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Honorary degree citation - Eric Kandel

By: Michael von Grunau, June 2003

Mr. Chancellor, I have the honour to present to you Dr. Eric R. Kandel, preeminent scientist, professor and Nobel laureate.

Born in Vienna in 1929, Eric Kandel was an adolescent when he and his family emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1939. The experiences of his last year in Vienna, under Nazi occupation, would influence his later interests in the mind, in how people behave, the unpredictability of motivation, and the persistence of memory.

He earned an undergraduate degree in history and literature from Harvard College in 1952. After graduation, he became fascinated by psychoanalysis, which was then an exciting new approach to understanding the mind. He altered his course of study and enrolled in the New York University School of Medicine, where he received his medical degree in 1956. This was followed by postdoctoral training at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and clinical work as a staff psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston. Meanwhile, he carried out research and taught at Harvard Medical School.

Early in his research career, Dr. Kandel realized that the human brain, with 100 billion nerve cells, is monumentally complex to study. He therefore followed a classical method in all natural science: he chose to examine a simpler experimental model, the nervous system of a sea slug, called Aplysia. His seminal work has demonstrated fundamental ways in which nerve cells alter their responsiveness to chemical signals to produce a coordinated change in behavior. This discovery of signal transduction in the nervous system has been pivotal to arriving at a modem understanding of basic learning and memory processes, and has provided great promise for the development of new drugs to correct neurological and psychiatric diseases, such as Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

In 1965, Dr. Kandel was appointed associate professor in the departments of physiology and psychiatry at his alma mater, the NYU School of Medicine; he was promoted to full professor in 1968. In 1974, he accepted a professorship at Columbia University, where he became founding director of the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. He was appointed University Professor at Columbia in 1983 and has been a senior investigator with its Howard Hughes Medical Institute since 1984. His scientific brilliance has been acknowledged with numerous honours and prestigious awards throughout his career.

Dr. Kandel's lifelong work has been dedicated to advancing scientific knowledge of the human brain, and its sophisticated ability to form memories. His pioneering work on the molecular basis of memory and learning has provided deep insight into the biology of the mind, and the complex neural processes that form the very essence of our ability to think and interactmeaningfully in society.

His contributions to the field of neuroscience have been among the remarkable advances in biology in the 20th century, and are the cornerstone of an emerging golden age of the science of the mind.

Mr. Chancellor, on behalf of Senate and the Board of Governors, it is my privilege and an honour to present to you, Dr. Eric Kandel, so that you may confer upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

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