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Matthew Ginther is conducting research in neuroscience while exploring its impact on law in Vanderbilt's new J.D./Ph.D. Offering in Law and Neuroscience.
"The gap between science and law is closing. Scientific evidence is becoming an increasing factor in litigation. I'm interested in addressing policy related to how science is used in the courtroom."
Matthew Ginther followed the same track as every entering 1L at Vanderbilt Law School in fall 2010. In fall 2011, however, rather than taking his first semester of elective law courses, Ginther is instead taking required courses for first-year students in Vanderbilt University's Ph.D. program in neuroscience. As the first student in Vanderbilt's J.D./Ph.D. curriculum in Law and Neuroscience, which is the first coordinated dual degree track in Law and Neuroscience, Ginther will then spend three more years taking a mix of law and neuroscience courses to meet the requirements for both degrees, after which he expects to spend two years researching and writing his doctoral dissertation. Ultimately, he will earn both a J.D. and a Ph.D. "The gap between science and law is closing," he said. "Scientific evidence is becoming an increasing factor in litigation and policy decisions. I chose the new dual-degree track because I'm interested in addressing policy related to how science is used in the courtroom and the stateroom."
Ginther can't remember a time when he wasn't interested in science. After attending New York's famed Stuyvesant High School, a public science, mathematics and technology magnet school to which students who score highest on a rigorous entrance exam are admitted, he entered Bowdoin College as a pre-med major. "I soon realized that becoming a doctor was not for me," he said. "I enjoyed the scientific process, but I wanted to look at things at the level of populations, trends and policy instead of an individual basis. Research was the natural choice, but my interest in the humanities and the practical applications of empirically derived knowledge steered me away from a life in the lab." Instead of continuing on the pre-med track, Ginther split his coursework between neuroscience and the humanities.
In his sophomore year, Ginther stumbled upon a line of research that intrigued him in a New York Times Magazine article, "The Brain on the Stand: How Neuroscience Is Transforming the Legal System," by Jeffrey Rosen, that covered a research project involving functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) led by Vanderbilt law professor Owen Jones and René Marois of Vanderbilt's psychology department. "Several months later, I emailed Professor Jones to discuss my interest," Ginther said, "and the rest is history."
In his junior year at Bowdoin, Ginther embarked on a project in which he researched the neurological underpinnings of episodic memory. "I looked at how the hippocampus processes information that's narrative and autobiographic," he said. He presented his research at three annual meetings of the Society of Neuroscience and spent a gap year between college and embarking on Vanderbilt's J.D./Ph.D. track preparing his findings for publication in the prestigious Journal of Neuroscience.
Ginther's connection with Jones led him to consider Vanderbilt's J.D/Ph.D opportunity as he explored graduate programs that would allow him to explore the implications of discoveries in the field of neuroscience on law. "I know I want to pursue science in terms of the legal implications," he said, "but where I end up will be a function of two things: where my research takes me, and what happens in terms of policy."
Last summer, after his 1L year, Ginther followed a typical track for a law student. He spent the first half of the summer working as a research assistant for litigation scholar Brian Fitzpatrick, who is examining the future of class action litigation following recent Supreme Court decisions upholding the use of binding arbitration agreements in consumer contracts. "Obviously, I did not come to Vanderbilt to study civil procedure, but Professor Fitzpatrick's class was probably the best class I have taken in my life, and it opened my eyes to the fact that all of the substantive rights we cherish are, in essence, rights to procedures in a court of law," Ginther said. "As my research develops, and as difficult questions of substantial and procedural rights arise, I'll be able to draw on the knowledge and perspective I gained from learning from and working with Professor Fitzpatrick." He spent the latter half of his summer at the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Nashville, where his work, not coincidentally, focused on a case involving the use of neuroscience. "I was tasked with combing through multiple neuropsychological evaluations spanning decades to make the argument that our client was ineligible for the death penalty because he was intellectually disabled," Ginther said. "Having the opportunity, for the very first time, to apply my education in the neurosciences to a question of law was an incredible experience."
Ginther is the first president of new university student organization, the Vanderbilt Interdepartmental Group in Law and Neuroscience, formed to foster discussion between the two fields. In addition to his neuroscience coursework this year, he has also begun work on a research project using fMRI to examine how the brain handles decisions to punish in second- and third-party scenarios. "Using fMRI allows us to gain real-time insights on the brain activity underlying conscious and unconscious thought processes," he said. "In less than three months, I've gone from writing briefs to analyzing brain scans, all with the same common goal. I could not be happier to be at Vanderbilt, and I am thankful for this opportunity."