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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. He 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 is being written,” Sundby said.

Owen Jones, who holds the New York Alumni Chancellor’s Chair in Law and is also a professor of biology,  directs the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Law and Neuroscience, which is based at Vanderbilt University. The neuroscience degree program is headed by René Marois, a neuroscientist who directs Vanderbilt Human Information Processing Laboratory. “I was incredibly impressed with Professor Jones and Dr. Marois, and the level of personal attention students receive here,” Sundby said. “Having professors who take an interest in their students and are willing to work, and publish and teach with them was really important to me.”

Sundby had another inducement to choose Vanderbilt: His older brother is a fourth-year student at Vanderbilt Medical School.  “He gave me an insider’s perspective on life at Vanderbilt and in Nashville,” he said. The brothers now live a block apart.

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 expects to complete both his J.D. and Ph.D., which are awarded separately, in approximately seven years. “I do the typical 1L year followed by two years of 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.

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