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Eric Chudler

Research Associate Professor
Department of Anesthesiology
University of Washington

What do you do in your job?

I wear two "hats" in my job: I am a basic neuroscience researcher and I also create educational materials for elementary, middle and high school students and teachers interested in learning about the brain.

At what point in life did you know you wanted to become a scientist?

I have always been interested in science, but not necessarily about the brain.  When I was in high school, I wanted to be a marine biologist.  I entered UCLA with the goal of becoming a marine biologist.  However, in my junior year, I took my first psychology class and volunteered to work in the laboratory of Dr. John Liebeskind.  Dr. Liebeskind was a scientist who discovered that the brain has its own way of reducing pain.  I worked in his lab for two years.  He then suggested that I go to graduate school to continue my scientific career.  I have quite a diverse background and have worked in many places: psychobiology, psychology, neurobiology, neurosurgery and anesthesiology.  The common thread in all of my work has been to discover how the brain processes information about pain.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

My favorites were Biology and English.  Two classes stand out in my mind.  The first was seventh grade English.  My teacher had the students do many creative writing projects.  She didn’t really care what we wrote about... she just wanted us to write, write and write some more.  The second class was biology in tenth grade.  This was a class that focused on sea life and is why I got interested in marine biology.

What subjects were the least interesting or most difficult for you?

I can’t say that there were any particular subjects that were not interesting.  However, I do remember a few classes that were boring.  For example, English classes that concentrated on grammar were not as interesting as those that focused on writing.  Looking back, I wish I paid more attention in my grammar classes.

What subjects prepared you the best for your career?

Science and English classes were probably the best.  Science classes taught me how to ask questions, make observations, and record data.  English classes prepared me for all of the many papers, reports and grant applications I now have to write.

Do you have any special memories from your childhood education?

I lived in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia from 1969 to 1970 when I was in fifth and sixth grade.  From 1971 to 1974 (grade 8, 9 and 10 ), I lived in Kobe, Japan.  One special memory I have from living in Japan was walking through the market places.  I remember the sounds, sights, smells of all the activity taking place on a busy weekend.  When I got hungry I would buy a snack of "taco-yaki" - small pieces of octopus cooked in a light batter.

A few weeks ago some students from the International School of Kuala Lumpur e-mailed me some questions about the brain.  I mentioned that I had attended their school a long time ago.  They went to their school library and dug up some old yearbooks to find my picture.

Living overseas has permitted me to see the world from different perspectives.  The world is filled with ideas that often contrast with my own.  It is important to respect these ideas and to understand them.

What languages do you know?

When I lived in Malaysia and Japan I took classes in Malay and Japanese.  I learned enough Japanese to hold a conversation and get around.  I even had a small role in my school's Kabuki play that was performed in Japanese.  Unfortunately, it has been a long time since I have used Japanese and I have forgotten much of it.

Why are you so fascinated with the brain?

Everything we know, everything we do, everything we are, and everything we will be - is the responsibility of the brain.  How can I (or anyone else) not be fascinated by the brain?  My current research focuses on the central mechanisms of pain.  In other words, I am interested in learning about the parts of the brain involved with pain.  I also want to find out why many patients with Parkinson's disease have sensory problems including pain.  I hope that my research will lead to a better understanding of how the brain responds to pain.  This may lead to better treatments for people who have pain problems.

Why are you juggling in your photograph?

I try to visit local classes at least once or twice a month and I usually juggle during my presentations.  Juggling is way to start a discussion about the brain.  I might ask people what my brain is doing to allow me to juggle.  For example, someone might say that my brain helps me see and move my muscles.  If I couldn’t see and move, I couldn’t juggle.

What is the purpose of your educational website, "Neuroscience for Kids"?

Science, in particular neuroscience, is all around us: on TV and in magazines and newspapers.  I did a 10-day survey of the Seattle Times newspaper a few months ago and found an article about the brain on ten consecutive days.  I believe it is essential that everyone is able to read and understand this information about the brain.  It is important to be "neuroscience literate" because it is likely that we, or people we know, will be affected by neurological disorders. It will be critical to understand the situation in order to get the best treatment.  I hope that Neuroscience for Kids shows students and teachers the wonders of the brain and encourages them to learn more about the nervous system.  My work is only the beginning of the process.  It is up to students to ask their teachers questions, and it is the responsibility of teachers to help students find the answers.

Perhaps the most important thing I try to do is encourage kids to ask questions.  Of course, I don't always have answers for students' questions.

What do you teach?

Right now I am not doing any regular classroom teaching at the University of Washington.  In the past, I have taught classes in psychology, neuroanatomy and neurophysiology.  I did guest lecture in a biology class this year, but teaching is not part of my job at this time.

Are you a medical doctor as well as being a professor?

I am not a medical doctor.  To become a medical doctor, a person must go to medical school to receive an MD.  Instead of medical school, I went to graduate school and received a PhD.  I have never had an interest in becoming a medical doctor.  I was always interested in doing experiments to find out new things.

What do you like best about your job?

My job has a lot of freedom.  I am free to ask the questions that I think are important.  The downside is that I must convince other people that my questions are important and that the experiments I propose will answer these questions.  All of my work is supported by grants, so I must always look for new places to fund my research.

Outside of your work and research, do you have time for hobbies?  What kinds of things do you like to do in your free time?

Yes, I do have time for hobbies.  I played on my high school’s basketball team.  I still play basketball at a local gym at least once a week to keep in shape.  In fourth grade I started to collect stamps and coins and I still work on my collection occasionally.  I also spend as much time as possible with my two kids (a sixth grader and a third grader).  I’ve coached my daughter’s soccer team for six years and her basketball team for three years.  My family tries to take at least one vacation each year.  My wife thinks I should take more vacation time, but I find it difficult to get away.  I like to go to places where there is a lot to do outside like swimming or skiing.

Does your family understand the kind of work you do?

I think that they understand the basics of what I do.  No one in my family has much of a science background, so it is a difficult to share the details with them.  However, I think it is critical that scientists are able to translate what they do into language that everyone can understand.  So I try to keep my family up to date on what I am working on.  I always send copies of my published papers to my Dad.

Why do you think kids idolize professional athletes and entertainers and not scientists?

In my opinion, this is a cultural problem.  The media floods popular magazines, televisions and radios with images or sounds of basketball players, movie stars and singers.  These are the types of people kids see.  It is not surprising that kids come to worship these pop stars when they see the high salaries and attention people in these industries receive.  On the other hand, the media usually portray science as a boring, lonely job performed by old men with wild hair and white lab coats.  This is not an accurate picture of how science is done these days.  Science is done by people of all types: young and old, male and female.  Perhaps scientists could be better at explaining what they do to the public.

What advice do you have for students who may find math and science difficult?

Keep at it... everyone can succeed with math and science.  In math, it is important to double-check your work because you might find small mistakes that result in a wrong answer.  In science, try to relate what you are learning to everyday life.

Check out Eric's website and articles:

Neuroscience for Kids

- 29 December 2002


Last Updated:
8 January 2015

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