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Study: Social support reduces genetic risk factors that can lead to alcohol use problems

September 10, 2021

New research shows that social support from friends can shield people at risk of alcohol use disorders.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, found that the combination of genetic predisposition and personality type can lead to problematic alcohol consumption. Having strong social support from friends protected against excessive drinking. 

“People with alcohol use problems can be stigmatized, and addiction is often thought of as a personal choice or moral failure. Genes play an important role in alcohol consumption, and understanding how genes link to complex behaviors and interact with the environment lets us identify targeted ways to prevent problems or intervene,” said Jinni Su, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and lead author on the study. “Genes matter but are not our destiny.” 

Genetic risk for problem drinking behaviors was determined using a rating called a genome-wide polygenic score. This aggregate score is based on how an entire genome is associated with a specific trait — in this case, alcohol use.

Participants with an elevated genetic risk for problem drinking behaviors were likely to have sensation-seeking personalities. People with this personality trait thrive on seeking out new experiences. The researchers found that the combination of genetic risk and sensation-seeking personalities were associated with higher levels of alcohol use.

“This finding gives us a possible pathway to help individuals with genetic risk channel their predisposition in healthy ways. Knowing that people with a higher genetic risk for alcohol misuse also tend to have sensation-seeking personality traits means that we can encourage them to engage in new and fun activities like rock climbing instead of drinking,” Su said.

The study also examined how people’s environment affected their genetic risk for problem drinking. The researchers examined how social relationships affected the combination of genetic risk and personality trait on alcohol consumption. Strong friendships were protective against problem drinking in people who had elevated genetic risk and sensation-seeking tendencies.

“Genetic risk does not influence everyone the same way and can be affected by our environment, like social relationships. Some people with a genetic predisposition for alcohol misuse are more susceptible to having poor social relationships. But, social support can also buffer genetic risk, reducing the likelihood of bad outcomes like alcoholism,” Su said. 

In addition to Su, the research team consisted of Sally I-Chun Kuo, Fazil Aliev and Danielle Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University; Grace Chan of the University of Connecticut; Howard Edenberg of Indiana University; Chella Kamarajan and Jacquelyn Meyers of the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center; Vivia McCutcheon of Washington University, St. Louis; Marc Schuckit of the University of California, San Diego; and Jay Tischfield of Rutgers University.

This study was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Top photo: A new study from the Arizona State University Department of Psychology shows that the combination of genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorders and personality type can lead to problematic drinking behaviors. Having strong social support from friends was identified as protective against excessive drinking. The work was published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Image by Duy Pham/Unsplash

Science writer , Psychology Department

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Beloved aviation faculty remembered

September 10, 2021

Mary Niemczyk — teacher, mentor, pilot and friend — is honored for her contributions to program, its students and the community

“Our Poly hearts are broken,” says Meghan McLaughlin, an aviation program advising coordinator, to describe her grief over the death of Mary Niemczyk, a beloved associate professor of aviation in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University.

The sentiment rings true across campus as The Polytechnic School, one of the seven Fulton Schools, navigates the loss of one of its aviation pioneers.

Artwork featuring Dr. Mary Niemczyk

Aeronautical management technology and graphic information technology graduate Landon Breaux honors Mary Niemczyk with an original design. Artwork courtesy of Landon Breaux

Niemczyk, also known as “Checks,” was a revered teacher, mentor and pilot who died Aug. 27 of cancer. She is remembered for her contributions to aviation education, her ability to mentor others, her determination, her resilience and her selfless heart.

The longtime aviation faculty member served at ASU for 19 years. Her dedication to her program, peers, students, local industry and community was unmatched, as many who knew her expressed. Niemczyk taught 13 different aviation courses, developed three new courses and served as the aviation program chair during her time at ASU.

“Mary was a dynamic force who had an infectiously upbeat and positive attitude,” says Ann McKenna, vice dean of strategic advancement for the Fulton Schools. “She made wonderful contributions to the aviation program, and she was admired by students, faculty and all who worked with her. She will be dearly missed.”

A Sun Devil through and through, Niemczyk graduated from ASU with her PhD in learning and instructional technology in 2002 before joining the faculty. Previously, she received her MBA from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and her bachelor’s degree in accounting from Benedictine College.

A friend, colleague and one of Niemczyk’s former professors, Michael Pearson, now a clinical associate professor of aviation at ASU, reflects on his friendship with her.

“She mentored hundreds, if not thousands, of students to successful lives and careers,” Pearson says. “I cannot count the times that students sought Mary’s guidance, assistance and wisdom as they navigated difficulties in their lives. Mary’s door was always open. She always made time to help others.”

“Without a sliver of doubt, Dr. Niemczyk remains one of the most influential forces in my higher education career,” says Ryan Ewing, an aviation management alumnus and ASU’s Women in Aviation student chapter leadership member. “She motivated me to get a master’s degree and showed me new paths and horizons that I previously thought weren’t attainable. Indeed, she challenged her students but made time for each and every one of us, pushing us to the next chapter in our careers. Her sense of goodwill, empathy and selflessness was contagious.”

A career that soared

Niemczyk’s career in aviation and education was successful by every measure. During her time in the industry, she worked as a financial analyst at a major U.S. airline and co-founded an aviation human performance company. Her company’s focus and overall research focus were geared towards optimally training pilots and researching learning techniques.

Niemczyk’s research, as noted by Embry-Riddle, focuses on improving instructional and learning strategies for enhancing individuals’ performance in the complex and ill-defined environments presented in aviation. She determined the best attributions, knowledge and skills for successful performance in the areas of aviation training and job performance. Niemczyk also defined how to effectively incorporate and utilize the millennial generation’s talents in the aviation industry.

Her work was widely recognized in peer-reviewed aviation and education journals. Due to her extensive experience in the field, Niemczyk was invited to other universities’ aviation programs to conduct external reviews.

She served on the Aviation Accreditation Board International, or AABI; Women in Aviation International, or WAI; and the Ninety-Nines International Organization of Women Pilots. Niemczyk was a former president of the University Aviation Association, or UAA, and was a member of the National Speakers Association. She was also slated to advise ASU’s Women in Aviation student chapter this fall.

Among her many teaching accolades, Niemczyk received the AABI Paul A. Whelan Educator Award in 2019 celebrating her instrumental advancement of AABI, which works to elevate global aviation education through accreditation and leadership.

In addition, she founded the Mastering Learning program. Through this work, Niemczyk assisted educators in developing instruction using research in educational and cognitive psychology as well as neuroscience techniques. The program continues to assist students with learning and test-taking strategies effective in any domain.

She developed two books on this subject matter: “Using your Brain to Learn: Strategies for Success,” and “How to Study in College: Proven Strategies for Success.” She also delivered her material through workshops for industry, faculty, students and parents.

Niemczyk was also interested in how different generations of students learned. As a result, she co-founded boxxed, an organization that “provides solutions for improving workplace performance by bridging the gap between generational cohorts,” according to Embry-Riddle.

A legacy not forgotten

As members of The Polytechnic School and Fulton Schools communities mourn, they are inspired by Niemczyk’s relentless legacy.

Hands hold two pink wristbands with the words Fly High and Checks on them along with breast cancer ribbon icons

Members of ASU’s Women in Aviation student chapter have created wristbands to honor Mary Niemczyk’s legacy. Photo courtesy of ASU Women in Aviation student chapter

“You would never know how accomplished she was because of her humble, kind nature. She was a true educator and taught all of us — faculty, staff and students — how to be better people,” says Anna Wales, Niemczyk’s friend and business relations coordinator for the Fulton Schools. “Mary Niemczyk cannot be replaced in this world, and every time I look out and see one of our planes taking off from the airport, I am thinking of her. She has left such an impact on all of us. She will always be remembered.”

Members of ASU’s Women in Aviation student chapter have created a wristband to honor Niemczyk’s legacy. Wristbands are $3 each, and proceeds will benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Orders can also be placed by emailing sundevilwai@gmail.com.

If you are interested in attending Niemczyk’s memorial service, please contact Sona Srinarayana at sona.srina@asu.edu for details. A remembrance ceremony at the Polytechnic campus will take place later this semester — details are forthcoming. If you would like to donate to the Mary Niemczyk scholarship fund, you may do so here.

Top photo: Mary Niemczyk, a Fulton Schools associate professor of aviation, is pictured celebrating graduates at a convocation ceremony. Photo courtesy of the Fulton Schools

Sona Patel Srinarayana

Communications specialist , Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering

480-727-1590