Thomas J. O'Dell

Born: May 20, 1960 | Berwick, PA, US

Thomas J. O'Dell was born in Berwick, Pennsylvania. He attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania to study psychology and natural science. He became interested in neuroscience after reading an article on the brain and memory in Scientific American. O'Dell matriculated at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where he rotated through Ernest S. Barratt's laboratory, studying electrophysiology, but chose to perform his doctoral research on neurotransmitters in retinal neurons in Burgess N. Christensen's laboratory. Next he took postdocs in Bradley E. Alger's laboratory at the University of Maryland and Eric R. Kandel's laboratory at Columbia University. O'Dell then accepted a position at the University of California, Los Angeles, working on beta-adrenergic receptors for norepinephrine and their role in synaptic plasticity and learning and memory. 

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0525
No. of pages: 120
Minutes: 400

Interview Sessions

Andrea R. Maestrejuan
14-16 July 2003
University of California, Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California

Abstract of Interview

Thomas J. O'Dell was born and raised in Berwick, Pennsylvania, a small, rural town (at the time, a population of approximately 11,000) on the edge of coalfields in the northeastern part of the state, the second oldest of four siblings. His mother was a homemaker; his father was a banker and, for a time, mayor of Berwick. O'Dell spent much of his youth like any other child; being in a rural area and having grandparents who lived on a farm allowed for a lot of exploration in nature; also, like most other children in the 1960s, he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up, though by high school he was starting to get more interested in psychology and behavior. He attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, located in Indiana, Pennsylvania, intent on being a psychology major, but then adding a natural sciences major as well. He became interested in neuroscience after reading an article on the brain and memory in Scientific American, and planned to go to graduate school for his doctoral degree. O'Dell matriculated at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, in part because of the financial package they were able to offer and, in part, due to scientists like Harold M. Pinsker, who used Aplysia to study the neuronal basis of behavior. He rotated through Ernest S. Barratt's laboratory, studying electrophysiology, but chose to perform his doctoral research on neurotransmitters in retinal neurons in Burgess N. Christensen's laboratory. After completing his degree he went to Bradley E. Alger's laboratory at the University of Maryland to work on calcium channels in hippocampal neurons, and undertook a second postdoctoral study in EricR. Kandel's laboratory at Columbia University in New York, New York, studying the cellular basis of memory formation and learning—specifically retrograde messengers in long-term potentiation and synaptic plasticity—and collaborating with Seth G. N. Grant, combining molecular biological approaches with physiological approaches to address research questions. At the end of O'Dell's postdoctoral fellowships, he accepted a position at the University of California, Los Angeles, working on beta-adrenergic receptors for norepinephrine and their role in synaptic plasticity and learning and memory. The interview ends with a discussion of O'Dell's role in the laboratory; his future research into the biochemical, physiological, and behavioral levels of synaptic plasticity and synaptic transmissions involved in learning and memory; the future direction of his field; and educating neuroscientists. O'Dell concludes with his thoughts on the grant-writing process; the role of the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences on his work; balancing family life and career; collaboration and competition in science; the issue of patents; and teaching responsibilities. 

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1983 Indiana University of Pennsylvania BA Psychology and Natural Science
1988 University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences PhD Neuroscience
1989 University of Maryland School of Medicine MD
1993 Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Professional Experience

University of Maryland School of Medicine

1988 to 1989
Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Physiology

Columbia University

1989 to 1990
Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior

Howard Hughes Medical Institute

1990 to 1993
Associate, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior

University of California, Los Angeles School of Medicine

1993 to 1998
Assistant Professor, Department of Physiology
1998 to 2004
Associate Professor, Department of Physiology
2004 to 2005
Professor, Department of Physiology
2005 to 2006
Executive Vice-Chair, Department of Physiology

Honors

Year(s) Award
1987

George Sealy Research Award in Neurology

1987

James E. Beall II Memorial Award in Anatomy and Neuroscience

1989

National Research Service Award

1994

Klingenstein Fellowship in the Neurosciences

1996

Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Grant

Table of Contents

Early Years
1

Family background. Siblings. Berwick, Pennsylvania. Religion. Parental expectations. Early schooling. Interest in psychology. Influential teachers. Extracurricular activities in high school.

College Years and Graduate School
13

Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Psychology and natural sciences major. Becomes interested in neuroscience after reading a Scientific American article about the brain. Decides to attend graduate school. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston. Rotation in Ernest S. Barratt's laboratory doing electrophysiology. Doctoral research on neurotransmitters in retinal neurons inBurgess N. Christensen's laboratory. The graduate program at University of Texas Medical Branch.

Postdoctoral and Faculty Years
35

Postdoctoral research in Bradley E. Alger's laboratory at the University of Maryland on calcium channels in hippocampal neurons. Bradley E. Alger's management style. Second postdoctoral fellowship in Eric R. Kandel's laboratory at Columbia University. Work in Kandel's laboratory studying the cellular basis of memory formation and learning. Unexpected experimental results. Collaboration with Seth G. N. Grant. Using molecular genetic approaches to study learning and memory. Work on retrograde messengers in long-term potentiation and synaptic plasticity. Accepts a position at UCLA. Current research on beta-adrenergic receptors for norepinephrine and their role in synaptic plasticity and learning and memory.

Final Thoughts
71

Future research into the biochemical, physiological, and behavioral levels of synaptic plasticity and synaptic transmissions involved in learning and memory. Educating neuroscientists. Setting up his lab. Writing journal articles. Competition in science. His wife and sons. His wife's career. Gender and ethnic issues in science. Grant-writing process. The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences Patents. Teaching responsibilities.

Index
117

About the Interviewer

Andrea R. Maestrejuan