Today we are speaking to Professor Erin M. Schuman, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, who this year was awarded the prestigious Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the ALBA-FKNE Diversity Prize. Professor Schuman, for people who don’t know you, could you explain your work?
My lifelong interest has been how neurons store information. I began by studying learning in very simple animals, and over the course of my career I became interested in things that are more molecular. Our work has moved from trying to understand things like which cells are important for storing information, to becoming fascinated with how a single brain cell works. I’ve ended up with one of the most molecular levels of analysis that one can have, which is: how are proteins supplied and managed at synapses?
We know that memories are formed by changing synapses, which are the connections between brain cells. One of the ways that you can persistently change the way a synapse works, is by changing the proteins that make up the synapse. You can do that by either changing the synthesis or the degradation of the proteins. We realised that we really didn’t know very much about the basics of those things in neurons, while we understand them better in the cells that populate the rest of the body. But neurons are unique in their morphology: most of a neuron’s volume doesn't come from the cell body, it comes from the axons and the dendrites. The real estate is very different.
Neurons then take the cell biological machines that would normally be associated with the cell body, and distribute those machines to [the axons and dendrites]. This is to exert local control. That’s important because a neuron has around 10,000 synapses, and each of those synapses in theory could hold a bit, or more, of information. You need to have individual control so that the information is stored specifically at one synapse, and not at its neighbour. I think that’s so interesting.
When you look at a neuron, you really just have to bow down. They are amazing, the most complicated cells in the body. And we know what they do—but we don’t know exactly how they do it. To be able to understand all these crazy connections that can give rise to the conversation we’re having right now, that would be pretty awesome.
Your first degree was in psychology. How do you go from a psychological concept like memory to something as concrete as proteins and synapses?
The classic experiment that you would do to assess the importance of your “process of interest” in a biological phenomenon is to try and block your process and see what happens. For example, there’s work from the 1950s showing that in order for animals to form long-term memories, you need new protein synthesis. They injected protein synthesis inhibitors into rats before letting them run a maze. And to me, those experiments are important to do, but the conclusions are expected. Yes, you will need new proteins. I don’t find it illuminating at the same level as what we are looking at now.
That said, we are developing tools that will give us more satisfying answers. For example, we recently developed a tool that allows you to block protein synthesis only in the cells that you want, so you can genetically control the inhibition of protein synthesis in a particular cell type. And we are working on modifying that tool so that you could block protein synthesis in a particular aspect of a cell using light or some other kind of trigger. By refining the tools that we can use to do those kind of classical experiments, I think it becomes more meaningful to move up and down these levels of analysis.
You also have to be realistic about what a single lab can do. We could do experiments on a single protein and span all levels of analysis, but that’s not what I personally want to do. I would like to answer more conceptual questions. We’re so successful as a field because people choose to do things differently. I do the experiments I do because I find them the most fascinating. But someone else does their experiments because they find them the most fascinating and all together, hopefully we, with a bunch of different approaches, will get close to a solution.
You started your career in the States. Do you think there are differences in the research environment between the US and Europe, and was there a transition period for you?
There are definitely are some differences. When I came of age as an Assistant Professor, the field I was in was basically a fraternity. It was a bit rough, at first trying to gain access to the fraternity and then discovering that I was never going to become a member. That was slightly oppressive. Here in Europe, I don’t see that at all and I don’t get a sense of cliques. There’s a kind of gentility in people’s interactions. It’s a little more civilised here. On the other hand, that civility, I think, maybe has a downside that it slows progress down a little bit on social issues in academia.
My impression was also when I came here that the work ethic was different, and that took some getting used to. People in America are a bit more hungry, perhaps. At Caltech, I would drive by my lab coming home from a dinner at 2 a.m. and there would be lights on in my lab. That happens here less often. But I think that is also changing in the States, too. Globally everyone is trying to work a little less and be more balanced in life, not a bad thing.
You’re known as a champion of diversity and inclusion, especially of women, in neuroscience. Why have you chosen to dedicate so much energy to this?
It’s seeing the numbers and the inherent unfairness. It’s funny, in biology you don’t start out feeling like a minority [as a woman]. I didn’t even feel I was in the minority as a postdoc. But then I got my job at Caltech, and there was less than 20% female faculty, and an incredibly patronising attitude from some of the senior people. Just looking around at the inequalities at Caltech, there was also only around 30% female undergrads on campus.
I became aware of the unfairness of things. For example, it was not part of normal procedure when someone was coming up for tenure to consider if they had had children or not. Let’s say you’re pregnant, you had to go to your chair and ask him, because it was always a man, if you could have an extension of your tenure clock. We fought then to make the extension automatic, and then it was your decision if you wanted to decline. It’s a personal choice to have kids, but we also have kids for our village, for our society. We should support people who are supporting the village, and make it possible for people to do both [research and child rearing] if they want.
Finally, when you look back on your career in the future, what will you have been proud to achieve?
There are two things. One thing, that I think we have already achieved, is that we have made some really important discoveries about neurons and how they make proteins locally. I’m very proud of that.
But as you get more senior, you begin to think, have I made a difference for people? Have people grown as scientists, as humans, when they’ve been working with me? And have I made the world a better place for women and girls? I like to think that a lot of the work that I’ve done since coming to Germany and the Max Planck Society, has really made some important contributions and changed the way people are recruited. The gender demographics have changed. I’m very proud of that, too. It could be that I end up being more known for that than for science, but I hope it’s both.
We’re sure it will be. Thank you so much for speaking to us.(© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet / Spektrum.de)