January 2003

The Science of Conserving Culture

The Gateway Hypothesis of Substance Abuse

Combining the Liberal Arts, Medicine and Business

Confronting Famine Abroad and Obesity at Home

Integrating Teaching and Research in Mathematics

Challenging a Prominent Hypothesis

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© 2003


Bryn Mawr College
A newsletter on research, teaching, management, policy making and leadership in Science and Technology

The Gateway Hypothesis of Substance Abuse
By Barbara Spector

Denise Kandel ’52

Denise Kandel ’52, professor of sociomedical sciences in psychiatry at Columbia University and chief of the department of the epidemiology of substance abuse at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, is accustomed to receiving media attention. Journalists and politicians have commented on her research finding that early users of alcohol or cigarettes are more likely later to use marijuana and then progress to other illegal drugs, compared with those who did not drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes as adolescents.

Kandel’s ground-breaking theory — known as the "gateway" hypothesis, a term coined by former National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) director Robert DuPont — has enhanced her reputation as a highly cited researcher. Yet her work is often misunderstood. "I myself am not a political person," Kandel says. "But you cannot control the way your work is used."

Consequences of Publicity

The attention given to the study — which examined a cohort of subjects at ages 15-16, 24-25, 29-30 and 35-36 — has had "two consequences," Kandel says. On the one hand, "It’s brought about a shift of thinking at NIDA." Because of her work, "Drug prevention programs targeted to young people now also address smoking and drinking," Kandel says.

When Kandel began her research, "I was funded only to study marijuana," she recalls. "I did not emphasize to my program officer the fact that I was also asking questions about smoking and drinking. But it turned out that that was a very important piece of the study."

The second consequence of the publicity is that "the so-called gateway theory has been used by some people to justify a very conservative drug policy," Kandel says. For example, her work has been cited by advocates of tougher penalties for marijuana possession and of drug testing in schools.

Kandel’s findings have often been misinterpreted, she notes. "This doesn’t mean that because you start with tobacco, you’re going to become a heroin addict. That’s completely false reasoning. Many people start smoking. Only a few go on to use heroin. Use of a drug at a lower stage may be a necessary but not a sufficient condition for progressing to a higher stage."

Kandel developed her scientific proficiency as a psychology major at Bryn Mawr College, where she learned how to develop a research instrument, code data and conduct an analysis. "I had a fantastic experience writing my thesis," she recalls. "I learned ways of thinking about data and developed technical skills."

Coming to America

Kandel received her degree from Bryn Mawr after only two years. She had emigrated from France to the United States in 1949, together with her parents and brother. Her father had escaped from a French concentration camp and, together with her mother, had survived the war by hiding in southwest France. Denise had hidden in a convent, without knowing where her parents were.

After emigrating, Kandel attended the Lycée Français de New York for one year, graduating with a baccalaureate degree. She came to Bryn Mawr as a junior at age 17. She recalls the liberating feeling of being accepted into American society. "It was really a very positive experience," she says.

Nonetheless, Kandel’s family encountered "many of the problems that immigrants faced," she recalls. Her father, an engineer, had trouble finding a job in America. "My parents were under great financial constraints," Kandel says. Their financial position contributed to her decision to finish college in two years. "In that respect, I missed out on a great deal," she acknowledges.

Graduate Work

After college, she returned to New York to attend graduate school at Columbia, where she did Ph.D. research in medical sociology with renowned theoretician Robert Merton. Her dissertation focused on how medical students select areas of specialization. Merton was at once "very stimulating and very paralyzing," Kandel says, recalling his penchant to critique and rewrite students’ manuscripts. "He had the highest expectations and the highest standards," she says.

While in graduate school, she met her husband, neurobiologist Eric Kandel (Harvard ’52), who was born in Vienna and had emigrated to the United States as a child in 1939. After they married, they moved to the Washington area, where she finished her dissertation and he took a position at NIH. In 1960, they moved to Boston, where he began a residency in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. In 1962, they relocated to Paris so he could take a postdoctoral fellowship, and returned to Harvard in 1963. "Many of my earlier career decisions were determined by what my husband was doing," Kandel says.

Interest in Adolescents

These decisions turned out to be fortuitous. At Harvard, she worked with Gerald Lesser — later the creator of Sesame Street at Harvard’s School of Education on a study comparing Danish and American adolescents. Through this work, she became interested in adolescent development in the context of the family.

Kandel changed the design of the study to incorporate interviews with parents as well as youths. She and Lesser found parental influence was more important than peer influence in the development of lifelong goals and educational aspirations. The relative influence of parents and peers on adolescents varied depending on the issue.

"It seems obvious, but at the time it was a completely new perspective," Kandel says. They continued to collaborate after the Kandels moved to New York when Eric Kandel joined New York University’s medical school in 1965. In 1969, Denise took a position at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, affiliated with Columbia.

Drug Abuse Research

In the 1960s, Kandel recalls, drug abuse was gaining recognition as an important field of study. Her interest was piqued at a conference where she met researchers who were undertaking a study of drug use among high school students. She wanted to join them as collaborator to continue her studies of parental and peer influences on adolescent socialization by focusing on drug use. They declined her offer to participate because she wanted to interview parents as well as young people, a survey design they believed would make the youths unwilling to cooperate.

Undaunted, Kandel wrote her own proposal to develop a study from scratch. The research grew into her influential longitudinal study of 1,325 subjects. "That turned out to be a crucial point in my career," she says.

Her husband, meanwhile, was also doing landmark research. In 2000, Eric Kandel, now a University Professor at Columbia, was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his studies of the molecular biology of memory.

Nobel Calling

Denise Kandel took the call from the Nobel committee in Sweden at 5 a.m. on Oct. 9, 2000. "I didn’t understand what the person was saying, except for the last word, ‘Stockholm.’ I knew immediately that this might be the Nobel Prize," she recalls.

Along with the Nobel have come invitations to high-profile events. But the excitement carries a price — "the time that it takes" — Kandel notes. She has two children. Her son, Paul, Haverford ’83, married Emily Kaplan, Bryn Mawr ’83. Emily’s mother is Barbara Goldstein Kaplan, Bryn Mawr ’56. Kandel’s daughter, Minouche, graduated from Yale in 1987.

About the Author

Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.

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