Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler of VCU photographed Mon. Oct. 5, 2015.

Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler has spent a career trying to unravel mysteries of the mind — work that has earned him international recognition.

Why does debilitating depression strike some people and not others? Why is it so hard to stop addictive behaviors such as smoking or abusing illicit drugs? Why do some people descend into the world of hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenia?

Kendler is a professor of both psychiatry and human genetics at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, and he is also director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at VCU.

This year, he and research collaborators in the United Kingdom and China reported a major discovery — finding, after exhaustive study, two genes that may be linked to major depression.

“They are potential links to the biology of the disorder that can then lead us to understand the disorder at a biological level, which we’ve never been able to do,” Kendler said of the findings, which were reported in July in Nature, a peer-reviewed journal with international reach.

The work was important because of what it found and how the study was done. The researchers used genome-wide association studies, a research method that involves getting genetic samples from — in this case — thousands of people and comparing them to look for genetic variants associated with a particular trait.

Kendler crisscrossed the globe for the study, racking up enough frequent flier miles for premier status. Work to plan the study began six to seven years ago; at VCU, about a half-dozen other researchers were involved.

Kendler was named by the state as one of Virginia’s top scientists in 2012, and the award noted his “international recognition” and his decades of work studying twins to understand how genes and the environment contribute to the risk of mental illness.

He has been at VCU since 1983 and holds an endowed position, the Rachel Brown Banks Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry.


Role model

Charles Darwin. Through thoughtful investigations, he discovered a deep truth about the way our world works and then patiently collected data over decades to convince others of the truth of his claims. He was a good and loyal colleague and a devoted and loving father and husband — which is often not true of great scientists.

Favorite book

Shakespeare, without a doubt. His plays are endlessly fascinating and so full of wisdom about the human condition in both its comic and tragic dimensions.

Something that might surprise others

I played washboard in a jug band in high school with my closest friends, all of whom I am still in touch with.

Something you’d like to do

Travel in space.

Alternate profession or course of study

I have two major intellectual interests outside of my work: study of the Hebrew bible and associated history, and the study of Shakespeare — his plays and their historical context. A forced choice? Probably a religious studies scholar.

A small moment in life with a big impact

I was just a few years out from my psychiatry training, a young and inexperienced researcher. I was running a neurochemistry laboratory trying to understand the chemical basis of schizophrenia. I was feeling frustrated. We did not have the right tools, and I was increasingly skeptical that our simple theories that we were trying to test were even remotely true. I was going through the mail early one evening and was just about to throw out a flier from a nearby college when I noticed it announced an evening class in “behavior genetics.” I had been doing a bit of genetics research on the side but did not really know much about the subject. With the OK from my wife (we had two little kids then), I signed up for the class. It was life-changing. It opened up for me the elegant and powerful world of statistical and molecular genetics as applied to behavioral and especially psychiatric traits. I have been having a prolonged intellectual love affair with the field ever since.

Proudest accomplishment

To have been able to develop, with lots of help from others, the Virginia Institute of Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics. We have a thriving institute with a talented and hardworking faculty with lots of pre- and post-doctoral students contributing in many important ways to understanding the etiology of psychiatric and drug abuse disorders. I could not have done this without key support from my chairman, Dr. Joel Silverman; my dean, Dr. Jerry Strauss; and a range of key colleagues at the institute, especially Drs. Michael Neale and Brien Riley.

Favorite thing about Richmond region

We live in the Fan etiology a wonderful walkable neighborhood. I bike to work every day. Richmond is just the right size. Plenty of good art, theater, music and restaurants, plus the excitement of being a university town. But it is not overwhelming. The pace of life is slow, people are usually polite and friendly. We have lots of easily accessible green space not too far away for walking and hiking.


Position: professor, director of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics at Virginia Commonwealth University

Born/hometown: July 12, 1950; New York City

College: University of California at Santa Cruz (bachelor's degree), Stanford University School of Medicine (medical degree), Yale University (residency and fellowship), University of Birmingham, England

Family: wife Susan Miller, three children

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