A "fundamental interest in understanding how organisms function" is what Eric Knudsen says has driven his life and led him into neuroscience research and teaching.
Born in 1949 in Palo Alto, California, Knudsen earned his bachelors and masters degrees at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his doctorate at the University of California, San Diego. He also spent a year at Georg August University in Göttingen, Germany. But he says it was a summer of study at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory on Cape Cod, between his BA and his MA that was pivotal for his career. Until then, he had been interested in ecology, with how animals interact with the world around them, or "behavior at the larger level." He came away with a profound interest in the internal workings that control animal behavior.
He studied some common marine animals and in the next few years wrote theses on the neural and muscular activity underlying ventilation and swimming in the horseshoe crab and on the structure and function in the electroreceptive midbrain of catfish. The catfish uses its ability to sense electric fields to detect living organisms in the water as it hunts for prey.
Such electroreceptic abilities are limited to animals living in water, Knudsen said. But they are closely allied to the auditory system of animals in the air.
"Right at that time (the mid'70s) Mark Konishi was publishing beautiful studies on barn owls," he said. With Masakazu "Mark" Konishi as his sponsor, Knudsen completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology and collaborated with Konishi in an extensive, much celebrated, study of the sound localization abilities of the barn owl. They showed how the owl's brain processes and represents auditory information, enabling the owl to find mice in the dark.
"That's how it started, and it hasn't ended yet," Knudsen said. Each man has branched off into further, separate, studies of the barn owl's sound localization and learning mechanisms.
By temporarily altering an owl's hearing or vision, Knudsen and his colleagues established the animal's ability to learn new information. Further studies showed that the owl retained the lesson if the owl learned it early in life. They also showed that you can teach an old owl new tricks, although you can't use exactly the same methods you used in its youth.
"We've looked at ways of increasing the learning of older animals," Knudsen said. In experiments with older owls, the team found the birds are more likely to learn if the researchers introduce variations in the routine in small steps rather than making significant changes all at once. Also, they found that the birds respond better if the researchers increase their attention and arousal. For instance, Knudsen said, "We use live mice rather than owl chow" in experiments.
The latest thrust to his work is examining how the brain decides to focus on a particular stimulus out of the multitude of stimuli coming into the brain at the same time.
"The owl is very good at this," he said.
Knudsen's association with the barn owl is purely professional. His wife, Phyllis, who is also a scientist, works as a research assistant and runs his lab. She is in charge of the owl colony, which fluctuates in size from about 70 to up to 100 in the spring when the birds are hatching.
"She does the anatomical studies; she does the behavioral studies," Knudsen said. She has to hand-raise birds they want to use in behavioral studies, but otherwise there is little interaction between the researchers and the birds. "They're not cuddly," he noted.
The two were married in 1975. They have two sons, Christopher, 20, and Keith, 17.
Since 2001, Knudsen has been chairman of the Neurobiology Department at Stanford University School of Medicine. He has held teaching positions at Stanford since 1979.
He has been active in many professional organizations, including stints as associate editor at the Journal of Neuroscience and the Journal of Neurophysiology; membership on the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child; membership on the Core research network on early experience and brain development with the MacArthur Foundation; member of the executive committee of the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford; and many leadership roles on committees and programs at Stanford.
His long list of awards includes the Newcomb Cleveland Prize, American Association for the Advancement of Science; Claude Pepper Award, National Institute of Deafness and Communication Disorders; the McKnight Senior Investigator Award; the W. Alden Spencer Award, College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University; Alfred P. Sloan Fellow; and the Society for Neuroscience Young Investigator Award. He is widely published and is a frequent lecturer.
Among his non-scientific interests are a variety of sports. With little prompting, he ticks off a long list of athletic pursuits, including sailing, surfing, diving, skiing, hiking, basketball, volleyball and jogging. "I love the ocean… and I enjoy the mountains."