a stranger.

Over the years, I have been amazed at the rapid advancement in the field of genetics. Technology is moving so quickly, data is gathering at such a rapid speed and in such copious amounts, the ability to analyze and store the data has lagged behind. It is mind boggling how much computer space is needed and how large the new super computers will be to handle this load.

My work specifically focuses on alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use in adolescents and young adults.  I have studied how various things affect whether an individual will become a user or abuser of a certain drug. Publish or perish is the mantra of academia, and I have been fortunate to author several papers that have been accepted to reputable journals.

My current project melds my two worlds. I am looking at how exercise affects drug use. We have a very unique situation in which we have information on a lot of individuals over a 10 year period, allowing us to follow changes in behavior over time.

Paradoxes abound at IBG. The world of academia is stimulating, but, things also can move at a sloth-like pace. At IBG, we are on the cutting edge of the field, but at meetings we sit on chairs from the 1970’s that have no cushioning left on them.

Women have historically been woefully under-represented in science. Not at IBG. Walk into any meeting or any building, and women will often comprise 50% of those present.

While I thoroughly enjoy my work at IBG, it can be a tough balancing act that requires creativity. I have been known to change for work in the parking lot after a workout and I often dash into a meeting barely on time with my breakfast in one hand and coffee in the other.

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5 Responses

  1. Kat says:

    Thanks for sharing! I'm currently getting my Ph.D. in clinical and developmental psychology at Pitt working on several longitudinal studies of adolescent substance abuse (I work with Brooke Molina and John Donovan*). I'm specifically interested in peer socialization influences. I'm also an ultrarunner (a member of PowerBar Team Elite with you and so many other incredible athletes) so I can appreciate the difficulty of juggling academic work with training. It is great to have you as a role model for upcoming women athlete/scientists!

    *John was at Boulder working with the Jessors on problem behavior theory before you were there

  2. Christi says:

    Congratulations and thanks for being such a great role model for the balancing act that is life!

  3. Lara says:

    So THAT's what you do.
    Now that I understand it, can I call you "Dr. Zeiger"? You can call me "Esquire."

  4. Joanna Zeiger says:


    Thanks for your comment. Ironically, the Jessors developed the questionnaire we are using for our current analysis!

    Good luck.


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