Christopher T. Smith Furman University Alumni

Christopher T. Smith '08

— Postdoctoral Research Fellow,
Vanderbilt University

“As I began taking courses in the psychology department, I discovered the exciting field of neuroscience and realized I could major in it. Trying to understand the complexity of the brain as well as its ability to produce human behavior is one of the great challenges of modern times.”


Personal/Professional Journey

How did you find your way to where you are today? Share a little about your professional journey.

I started at Furman thinking I wanted to go to medical school and took classes on the pre-med tract as well as the MCAT. As I began taking courses in the psychology department, I discovered the exciting field of neuroscience and realized I could major in it. Trying to understand the complexity of the brain as well as its ability to produce human behavior is one of the great challenges of modern times.

As part of the neuroscience major at Furman, one has to pursue engaged learning in the form of an internship or research project. To fulfill this requirement, I conducted summer research between my junior and senior year with Judith Grisel (now at Bucknell University) and realized that a career in biomedical research could be as rewarding as a career in medicine.

With Dr. Grisel and others’ (Onarae Rice, John Batson) encouragement in the Psychology Department, I applied to graduate programs in neuroscience with an emphasis in studying drug addiction. I was accepted into and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s BBSP PhD program the Fall after my graduation from Furman (2008).

After a year of lab rotations and coursework at UNC, I ultimately joined a human behavioral genetic and neuroimaging lab (led by Dr. Charlotte Boettiger) affiliated with the neurobiology curriculum and earned my PhD from UNC in May 2014. I am currently pursuing postdoctoral research at Vanderbilt University where I continue to try to understand the neurobiology of reward, motivation, and addiction.

Particularly, I am interested in understanding how the brain’s “reward” chemical, dopamine, varies across individuals and whether this variability results in differences in risk for developing drug abuse.
What motivations fueled your career path?

I have always wanted to work in an area where I can help people. Members of my family struggled with alcohol abuse, as countless others do in the United States and the world, and I felt that working to understand the brain mechanisms involved in processes such as drug liking and wanting (craving) could eventually enable better treatments for drug abusers.

Many people believe drug abusers lack will power, but addiction is a chronic, remitting brain disease. We are still trying to understand what the biological risk factors are for developing addiction, but neuroimaging data clearly shows that individuals who are drug dependent have different brain structure and chemistry from healthy controls. I think combining neuroimaging with genetic data will allow us to better understand what biological factors are associated with addiction risk. My research aims to contribute to this understanding.

Within the field

When providing advice for professional development, what are some tools or resources one should consider?

It is important to remain up-to-date on science news and discoveries. Also, if you are seeking federal funding for biomedical research from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), they have a great online database which lists all grants they have awarded: If you filter by active awards, you can see what types of research is of current interest to the NIH. You would want to be sure the work you are doing can be incorporated into a fundable area of research if you want to eventually land an independent research position at a major university.
How have mentors impacted your professional development? How did you develop those relationship?

Mentors should be people you respect and want to emulate. As a young physician, my mentors are those with a deep passion for medicine, polished diagnostic skills, and strong interpersonal skills that translate into a comforting, yet confident, bedside manner. Some mentors are seasoned attending physicians, while others are only 4-5 years older than me. With these individuals, I never asked “will you be my mentor,” but the relationships developed over shared patients and medical experiences. Mentors will be valuable guides throughout your medical training and career as these relationships provide outlets for professional and personal growth. Be open to mentors, stay in touch with them, and cultivate those relationships for the long term.

How would you recommend someone interested in the same career/vocation pursue a similar path?

Getting early experiences in academic research as an undergraduate student is crucial to gaining acceptance into PhD programs. Furman students are fortunate to have great research opportunities to take part in on campus as well as an administration that supports undergraduate research.

Also, students should build relationships with their professors. Most of them went through PhD programs and can offer their personal perspectives on the long, difficult process of obtaining a PhD. Your professors and research advisor(s) will be the ones writing letters of recommendation for graduate school. The more you interact with them and share your career goals, the better a letter they can write for you (this applies to letters you need for any application, school, or job after Furman).

As always, building relationships is important for attaining a position in a good graduate school and ultimately a faculty position at a leading research university. Furthermore, you have to convey to others that you have a useful set of research skills (obtained from undergraduate and graduate school as well as your postdoc) and expertise that make you someone a department wants to eventually hire as a faculty member.
How is success defined in your career field? (How did Furman prepare you to be successful?)

In the academic research world, success is defined as the number of peer-reviewed scientific papers you have authored or co-authored. Writing such papers requires strong organization and communication skills, in addition to good research practice. One often has to be self-motivated to turn data into a story worthy of publication, thinking about what other experiments or analyses need to be performed to complete the picture you are trying to convey with your data.

You also have to have strong critical thinking skills as you need to synthesize your findings with a broader literature of other studies and results that came before you. Furman prepares you well in written communication skills and the psychology department and neuroscience major, in particular, emphasized the ability to critically read and interpret scientific papers and studies. I use the skills I learned at Furman everyday as I continue to plan out and write papers.

One also needs to have persistence and drive to succeed in science as your papers are often rejected or require major refinement before eventual publication (which can take months to a year). This is the nature of the field, though, and leads to studies that are more comprehensive and impactful than they would have been on first submission.

For someone just getting started

What do you wish you would have known getting started in your field?

Scientific research is a field that requires much patience and perseverance. If you want quick career progression, this is not the path for you. Another key thing to realize early on is the importance of research opportunities and choosing good labs for these opportunities (this also applies to choosing a PhD lab). Those students who work as a research assistant while an undergraduate or just after completing their undergraduate degree before applying to graduate school can often get involved enough with lab projects to warrant inclusion as a co-author on papers coming out of the lab. Since papers are the currency of science, getting them early and often is critical. Also, given the competitiveness of graduate school now, having a co-authored publication (or 2) when you apply really boosts your odds of getting accepted into a PhD program.
How could Furman help with getting someone started?

Furman does a good job of offering research opportunities to undergraduate students. The key is for students to be aware of and take advantage of these opportunities. I also encourage Furman faculty to consider publishing work conducted with their undergraduates. Many faculty already do this but it would be great for Furman to encourage more of this behavior, spotlight its occurrence (press releases, website/magazine stories), and incentivize it (for faculty and undergraduates).

Furman University

How has your liberal arts background shaped your career path or supported your success?

Neuroscience is an interdisciplinary field where people with biology, chemistry, psychology, physics, engineering, and medical backgrounds frequently interact. Having some knowledge of physics and cell biology/physiology can be useful when trying to interpret neuroimaging data. So, the broad scientific training I got at Furman helps me understand the language used by these various fields of study.

Furthermore, one has to have strong written and oral communication skills to succeed in science. Many undergraduate institutions do not emphasize writing and I am glad Furman did. I left Furman with better communication skills and continue to improve upon them in my current work.

Finally, the ability to obtain research experience at Furman was instrumental in helping me choose to pursue a career in biomedical research and also made me more competitive in my graduate school applications. Without Furman’s emphasis on engaged learning, I might not have discovered this challenging and rewarding field of work.

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