S. Alexandra Burt

S. Alexandra Burt
  • SSC Diamond Distinguished Professor
  • Clinical Science


PhD, Clinical Psychology/Behavioral Genetics, University of Minnesota, 2004 
MA, Clinical Psychology/Behavioral Genetics, University of Minnesota, 2001 
BS, Psychology & History, Emory University, 1996


Curriculum Vitae: S. Alexandra Burt


MSU Twin Registry


Dr. Burt has several research interests.  The first focuses on understanding the etiology of aggressive and rule-breaking behaviors across the lifespan.  Her particular focus is on the role of environmental influences (e.g., neighborhood danger/deprivation, environmental toxicants), both as main effects and also as moderators of genetic influences (e.g., how these environments may turn genes “on and off”).  She is equally interested in those youth who demonstrate resilience – or adaptive outcomes despite exposure to a clear environmental risk.  Her three currently-funded NIH grants for this work seek to 1) identify the neural pathways affected by neighborhood disadvantage (the so-called 'biological embedding of disadvantage'), 2) illuminate the ‘active ingredients’ (e.g., exposures to neurotoxicants, community violence, harsh parenting) through which disadvantage alters the developing brain, as well as those that protect the brain and promote resilience (i.e., protective neighborhood social processes, prosocial parenting), and 3) determine the extent to which these active ingredients influence children’s outcomes by altering methylomic development across few decades of life.

Dr. Burt has also been conducting novel research in what she has termed ‘experimental behavior genetics’.  Traditional behavioral genetic research has yielded many important discoveries about the origins of human behavior, but offers little insight into how we might improve outcomes. Put another way, behavioral genetic studies focus on understanding etiology of “what is” (etiology as it currently exists), rather than etiology of “what could be” (etiology in environments that could exist but do not as of yet, such as after an intervention).  Experimental behavior genetics offers a way to overcome this field-wide methodological reality by embedding randomized interventions within twin-family design, connecting “what is” and “what could be” to advance scientific inquiry. Relatedly, she is very interested in the inferential divide between correlational and experimental approach to science, and specifically in the ways in which this divide has impeded behavioral genetic research. Correlational studies (like twin studies) focus on correlations while experimental studies focus on means. Although related, means and correlations are distinct statistical moments that reveal different pieces of information about the question at hand.  She is attempting to bridge this divide in a series of ongoing studies.

Another line of her research focuses on cyberaggression (or cyberbullying), a seemingly new form of aggression. One consequence of this ‘newness’ is that there are very few well-validated measures of cyberaggression. Accordingly, Dr. Burt recently developed a novel, laboratory-based assessment of cyberaggression that will allow for experimental and correlational studies in this important new area, both of which are on-going.

Finally, and most recently, she has developed an interest in mitochondrial DNA.  Mitochondria are bacteria-like organelles with their own DNA (mtDNA) that reside in the cellular cytoplasm of all aerobic eukaryotic species (mammals, fish, birds). Mitochondria are critical for sustaining life, and provide nearly all of our energy. Even so, relatively few studies have sought to uncover their etiologic role in human disease. This gap in the literature likely stems in part from the very unusual features of mitochondria, which are totally incompatible with the biometric models we use to estimate the effects of nuclear DNA. With her collaborators, Dr. Burt has recently been awarded a large-scale grant from the NIH to develop new methods to estimate the effects of mtDNA in pedigree studies.