Genes in Behaviour and Health: Research Master

Exploring gene-environment interplay across our lifespan

Genes in Behaviour and Health: Research Master

While the 20th century was the century of physics, we have now entered the century of the genome. Twin studies and more recently molecular genetic studies have highlighted the influence of our genetic code on our behaviour and health. To adequately understand and influence behaviour and health, we need to increase our understanding of the way our genes play their part, by itself and in interaction with our environment.

The research master Genes in Behaviour and Health is a two-year full time programme that will equip you with the knowledge and understanding of the relevant research methods to design and carry out high-quality research within the field of behaviour genetics and genetic epidemiology. In choosing this research master you will take the first steps to become part of a new generation of talented researchers capable of contributing to the rapid spread of omics from curative medicine to wider applications in the behavioural and health sciences involving prevention and care.

Opting for the research master’s programme brings you into an inspiring research environment. The Department of Biological Psychology is famous for its Netherlands Twin Register, an unique data repository, containing genetic and environmental information for more than 50,000 twin families, who are followed longitudinally. You will be taught by expert staff members and by researchers from other institutes worldwide regularly visit to give lectures and workshops.

Overview Genes in Behaviour and Health: Research Master

LANGUAGE OF INSTRUCTION

English

DURATION

2 years

TUITION FEE

APPLICATION DEADLINE

1 June for Dutch students. For International students who apply after April 1 Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam can not guarantee that accommodation will be available for them.

START DATE

1 September

STUDY TYPE

Full-time

FIELD OF INTEREST

Behavioural and Social Sciences
Health and Movement

The research master Genes in Behaviour and Health takes two years to complete and consists of eleven courses and two internships. Read an overview of the programme. Below you will find a brief description of the courses per year.

More information will be available Spring 2018. Should you need more information, please contact the administration: rm.gbh.fgb@vu.nl.

Introduction to omics
Lecturers: Dr. Hamdi Mbarek, dr. Rene Pool
Students are provided with basic background knowledge on the organization and transcriptional regulation of the human genome, and how this forms the cornerstone of the biological pathways that influence behaviour and health. Key techniques in molecular genetics are reviewed.

Gene finding: GWA studies and their follow-up
Lecturer: Dr. Jouke-Jan Hottenga
Students learn the basic computational skills needed to conduct gene finding studies, using the latest techniques applied. They will gain hands-on experience finding genes for psychological traits and learn how to evaluate the importance of their genetic findings using techniques such as GCTA, LD regression, and the application of meta-analyses across multiple gene finding studies.

Behavioural Genetics
Lecturers: Prof. dr. Conor Dolan, Dr. Camelia Minica, Dr. Lannie Ligthart
Focusing on classical twin studies as well as extended pedigree analyses, students learn to formulate structural equation models in R and OpenMx to investigate the heritability of traits within the area of psychology, behaviour and health and test gene x environment interactions. Input for the analyses will be generated from datasets that have been or are used within the Netherlands Twin Register, providing real-life examples of the route from data to publication.

Epigenomics and Sequencing in Behaviour and Health
Lecturers: Prof. dr. Dorret Boomsma, Dr. Jenny van Dongen
Though our genetic material make be fixed at base, the expression of our genes is subject to outside influences. This course builds further on the base provided in period 1 and teaches students how to analyse a specific form of gene expression regulation: epigenetics. Epigenetic analyses based on methylation marks will be conducted using actual data from the Netherlands Twin Register.

Imaging and Cardiovascular Genetics
Lecturers: Dr. Dennis van ’t Ent, Prof. Dr . Eco de Geus
To understand the pathway from genes to health, endophenotypes may play an important role. Here two important phenotypes are highlighted, brain function and autonomic nervous system function and the way these are influenced by genetics. Students learn how to assess variation in brain and autonomic functioning by experimental techniques like MRI, ECG and impedance cardiography. They get hands-on experience in (1) using the VU-AMS monitor to collect data and analyse the involvement of specific genes in cardiovascular function using data collected in twin-families, (2) analysing fMRI data sets collected in the context of imaging genetics studies.

Elective1
In addition to these courses, you choose one elective course to extend your study to a specific areas of interest. You may want to focus on psychiatry, clinical psychology, neurodevelopment, brain imaging, or personalised medicine. The course may be one provided within the faculty itself, but may also be chosen from programmes at another faculty at the VU or at another university.

Internship I
The knowledge and experimental and data-analytical skills you obtained in the first year will be applied at the end of the year in a first internship in which you engage in a research project.

Exposome and gene-environment interaction
Lecturers: Prof. dr. Meike Bartels, dr. Michel Nivard
In this course students learn how to use large population-based information databases (e.g. neighbourhood characteristics, electronic patient files, cancer registration), in the study of human genetics. Combining information available from publicly shared databases may generate new testable hypotheses, but also presents computational challenges (e.g. record linkage with careful attention to privacy / de-identification steps).

Complex trait genetics
Lecturers: Prof. dr. Dorret Boomsma, Dr. Jenny van Dongen
In this course the focus is on the theoretical foundation of biometrical and quantitative genetics and the insights needed to understand genetic findings from empirical studies. Our genetic make-up has evolved over thousands of years, leading to large and small individual differences within and between populations. The implications of such genetic variation is discussed.

Personalised medicine in mental and physical health
Lecturers: Dr. Gonneke Willemsen, Dr. Eveline de Zeeuw
It is now clear that genes and environment each play a role in our mental and physical health. In this course the latest research on psychiatric genetics and the implications of genetic findings for stress research are presented. A particular topic is how the interplay of genes and environment may be taken into account in personalised medicine.

Grant writing and science communication
Lecturers: Prof. dr. Eco de Geus, Dr. Elsje van Bergen
Grant writing has become an essential aspect of academic life. To be able to write a successful grant one needs a good overview of the studies to date on the topic, to identify the gaps in our knowledge that need to be filled and of course write a good grant proposal. Successful applicants will share their knowledge and will help students write their own grant proposal. Essential in a grant proposal is also the societal importance and impact. This requires a desirable trait in any research master: good communication of science results, not only to colleagues but also to the general public. The second part of this course therefore focuses on science communication via newspaper articles, websites and social media.

Elective 2
As in year 1, again you choose one elective course to in addition to the above courses to extend your knowledge in a specific area of interest.

Internship II
In a second internship, encompassing period 4 to period 6 of the second year, you will independently conduct a research project, often in an external (inter)national research setting. This internship will be completed by the writing of a Master thesis, according to the submission criteria of a peer-reviewed journal relevant to the topic.

The rapid growth of genetic knowledge and research has led to a great demand for people with the knowledge and skill to link genetics to human behaviour and wellbeing. Young researchers with knowledge on behavioural sciences, statistics, genetic epidemiology, statistical genetics and omics are very much needed in the growing and promising field of genetics. This results in excellent career perspectives. Most graduates from the Research Master Genes in Behaviour and Health will continue to pursue a career in science and undertake a PhD at a university, either in the Netherlands or abroad. Others might get employed as a researcher at a national or international applied research institute. The RM program provides the upcoming academic researcher with the theoretical basis, methodological proficiency and research practice needed to pursue an academic research career. Outside academia, jobs may be found in biotechnology oriented top sectors focused on health or medical technology where graduates can work as consultants, researchers or big data analysists.
Unique study program
The research master Genes in Behaviour and Health is unique in the Netherlands and one of the few programmes worldwide to offer such as comprehensive master program in behaviour genetics, taught by internationally known experts who are active researches themselves. Teaching takes place in small groups, providing ample opportunities for interaction with the staff.

Active research environment
The teaching staff regularly publishes in leading international journals, and are actively involved in large international collaborations. Student internships are often an integral part of active academic projects and frequently contribute to a publication.

International orientation
All courses are taught in English and the programme aims to prepare students for an international (academic) career. Teaching staff is strongly internationally orientated and the Department regularly welcomes researchers from around the world who provide lectures and workshops, which can be attended by students. Students are encouraged to take one of their internships abroad.

Meet the Staff

Bartels

Biography: I am a University Research Chair Professor in Genetics and Well-being at the Department of Biological Psychology & Netherlands Twin Register, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Over the course of my PhD, I increasingly realized that the majority of individuals remain free of psychopathology throughout their life. Ever since I broadened focus and became interested in well-being. I conduct and supervise several research projects to gain insight into the underlying sources of variation on well-being and the overlap with mental illness. I envision that with a focus on positive aspects the public health system will be broadened, so that the aim will no longer be to only help to heal the ill but also to increase overall happiness. 

Course: Exposome and Gene-Environment Interaction

Bergen

Biography: I obtained my PhD in Educational Sciences (University of Amsterdam, 2013) and then moved to the UK as a Rubicon Postdoctoral Researcher in Developmental Psychology, University of Oxford (2012-2015). In 2015 I returned to the Netherlands to take up a position as Assistant Professor in Biological Psychology at the VU Amsterdam, funded by a Veni Fellowship. My research lies at the interface of psychology, education, and genetics. I study individual differences in children’s cognitive development. I am particularly interested in the interplay of genetic and environmental factors that influence reading ability.

Course: Grant Writing and Science Communication

Boomsma

Biography: I trained in psychology and behaviour genetics, I did a PhD towards the genetics of cardiovascular risk factors at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and now am a full professor in Behaviour Genetics at the department of Biological Psychology. I established the Netherlands Twin Register, which over the past 30 years recruited over 75,000 twins and well over 100,000 of their family members, forming the basis for genetic studies of complex traits. My research interests are the causes of individual differences in complex human traits, quantitative genetics and twinning.

Course: Complex Trait Genetics & Epigenomics and Sequencing in Behaviour and Health

Dolan

Biography: I studied developmental psychology and psychological methods and during my PhD project at the University of Amsterdam I studied behaviour genetics and acquired a strong interest in the intersection of quantitative genetics, psychometrics and statistical modelling. I now am a full professor in Genetic Multivariate Modelling at the department of Biological Psychology and my current research interests include the modelling of GxE interaction and G-E correlation.      

Course: Behavioural Genetics

Dongen

Biography: I have a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in neurosciences. I obtained my PhD in 2015 at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam on my thesis entitled “(Epi) genetics and twins”. My research interests are how the interplay between the genome, epigenome (DNA methylation), and environment gives rise to variation in complex traits (currently focusing on aggressive behaviour).

Course: Complex Trait Genetics & Epigenomics and Sequencing in Behaviour and Health

Ent

Biography: I studied physics at the University of Amsterdam and obtained my PhD, on event related brain activity recorded with EEG, at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. Currently I work as an assistant professor at the department of Biological Psychology at the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. My interest is in exploring individual differences in brain structure and function and how these differences relate to individual variation in cognitive and psychological traits. To this end I collect and analyze neuroimaging data, mainly MRI, in genetically informative samples of monozygotic and dizygotic twins and additional family members.

Course: Imaging and Cardiovascular Genetics

 

Geus

Biography: I finished my Master in Human Movement Sciences in 1987 and my PhD at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in Psychophysiology in ’92, became full professor at Biological Psychology in 2002. Since January 2017 I am head of the department.The leitmotiv of my research is the psychophysiological study of individual differences in behaviour and health. Controlled experiments and genetic epidemiological strategies are used to test contribution of genes, stress and regular exercise to cardiovascular health and mental health.

Course: Imaging and Cardiovascular Genetics + Grant Writing and Science Communication

Hammerschlag

Biography: I have a background in Neurosciences and the focus of my PhD at the department of Complex Traits Genetics (CNCR) of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam was on the genetics of psychiatric traits. I am especially interested in integrating genetic data with other types of biological data. This will help us to place identified genes for diseases and traits in a biological context, with the aim of understanding the underlying biological mechanisms.

Course: Gene Finding: GWA Studies and their Follow-up

Hottenga

Biography: I obtained my PhD in the field of genetic epidemiology and human genetics from the Leiden University. My background is molecular genetics and statistical genetics, with a high affinity for data management and IT. My expertise includes GWAS studies, genetic linkage, genotype imputation, validation of used statistical methods and genotype quality control. My main research focus is identifying genes that are involved in complex traits. As such, I have participated within large consortia to identify genes for a range of traits going from eye colour to major depression, which resulted in publication of these results in more than 200 research papers in high impact journals. In addition, I  work on the automation and speeding up the process of genetic data cleaning, and better integration of these data across several genotyping platforms.

Course: Gene Finding: GWA Studies and their Follow-up

Mbarek

Biography: I am a molecular geneticist and I obtained my PhD in cellular and molecular biology at the Evry University Paris. My research interests concern genetic and epidemiological analyses of fertility related traits and reproductive disorders. My areas of expertise at the department of Biological Psychology are the use of bioinformatics skills to analyse high-throughput genomic data and the molecular and cellular knowledge to study the relationships between behaviour, lifestyle, traits, diseases and genetics. I am interested in the genetics of twinning as a measure of fertility.

Course: Introduction to Omics

Minica

Biography: I specialised in Psychological Research Methods (major) and Brain and Cognition (minor) at the University of Amsterdam (Research Master Psychology). For my PhD degree which I obtained at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, I worked on refining methods for efficient analysis of clustered/family data in genome-wide association studies, with applications to addiction phenotypes. Currently, I am a postdoctoral researcher and my research focuses on developing new methods for testing causal hypotheses using genetic instruments in epidemiological studies.

Course: Behavioural Genetics

Nivard

Biography: I trained in statistics at the University of Amsterdam and obtained a PhD in the developmental genetics of psychopathology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. I now am a post-doc specialized in statistical genetics at the department of Biological Psychology. I focus on methods development and genetic epidemiology, particularly on understanding causal relations based on the integration of observational health data and genetic information.

Course: Exposome and Gene-Environment Interaction

Pool

Biography: I have a background in medicinal chemistry (VU). I received my PhD at the University of Amsterdam in the field of Computational Physics & Chemistry. Since 2012 I work as assistant professor at the department of Biological Psychology. Here I work on the metabolomics data sets collected by the Netherlands Twin Register (NTR). These data comprise hundreds of metabolic variables measured in over 6000 NTR subjects. Biologically, the metabolome can be viewed as an intermediate level in the framework starting at the genome and ending at biological function, e.g. behaviour. Metabolomics can therefore be utilized to gain detailed insights in biological (dis)function. The field of metabolomics nicely brings together my interests in (bio)chemistry, in systems biology and in analyses of multi-dimensional data.

Course: Introduction to omics

Willemsen

Biography: After my Master in Psychology at the VU with a specialisation in psychophysiology, I obtained my PhD at the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Birmingham, UK on cardiovascular and immunological responses to stress. From 2000 onwards I work at the Department of Biological Psychology, where I have been involved in the collection of some 10,000 blood samples in NTR participants to find genes involved in health and behaviour. As of 2018 I am appointed as a professor with research and teaching interests directed towards the many ways in which genes and environment interactions shape our behaviour and health, with a particular focus on stress and social factors. In addition to teaching on the Research Master, I am also the Programme Director.

Course: Personalised Medicine in Mental and Physical Health

Zeeuw

Biography: I have a background in cognitive psychology and human movement sciences and for my PhD thesis obtained at the department of Biological Psychology (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) I focused on the genetics of educational achievement. I now am an assistant professor and involved in a consortium that tries to answer the question ‘Why some children thrive and others don’t’. My research interest is the link between educational achievement and psychopathology and the effect of the (school) environment on these traits. I try to gain more insight in these complex relationships using genetically informative designs.

Course: Personalised Medicine in Mental and Physical Health

Dutch students

We are looking for highly motivated students with an interest in the application of genetics in the behavioural or health sciences, with sufficient background in statistics, biology and psychology.

The general requirements for admission to the Research Master's programme are:

  • A relevant Bachelor's degree in Psychology, Health Sciences, Biomedical Sciences, Bioinformatics, Educational Science or a closely related subject area
  • An active interest in research as demonstrated in research oriented courses, internships and/or thesis
  • Good average grades. Your average grade for your academic bachelor's is 7.5 or higher (or the international equivalent, e.g. a B+ or a GPA of 3.3). In its assessment, the admission board focuses at the grades obtained for courses on statistics, research methods, courses related to more biologically orientated courses (biological psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, genetics) and thesis.
  • Highly motivated as demonstrated by motivation letter.
  • Strong interest in and aptitude for research, demonstrated during your Bachelor’s.
  • Proficiency in English. English language skills for those who did not follow earlier English-language education will need to be demonstrated, as reaching an IELTS score of 6.5, TOEFL paper-based test score of 580, a TOEFL Internet-based test score of 92-93 or Cambridge Advanced English classification of A , B or C.
The Admission Board of the research master will base its decision on the overall picture presented by the student. Exceptions with regards to the course grade requirement are possible, in case of ancillary activities which demonstrate a great motivation for this master programme.

In case the Board decides positively on your application, you will receive an official admission letter and the central student administration will accordingly update your status in Studielink. In case of a negative decision, you will receive an email message in which this decision is explained.

See also the application and admission procedure for Dutch students


Contact
General information: studiekeuze.fgb@vu.nl

Information on study related issues as courses, study programme and study choice:
Study advisor: studieadvies.fgb@vu.nl

Information days
4 December: VU Master's Evening

Graduate School Faculty of Behavioural and Human Movement Sciences
Read more about objectives and activities of the School and PhD training track, the PhD Education Committee (PEC) and the organization of the Graduate School.

International students

We are looking for highly motivated students with an interest in the application of genetics in the behavioural or health sciences, with sufficient background in statistics, biology and psychology.

The general requirements for admission to the Research Master's programme are:
  • A relevant Bachelor's degree in Psychology, Health Sciences, Biomedical Sciences, Bioinformatics, Educational Science or a closely related subject area
  • An active interest in research as demonstrated in research oriented courses, internships and/or thesis
  • Good average grades. Your average grade for your academic bachelor's is 7.5 or higher (or the international equivalent, e.g. a B+ or a GPA of 3.3). In its assessment, the admission board focuses at the grades obtained for courses on statistics, research methods, courses related to more biologically orientated courses (biological psychology, neuropsychology, neuroscience, genetics) and thesis.
  • Highly motivated as demonstrated by motivation letter.
  • Strong interest in and aptitude for research, demonstrated during your Bachelor’s.
  • Proficiency in English. English language skills for those who did not follow earlier English-language education will need to be demonstrated, as reaching an IELTS score of 6.5, TOEFL paper-based test score of 580, a TOEFL Internet-based test score of 92-93 or Cambridge Advanced English classification of A , B or C.
The Admission Board of the research master will base its decision on the overall picture presented by the student. Exceptions with regards to the course grade requirement are possible, in case of ancillary activities which demonstrate a great motivation for this programme. In case the Board decides positively on your application, you will receive an official admission letter and the central student administration will accordingly update your status in Studielink. In case of a negative decision, you will receive an email message in which this decision is explained.

See also the application and admission procedure for international students

Information on practical matters (application & registration procedure, admission requirements, scholarships, etc.):
Floris Korbee
International student advisor: admissionsfbms@vu.nl

Information on study related issues as courses, study programme and study choice:
Study advisor: studieadvies.fgb@vu.nl

Information Days

Graduate SchoolFaculty of Behavioural and Human Movement Sciences
Read more about objectives and activities of the School and PhD training track, the PhD Education Committee (PEC) and the organization of the Graduate School.