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Reaping the awards

Psychiatry professor turns professional honors into research funding for up-and-coming colleagues

Clinical psychologist Irving I. Gottesman, Ph.D., has brought a lot to the University of Minnesota. In 1966, just six years after earning his doctorate here, he founded the University’s Behavior Genetics Training Program when the field was still young.

After a couple of decades away, he returned in 2001 with an extensive curriculum vitae listing dozens of studies on severe mental illnesses. And in 2008, Gottesman brought three prestigious awards to the University—two of his own and one for a colleague.

First Gottesman received the 2008 Alexander Gralnick Research Investigator Prize, a $20,000 award from the American Psychological Foundation (APF) in August. The award recognizes exceptional individuals who research serious mental illnesses and train the next generation of investigators.

Then in October, he received the Lieber Prize for Outstanding Achievement in Schizophrenia Research from the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD), which came with a $50,000 award.

This award also came with the opportunity to name an early-career colleague to receive NARSAD’s Sidney R. Baer Jr. Prize for Schizophrenia Research. Gottesman chose Angus W. MacDonald III, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University who’s conducting research on the genetic and neural causes of schizophrenia, for the honor and the $40,000 award.

“This was a really good year,” remarks Gottesman, who says he’d do his work for free. And that’s not just talk: He directed $18,000 of his $20,000 prize from the APF and his entire $50,000 prize from NARSAD to support severe mental illness research at the University. MacDonald also directed his award to schizophrenia research here.

A pioneer in behavior genetics, Gottesman conducted a landmark study of identical and fraternal twins in the early 1960s that identified a genetic predisposition to schizophrenia. He had found through an earlier twins study that certain personality traits, especially social introversion and aggressive tendencies, are strongly influenced by genetics.

“In addition to his amazing academic contributions to the field of medical science, Dr. Gottesman is an excellent and sought-after mentor,” says S. Charles Schulz, M.D., head of the Department of Psychiatry. “We have all benefited from the visibility of his recent awards.”

Gottesman has published several textbooks over the years and trained 36 Ph.D.s. “My influence is to help people think about genetics in addition to whatever else they were thinking about,” he says.

For instance, Gottesman is now investigating with psychiatry professor Ken Winters, Ph.D., an apparent connection between attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and alcohol dependency later in life. And with pediatric brain imaging expert Tonya White, M.D., he’s looking into why 20 to 30 percent of children with velocardiofacial syndrome (often involving cleft palate, heart defects, and other problems) eventually are diagnosed with schizophrenia or a related disorder.

“Dr. Gottesman is a tremendous mentor,” White says. “He’s very approachable and willing to teach, which is a terrific combination for someone of such international stature.”

Although he has already tried to retire once, the 78-year-old Gottesman has no plans to do so again anytime soon.

“I think while the going is good, I’m going to keep on going,” he says. “I have so many unfinished projects and ideas. I feel compelled to work away at them.”

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