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Duke University professor co-directs Dunedin Project, following people and genes of one town

There is often nothing so fascinating to people than other people.

That’s been true for Temi Moffitt all her life.

“My parents did missionary work and traveled to a lot of different countries and they were also very keen on traveling,” Temi remembers. “My dad joined the army so he could go overseas and I was born in Germany as a result, and my parents traveled all around. So, traveling was something I knew I wanted to do. My mom wanted to broaden my horizons and so that seems to have worked.”

At Randleman High School, Temi already showed both a strong interest in and aptitude for psychology.

“I read psychology books and also a lot of English literature and plays and in plays you learn about how people behave and what their motivations are,” she says. “But I had really good professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who seduced me into getting excited about the things that they were excited about and I got one of my first jobs at the National Institute of Health Science in the Research Triangle Park as a lab technician, working in a behavioral science lab with animals - an animal lab. It was getting into that lab and meeting the scientist and they encouraged me to go on to graduate school.”

Graduate school was at the University of Southern California but for the last three-and-a-half decades, she’s been part of The Dunedin Project and, from her position as a professor at Duke University, she is the program’s co-director.

The Dunedin Project is the definitive longitudinal study of humans. It has followed every baby born in the town of Dunedin, New Zealand over a year’s time in 1972/’73 over their entire lives to show not just how people age but how life influences them as they grown. In the beginning, there was something of an academic war between scientists who felt it was all about nature – the genes the children were born with – and nurture, the effects of their environment. But, over the years, there was something of a great thaw in that disagreement.

“And what happened slowly over recent years is everyone has come to accept that both nature and nurture influence how people turn out,” says Temi. “In fact, some of our most recent research is a good illustration of this because we are looking at - we have both mothers and children and our collected data on their DNA and looked at their genotypes. And what we can tell is that the mother's own genotype influences how warm of a parent she is and how consistent of a parent she is, but then the child's genotype also influences how the child will respond to the parenting so, these days, it's completely entangled and it's getting harder to tease apart nature vs. nurture.”

Their work has not only lead to great insights into how to raise children but also been cited in New Zealand Supreme Court decisions on potential death-penalty cases.

“We measured their self-control when they were little so the researchers who tested them at the time rated how much self-control the child had over themselves: do they have temper tantrums? Do they have difficulty waiting their turn? Do they get really upset and lose control when they can't get something they want right away? That kind of thing,” say Temi. “Then we waited 40 years and we looked to see how they were doing in their lives and those who had the highest self-control as a 3-years-old turned out to have the best cardio health, they had the fewest addictions, they had the most money in the bank, they were most likely to own their own homes, they were great parents to their children, doing really well with the parenting of the next generation. They had good mental health, so the long reach of early childhood self-control is something that's really important.”

See The Dunedin Project in action and Temi’s connection to Nascar royalty, in this edition of the Buckley Report.

Link to put in the story (Dunedin Project): https://moffittcaspi.trinity.duke.edu/research-topics/dunedin

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