Personal Experience Leads To Career In Anxiety Disorders

John Hettema, MD., Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Psychiatry and the Director of the VCU Anxiety Disorders Specialty Clinic. Dr. Hettema has a PhD in physics, but a series of personal experiences with several close friends suffering from severe depression during his physics post-doctoral fellowship period ignited his interest in psychiatry. This interest sparked a career change, and he entered medical school at the Medical College of Virginia in 1992. During the summer of his first year here, he worked on a summer research project with Drs. Kenneth Kendler, M.D. and Michael Neale, Ph.D. This first summer research project turned into several others, and Dr. Hettema has been conducting his own anxiety genetics research as a faculty member since 2000.

Currently, Dr. Hettema is investigating the genetic and environmental risk factors for anxiety disorders using both molecular genetic approaches, such as genome-wide association studies, as well as deeply phenotyped twin studies. Most recently, he is expanding his research into neuroimaging to examine brain-based phenotypes. In addition to his research, Dr. Hettema is also able to provide clinical care and resident training as Director of the VCU Anxiety Disorders Specialty Clinic. “I continue to deeply value this combination of roles that my faculty position provides,” Dr. Hettema says. “I get to satisfy my passion for science by pursuing long-term answers to the mysteries of mental illness and also provide near-term help for my patients.

The perfect is the enemy of the good.


Outside of work, Dr. Hettema enjoys spending his time with his two sons and his wife of 32 years. He also enjoys his spare-time hobby of playing the drums in a classic rock band, “a carry-over from my teenage years in the 70’s,” he says.

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