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Thomas O'Dell ’83

Thomas O'Dell '83Thomas O’Dell remembers only one class from his freshman year at IUP, but it had a profound impact on his life.

“I was interested in lots of things,” O’Dell said. “I loved my high school classes in mathematics, physics, and biology, but I didn’t have any idea about what I wanted to study in college. I took an Introduction to Psychology course taught by Professor Richard Magee, and it was fascinating. After a few more courses, I was hooked and decided to make psychology my major.”

O’Dell said the variety of majors and programs available at IUP provided a great opportunity to explore new subjects before committing to a specific area of study. IUP was perfect for students like him, he said, who were “unsure where their interests would lead them.”

During his early studies at IUP, O’Dell was strongly influenced by other psychology professors, including George Walz and Carl Schneider, who were interested in the biological basis of behavior. “Their ideas and courses were very influential,” he said.

O’Dell conducted a research project under Barbara Marquette’s supervision, and it fueled his interest in research. At one point O’Dell read an assigned book, Madness and the Brain, written by Solomon Snyder, a professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Snyder described what was then thought to be the biological basis of schizophrenia, and O’Dell found it fascinating that emotions and perceptions can be so profoundly dependent on the neurochemical state of the brain.

“I knew then that I wanted to use my training in psychology at IUP as a basis for entering into this new field,” O’Dell said. “I already had a strong background in psychology, and spent my last few years at IUP taking as many chemistry and biology courses as possible to prepare for graduate studies in neuroscience.”

After graduating from IUP in 1983, O’Dell continued his studies at the University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in the Neuroscience Program of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, earning a PhD in neuroscience in 1988. He also did postgraduate work at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University in New York.

O’Dell currently serves as professor and interim chair in the Department of Physiology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, where he investigates the biological basis of learning and memory, which includes studying the biochemistry and physiology of neurons in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus.

“The research in my laboratory has progressed to the point where our results have important implications for Alzheimer’s disease, intellectual impairment, and autism,” O’Dell said. “For example, we have identified several genes that have important roles in learning and memory, and other investigators have found that mutations in these same genes cause intellectual impairment and other disorders in humans. By working with clinical researchers and biotech companies, we hope to build on these findings and develop novel therapeutic approaches to these diseases.”

Mentoring students is another obligation—expected of every academic scientist since each generation is responsible for training the next, O’Dell said—but it is one part of his job he enjoys the most.

“I had the good fortune to have wonderful mentors,” O’Dell said. “I personally train all of my students and work closely with them on their experiments. I also encourage them to come up with their own ideas and give them the freedom to test their ideas. It works not only for the students, but also for me. Almost all of the students I’ve mentored have brought new techniques to my laboratory and moved the research in the laboratory into exciting new directions.”

O’Dell said he loves how, after a few years in the lab, those being mentored stop being students and become colleagues and collaborators.

“Unfortunately for me, that’s the sign that it’s time for them to graduate and move on,” O’Dell said.

Profile published on 4/10/14

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