Member Spotlight: Dr. James (JT) Eckner

May 14, 2024


By Dayne Hopkins

From the most fun he’s ever had doing research, to finding his career calling, this Q&A session with Dr. Eckner is guaranteed to entertain and inspire. Holding strong family values and a love for hockey, Dr. Eckner walks us through his aspirations for the future and explains how Nerf balls fit into the lighter side of concussion research. Use the link below for the full Q&A session.

Q: Can you tell me about your academic journey and how you ended up in your career?

A: I can’t claim to be one of those people who has always known exactly what I wanted to do with my life from a young age- growing up I had pretty broad interests and over time I narrowed them down from science in general (high school) to biology (college) to medicine (medical school, duh) to physical medicine & rehabilitation (residency) to concussion (post-residency). It was also during residency that I realized I wanted to pursue a career as a physician-scientist.  During medical school and internship, I envisioned a clinical career.  I credit my resident research mentor, Jim Richardson, with recognizing how much I enjoyed doing research, and that I had a knack for it!

Q: What inspired you to pursue your career field, and are there any specific moments that stand out in shaping your journey?

A: I’d credit my 4th-year medical school electives with solidifying my interest in PM&R.  After trying out all of the medical specialties I thought I might be interested in PM&R just seemed to be the place where I belonged.  From there, it was really my resident research project that led me to my current career.  As a resident, I took on a research project to develop a clinical test of reaction time based on a standardized ruler drop.  What I initially thought would just be a fun project during residency really ignited my passion for research and at first concussion was just a good clinical population to apply the RT test in.  This said, I have always loved the brain so my interest quickly broadened to encompass many aspects of concussion, and working with and studying athletes is a great way to marry my interests in clinical research, the brain, and sports.  Now one of the things that really drives me to understand the long-term effects of concussion and repetitive sport-associated head impacts on brain health is a desire to keep the brain healthy without losing out on the benefits of sport and exercise.

Q: Beyond academia, do you have any hobbies or interests that you are particularly passionate about? 

A: I think anyone who knows me realizes that my #1 passion is my kids.  Whether it’s their karate, soccer, scout campouts, science olympiad, or astrophotography, I’m very proud of all they do and I have a hard time not bragging about them and sharing our most recent adventures together.  Otherwise, I’d say my main hobby of my own is playing beer-league hockey.

Q: What is the best part about your job?

A: The best part about my job is the amazing people I get to work with and all of the challenges we take on together.  I love the collaborative aspect of the work I do, whether it’s in caring for patients, studying complex research questions, or educating the next generation of learners.  Focusing on concussion is also great because for all we know (or think we know) about the brain and brain injury, there is just as much if not more that we still haven’t figured out.

Q: Can you share a memorable or amusing anecdote from your time in academia that reflects the lighter side of research life?

 A: I’ll answer this by telling you about one of the most fun research projects I have ever done. In this project, we wanted to determine whether our clinical test of reaction time (ruler drop test) could predict an athlete’s ability to project their head in a simulated sport environment.  We way we measured this was to gear high school kids up with protective equipment and then shoot Nerf balls at their heads from an air cannon.  To be sure we were measuring their optimal protective response each time they blocked a neaf ball we moved them closer and closer to the air cannon until the ball hit their helmet before they could get their hands up.  The team and the kids all had a really fun time with this experiment and I had colleagues enroll their own kids just so they could watch us shoot them with Nerf balls in the name of science.

Q: In your opinion, what is the most exciting or groundbreaking development in your field in recent years?

A: I think the most exciting recent development in our field is the growing body of research surrounding concussion biomarkers.  We’re still not quite there but I think that it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be applying new imaging, blood-based, and/or physiological markers of concussion to routine patient care.

Q: How do you balance the demands of work life with personal well-being, and do you have any tips for maintaining a healthy work-life balance?  

A: I think this is something we’re all still trying to figure out.  For me, recognizing and accepting that there will always be more work to do so not getting sucked into it and allowing myself to step away to make time for other higher priorities like family and exercise is the key.

Q: Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future, both in terms of your career and personal growth?

A: My two biggest aspirations for the future of the Concussion Center are to grow our research portfolio to support a large-scale center grant and to expand our Concussion Learning Health System across Michigan Medicine and eventually to partner sites.