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Christopher Sundby

chris sundby Christopher Sundby
J.D./Ph.D. candidate in Law & Neuroscience
John W. Wade Scholar
Undergraduate: Oberlin College (John T. Oberlin Scholar)

As an undergraduate at Oberlin, Chris Sundby took a neuroscience class “on a whim.” He was immediately hooked and chose neuroscience as his major. For his honors thesis, he designed and led a research project addressing the role of hormones in Alzheimer’s disease. He graduated with high honors in 2012.

But Sundby, whose father teaches law at the University of Miami, hopes not only to study the biological basis of behavior, but also to address the legal quandaries that will inevitably arise as we learn more about the interplay between the brain and behavior. After his freshman year of college, he joined the Oberlin Law Scholars, aiming at a career in law.  “My aspiration is to help bridge the ideological and pedagogical gap between law and neuroscience,” he said. “Each field approaches human behavior from a fundamentally different standpoint and with different assumptions and goals, and my hope is to facilitate the communication necessary to deal with the issues that neuroscience raises for our criminal justice system. The importance of effective collaboration between the fields is ultimately what pushed me to find a graduate program that combines law and neuroscience.”

Sundby entered Vanderbilt’s Ph.D. program in law and neuroscience as a John W. Wade law scholar in fall 2013, attracted by Vanderbilt’s formal dual degree program and the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, which is based at Vanderbilt and directed by Owen Jones, New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and professor of biology.  “Having professors in both fields who take an interest in their students and work, publish, and teach with them is really important to me,” Sundby said.  Sundby considered several programs before choosing Vanderbilt because of its strong faculty in both areas. “Vanderbilt offered me the opportunity to be at the school where the definitive textbook on law and neuroscience was being written,” Sundby said.

Sundby is interested in the extent to which evidentiary rules – which are premised on how juror brains will process and be affected by various kinds of information – are or are not consistent with emerging neuroscience on how brains generate decisions.  As one initial avenue into this larger topic, he is currently working with Jones on a directed research project focusing on “the present sense impression” exception to the general hearsay rule of evidence. “That exception is based on the assumption that it’s harder for people to lie about an event they are viewing concurrently, which is a huge assumption,” he said. “We can apply neuroscience to test that assumption.”

Sundby entered Vanderbilt after a stint as a research assistant in neuroscience laboratory at the Universidad Nacional de Quilmes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he worked on projects examining the physiological effects of chronic jetlag. Having lived for a “gap year” in Valencia, Spain, between high school and college, he had developed the fluency necessary to conduct research entirely in Spanish.

Sundby spent his first two years at the law school, and he will serve as the Vanderbilt Law Review’s senior articles editor during 2015-16 as he begins his neuroscience coursework. “It will help bridge the gap between the lab and the law school,” he said. He has identified a number of issues in addition to “the present sense impression” that he hopes to examine from a neuroscience perspective. “I keep a little black book and write down research ideas as they come up in class,” he said. “Several law professors do research with an empirical focus, and being around minds that attack issues from an empirical angle has really benefited my thinking.”

Sundby expects to complete both his J.D. and Ph.D., which are awarded separately, in approximately seven years. “Following an initial two years at the law school, I am now starting classwork in neuroscience,” he explained. “Then I continue to take upper-level law classes while I work on neuroscience research.” He ultimately hopes to be active in research in both fields while teaching law and neuroscience.