Is passion for science a heritable trait?


My dad and I share an obsession with endurance sports. We don’t just love to get outside and ride our bikes, we actually feel antsy and anxious if we go too many days without working up a sweat. As I’ve written elsewhere, our compulsion for exercise has a genetic basis. Dad and I probably have an exercise inclination gene (or genes) that my mom and sister —who think we’re crazy— don’t.

On a recent visit to my parents, I wondered if a passion for science might also have some inherent basis. The thought occurred to me as Dad showed me some old photos. In one of them his parents, Mennonite wheat farmers who never went to college, are standing with Dad at his graduation from Taylor University. How did a farm kid from Kansas who grew up without ever knowing a single scientist end up with a master’s degree in physics, I wondered.

Dad told me he’s been interested in science for as long as he can remember. It’s like he was born with it. His lifelong passion for astronomy wasn’t something he picked up from an older sibling or a teacher or family friend. He developed it on his own, without any outside nurturing. As a kid, he would sometimes stow away in the garage and listen to science fiction programs on the car radio. One year he sold a calf to buy his first telescope. In high school, Dad eagerly anticipated learning about biology, but when the time came his tiny school had no biology teacher and so it was just him and the textbook. He never did take a real biology class. He had no science mentors until he reached college, and by then he’d already chosen to pursue a physics degree.

My friend George Johnson tells a similar story about his interest in science. As a kid, he was always fascinated by science and wrote his first book, Things in Space, as a student at Monte Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque. George’s father was a physician, so he had more exposure to science at home than my father did, yet George says that his fascination with science began in early childhood without any special nudges from his parents. Though he didn’t  major in science at college, George grew up to become a renowned science writer and the author of numerous award-winning science books.

Unlike Dad and George, I was raised with science. Dad was a fighter pilot when I was growing up, but he also taught physics at the Air Force Academy for three years and never missed an opportunity to explain the physics of everyday phenomena. I remember an incident one summer afternoon when my little sister’s ice cream slid off the cone. Jill had been holding the cone at an angle, and Dad took one look at the scoop of ice cream on the sidewalk and said, “Basic physics, girls. Basic physics.”

It was a common refrain in our household. Dad’s answer to every “why” question inevitably began with that same explanation—basic physics. I was an eager learner, but I wasn’t one of those kids who dreamed of becoming an astronaut or a scientist. At age ten, I wrote in my diary that I wanted to become a gymnast and a writer. I didn’t aspire to become a scientist until college.

So how did I end up studying biology and pursuing a science-related career? Was it Dad’s nurturing that led me to choose science, or was I inherently drawn? I imagine it was a combination of both. While it’s true that Dad’s constant talk of physics fostered my scientific curiosity (my high school anatomy and physiology teacher, Mr. McDougal, helped me discover the wonders of biology), I can’t help but think that my brain was already somehow primed to think scientifically. I’ve always found myself drawn to empirical explanations for the world around me, and this way of thinking feels more intrinsic than learned.

I began college without a declared major (I was interested in everything and couldn’t decide), but looking back, it seems preordained that I’d choose a science. As an undeclared freshman, I opted to take calculus, physics, general biology and astronomy. By the following year, I’d become a biology major, in part because I liked biology’s emphasis on big ideas rather than equations.

Perhaps like Dad, I simply gravitated to the type of science that fit most naturally with my other interests. Dad loved airplanes and gazing at the stars. His college didn’t have an astronomy major, so he studied physics, which could explain how planes stayed aloft. I loved running in the mountains, and biology could explain athletic performance and help me understand the alpine ecosystems I loved so dearly.

I have yet to find any hard data to answer my original question—Is there a science inclination gene like there are exercise inclination genes? My own experience is merely anecdotal. Just because it feels like my love of science has an innate component doesn’t mean it actually does.

I would love to see someone study this question. It turns out that there are many families of scientists.  The Kornberg family, for instance, has two Nobel laureates in its ranks—father Arthur Kornberg and his son Roger Kornberg. If there’s a Nobel prize gene, the Kornbergs probably have it. But what about my own family? If an interest in science really is inherited, how did my dad acquire it? Can this trait arise independently, or did Dad have scientifically-minded ancestors he doesn’t know about? I will probably never know the answer.


Photos: Dad’s graduation from Taylor University.

Illustration from Things in Space, courtesy of George Johnson.

Captain Dee Friesen (my dad), in his Air Force Academy office enjoying a laugh with student Dave Kimmel and Solomon Gartenhaus, author of the textbook in Dad’s hand.

Self-portrait of dad in his glider.

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8 thoughts on “Is passion for science a heritable trait?

  1. There is definitely a genetic element. I grew up in an acedemic, but distinctly unscientific family (neither parent had studied any science at school). Despite encouragement to follow in their arts-based footsteps I was drawn towards science and in particular biology. When I was older I discovered that my birth mother was also a biologist. Seems unlikely to be coincidence…

  2. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard from scientists that are just like your dad’s. I love those stories to pieces. And thank you for sharing your dad.

    So how would you go about finding a gene for science-interest?

  3. Great question Ann. First, I’d do studies like they did to find the exercise inclination genes. I’d give mice access to telescopes and petri dishes and then select the ones that practiced the most science and breed them until I had a strain of super scientist mice. Ha, wouldn’t that be cool?

    Seriously, I would probably start with twin studies. But this is a much more difficult thing to study than exercise inclination. First, I’d have to decide how to measure science inclination. Is it majoring in science at college? (By that measure, George wouldn’t qualify.) Selecting a scientific career?

    It seems to me that the thing I would want to measure has two parts–interest in science and then an inclination toward scientific thinking. Would I study one or the other? How would I measure scientific thinking? With a test?

    This just goes to show that designing a good study is hard work.

  4. Ok, if we can’t go with those mice — and I was just getting excited about them — them how about this for a measure of scientific inclination: regardless of major or job, you regularly read science blogs?

    Brilliant, if I say so.

  5. Would such a passion be any more or less inheritable than any other parental profession? What about a passion for design? Construction? Hairdressing? I’m not trying to make fun here; I’m genuinely curious as to whether an inclination for science would be different than an inclination for any other profession.

  6. Alex, I’m not so sure that it’s profession that would have a genetic component (if there really is a genetic component, I’m not sure there is — just hypothesizing…). The thing that seems more apt to have an inherent component is the propensity for scientific thinking, which in turn might make someone more likely to love science in the first place.

    Am I talking in circles yet?

  7. No, you’re not talking in circles! I’d love to know the answer to your question. Maybe it’s time to design an experiment… 😉

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