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t Duke, Moffitt is the Nannerl O. Keohane University Professor with appointments in three areas: psychology and neuroscience, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and the Center for Genomic and Computational Biology. Along with Avshalom Caspi, her husband and research partner, she has won a slew of international honors and awards for her work, including the prestigious Stockholm Prize in Criminology. Browse through her sixty-five-page curriculum vitae and you’ll get a sense of the breadth and scope of her research interests—how early-childhood adversity affects the body physiologically, why people with certain genetic predispositions do or don’t become addicts or habitual criminals, young women’s participation as perpetrators in intimatepartner violence, the correlation between heavy marijuana use in adolescence and a seemingly permanent decline in IQ. Yet Moffitt’s path from playing in the rural countryside to becoming one of the most highly cited researchers in the world (more than 35,000 times and counting) was anything but linear. As her research has shown again and again, we all are born with a distinctive genetic profile and personality traits that predispose us for better or worse trajectories. But the un-

predictable twists and turns of life push us toward (or repel us from) decisions and opportunities that shape our destiny. For Moffitt, one of those life-altering moments happened with a single step at 5,000 feet. TRAPPED IN A WHEELCHAIR In the spring of 1984, Moffitt was a graduate student in clinical psychology at the University of Southern California. Her adviser, Sarnoff Mednick, had designed and conducted a seminal longitudinal study of adopted children in Denmark that linked environmental factors to the development of schizophrenia in at-risk individuals. With nearly a dozen graduate students already using the study data to examine various aspects of schizophrenia, Mednick urged Moffitt to pursue a different focus. Her dissertation compared the role of parents’ mental health, and the extent of their criminal activity, with their offsprings’ tendency toward violence. In the weeks leading up to her dissertation defense, Moffitt and several other graduate students commiserated about the daunting prospect of the looming oral exam. “We decided to take parachute

jumping lessons,” she says, “because we reasoned that if we could overcome our fear of stepping out of an airplane, we could overcome our fear of defending our dissertations.” The jump didn’t go as planned. Moffitt broke her leg in several places and was confined to a cast that extended from her waist to her toes. Her convalescence coincided with a visit from New Zealand psychologist Phil Silva, who was overseeing his own longitudinal research study on early-childhood development. “I was trapped in a wheelchair, and I couldn’t get away from this visitor,” she says with a laugh. “We ended up spending a lot of time together, talking about longitudinal studies. The Danish adoption study I’d used for my dissertation drew on medical and criminal records, but I was interested in actually interviewing people. And since I didn’t speak Danish or Swedish, I was looking for a longitudinal study that involved children or adolescents I could interview in English and follow into young adulthood.” Silva was the founding director of an early-childhood assessment initiative involving 1,037 babies born in Dunedin, New Zealand, between 1972 and 1973. Silva’s original intent was to conduct a one-time study to gauge how those babies had flourished psychologically and

“YOU WOULD THINK THAT HAVING ALL THIS KNOWLEDGE WOULD HAVE CAUSED ME TO IMPROVE MY DIET AND GET MORE EXERCISE,

but I have to say it hasn’t.”

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Duke Alumni Magazine  

Vol. 100 No. 4

Duke Alumni Magazine  

Vol. 100 No. 4