S. Thomas Carmichael,

Getting to know Dr. Carmichael...

Dr. S. Thomas Carmichael is a neurologist and neuroscientist in the Department of Neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.  Dr. Carmichael is Professor and Vice Chair in the Department, with active laboratory and clinical interests in stroke and neurorehabilitation and how the brain repairs from injury.  He received his M.D. and Ph.D. degrees from Washington University School of Medicine in 1993 and 1994, and completed a Neurology residency at Washington University School of Medicine, serving as Chief Resident.  Dr. Carmichael was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute postdoctoral fellow at UCLA from 1998-2001. He has been on the UCLA faculty since 2001.  Dr. Carmichael’s laboratory studies the molecular and cellular mechanisms of neural repair after stroke and other forms of brain injury.  This research focuses on the processes of axonal sprouting and neural stem cell and progenitor responses after stroke, and on neural stem cell transplantation.  Dr. Carmichael is an attending physician on the Neurorehabilitation and Stroke clinical services at UCLA.

Dr. Carmichael has published important papers on stroke recovery that have defined mechanisms of plasticity and repair. These include the fact that the stroke produces stunned circuits that limit recovery, but can be restored to normal functioning with newly applied experimental drugs. His work has identified a novel brain “growth program” that is activated by stroke and leads to the formation of new connections. These studies have also identified how this growth program changes with age, and how specific molecules in the aged brain block the formation of new connections and of recovery.

This and other work has led to new directions in stroke therapeutics, including therapies with stem cell and tissue engineering applications.  Dr. Carmichael is in the midst of stroke stem cell development applications with the FDA and with biotechnology companies.

Q: What is your favorite book?
A: Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman. This collection of poetry and, essentially, extended personal reflections, contains all of the key observations about what it means to be alive and to experience the world and ourselves.

Q: What do you do to keep fit?
A: Run, mountain bike, and swim.

Q: What is your favorite thing about your career?
A: The constant exposure to new ideas and new directions.

Q: If you could have dinner with anyone, living or not, who would that be?
A: Walt Whitman, Jack London or Joseph Conrad—and not have dinner but to tell stories and reflect on experiences until the wee hours of the morning (possibly drinking Scotch).

Q: Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
A: My uncle Robert Collins. He is a Neurologist and a physician/scientist. I learned about Neurology from him, and the fascinating philosophical issues that come with caring for the very organ that gives our personality, our self.

Q: Do you have children?
A: Yes, two boys. One is in law school and the other is in college.  

Q: Do you have pets?
A: We have the family dog, Cloe. She is a mutt, a grown-up rescue puppy, and a good running companion.

Q: What factors influenced your career choice?
A: Two things. First, to be a neurologist is to be a medical philosopher—to see how illness changes who we are, and to use an understanding of brain function to make diagnoses and treatment decisions that might restore lost function or enable compensation with preserved function. The brain takes sugar and fat and give us poetry and pirouettes. Neurological disease interrupts this wonderful process, and is communicated to us in as many ways as the brain has available: how one walks down a street, the expressiveness of a face, the making of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Second, to be a scientist means to be creative—to follow interesting ideas and study these, to take off on tangents that might suggest a new treatment or a new of understanding of brain function. Philosophy and creativity influenced my career choice.

Q: What is your favorite movie?
A: Cinema Paradiso

Q: Who is your favorite musical artist?
A: Jack Johnson

Q: If you could be or do anything else for a career – what would it be?
A: Wilderness guide, possibly avocado farmer.

Q: If you could live in any other time, what would that be?
A: I divide the past as pre-TP and post-TP. Toilet paper is a defining invention and I would want to live after it has been routinely disseminated to society.

Q: If they made a movie of your life story what would it be called?
A: Getting Your Ya-Ya’s Out.
I think that as we age we grow conservative in our experience of risk. I mountain bike to try to be a bit reckless, a bit risky. We have to embrace new directions, try uncertain things, pursue goals in which the initial steps may be uncomfortable. On the other hand, I have had two shoulder surgeries from mountain biking mishaps, so possibly this movie ends up being tragic. But that is a risk the film maker would need to take.

Q: What is your favorite food? Least favorite food?
A: At the moment I am really into Quinoa—salads, muffins. It has of course been termed a “super food” and it is a tasty way to get nutrients and roughage. On the other end of the spectrum, I do not like fish on my pizza.

Q: Best advice anyone has given you?
A: “Hit singles”. In any endeavor, do not swing for home runs, or plan for them. Aim to make steady progress toward achievable goals.

Q: What is the first thing you do when you wake up/start your day?
A: Go for a run or a swim.

Q: What is one important skill every person should have?
A: Recognition of a personal mistake.

Q: Share a personal fact no one would ever guess about you.
A: I pack a detective novel in my travel briefcase for compelling reading when the airplane gets stuck on the tarmac.

Q: What's your favorite holiday?
A: Labor Day or Memorial Day. These have important meanings for work or military service, but I really like how they allow the consideration of a time in one’s life, the beginning of summer or the start of fall and a new academic year.

Q: What's the most unusual thing you've ever eaten?
A: Duck beak. When one eats true Peking Duck in, say, Beijing the whole bird is consumed in layers of dishes.

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