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Personality: Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler

Spotlight on winner of National Academy of Medicine prize

10/30/2015, 7:54 p.m.
Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler says three things “get me up in the morning to come in to work.” “The first ...

Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler says three things “get me up in the morning to come in to work.”

“The first is my intense curiosity about how the mind and brain of human beings work,” says the director at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.

“The second,” The Fan resident adds, “is to try to help us understand, prevent and treat psychiatric and drug use disorders.”

Next, he continues, “As a scientist, we really work for the approval of our colleagues. Science is a funny, self-governing enterprise. We review each other’s papers. We review each other’s grants. Each of us are putting little bricks in the walls that represent the advances of science.”

Dr. Kendler was recognized Oct. 19 for his trailblazing work when the National Academy of Medicine awarded him the Rhoda and Bernard Sarnat International Prize in Mental Health at the academy’s annual meeting in Washington. He was cited for “his research on the role of genes and environment in the development of psychiatric and substance disorders.”

Dr. Kendler shared the award with Kay Jamison, a professor of mood disorders at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“Dr. Jamison and Dr. Kendler have each made tremendous contributions to the field of mental health by increasing our understanding of the nature of mental illness and by reducing the stigma attached to it,” said Dr. Victor Dzau, president of the National Academy of Medicine.

Dr. Kendler says Dr. Dzau notified him of the award in September.

He says “a well-known scientist” asked if he could nominate him for the award.

The VCU scientist agreed and submitted a summary of his scientific work to the selection committee, which includes the articles he has written and talks he has given.

Dr. Kendler notes that the award “says what you have done in your career matters and is important. That is the deepest compliment that you can have as a scientist.”

He says he was “touched” when he learned he had been recognized by his colleagues.

“That’s what motivates a scientist. I am honored that they feel I have contributed something of importance to the difficult but critical effort to better understand the etiology of psychiatric and drug use disorders, which are together responsible for so much suffering.”

Meet this week’s prize-winning Personality, Dr. Kenneth S. Kendler:

Date and place of birth: 1950 in New York City.

Alma maters: Bachelor’s degree, University of California; medical degree, Stanford University; and psychiatric training at Yale University.

Family: Wife, Susan, and three children, Jennifer, Seth and Nathan.

What do you do at VCU: I do a lot of one-on-one with both pre-doctoral and post-doctoral students and I also lecture to medical students and I teach psychiatric students.

How do you explain mental illness:

The human mind has a series of basic functions that allow us to succeed at life. We experience emotions and we can help control them. We can accurately determine the reality of the world around us. We all experience some appropriate fears and anxieties. And many of us use psychoactive substances like alcohol, caffeine and nicotine. But we use it successfully in a way that doesn’t disrupt our lives.