Master's internship

Population Genetics of Human Communication

Modelling genetic relationships between motor, social and language development.

The Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen, the Netherlands is offering an internship position in the population genetics of human communication group. The host research group, led by Dr. Beate St Pourcain, investigates the genetic basis of social communication, language and interaction in large population-based cohorts and is embedded within the Language & Genetics Department at the MPI.

This research internship is open to MSc students who would like to gain experience in analysing "big data" from population based cohorts.

Mastering motor milestones and social personal skills may lead to a developmental transition that initiates a cascade of developmental changes, including social interaction and language learning (1). For example, the onset of walking (1,2) and sitting skills (3) can predict children's vocabulary size, that may potentially affect later literacy-related abilities. In this project you will (I) explore the genetic overlap between early motor, social, social personal and language skills in children from 6 months onwards; genetic correlations will be studied using methods such as Genetic Relationship Matrix Restricted Maximum Likelihood (4) as implemented in Genome-wide Complex Trait Analyisis (GCTA) software (5). You will then (II) model shared genetic architectures using Genetic-Relationship-Matrix structural equation models with the GSEM R package (6) and (III) characterise the genetic overlap biologically. To do this, you will use state-of the-art statistical genetic analysis methods. You will also learn how to work within a linux environment and gain experience with coding in R and bash.

The internship will last at least 5 months, the starting date is negotiable. Note that the MPI is unable to remunerate any work carried out during this internship. Applicants should be enrolled within a master programme such as Cognitive Neuroscience, Medical Biology, Biomedical Sciences, Statistics or similar. Basic knowledge about genetics and/or statistics and a good knowledge of English are a requirement.  For further information please contact Dr. Beate St Pourcain (beate.stpourcain [at] To apply, please send a motivation letter (max. 1 page) along with a CV and contact details to Martina Bernhard (Martina.Bernhard [at] Applications will be reviewed until the position is filled. 

Relevant literature

1.            Walle, E.A. Infant Social Development across the Transition from Crawling to Walking. Front Psychol 7,  (2016).

2.            Walle, E.A. & Campos, J.J. Infant language development is related to the acquisition of walking. Dev Psychol 50, 336–348 (2014).

3.            Libertus, K. & Violi, D.A. Sit to Talk: Relation between Motor Skills and Language Development in Infancy. Front Psychol 7,  (2016).

4.            Yang, J., Benyamin, B., McEvoy, B.P., Gordon, S., Henders, A.K., Nyholt, D.R., Madden, P.A., Heath, A.C., Martin, N.G., Montgomery, G.W., Goddard, M.E., et al. Common SNPs explain a large proportion of the heritability for human height. Nat. Genet. 42, 565–569 (2010).

5.            Yang, J., Lee, S.H., Goddard, M.E. & Visscher, P.M. GCTA: a tool for genome-wide complex trait analysis. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 88, 76–82 (2011).

6.            St Pourcain, B., Eaves, L.J., Ring, S.M., Fisher, S.E., Medland, S., Evans, D.M. & Smith, G.D. Developmental Changes Within the Genetic Architecture of Social Communication Behavior: A Multivariate Study of Genetic Variance in Unrelated Individuals. Biological Psychiatry 83, 598–606 (2018).

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