Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, ArtLab Foyer
Growing up in Science with Erin Schuman and Gilles Laurent
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Science is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On Monday, April 15th, Growing Up in Science features Frankfurt's neuroscientist power couple Prof. Erin Schuman, PhD and Prof. Gilles Laurent, PhD (both directors at Max Planck Institute for Brain Research)
Erin's Official CV
Erin Schuman was born in 1963 in California. After completing her B.A. in Psychology at the University of Southern California in 1985, Erin Schuman received her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Princeton University in 1990. She conducted postdoctoral studies in the Department of Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Stanford University. She was appointed to the Biology Faculty at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in 1993 and stayed there until 2009. In 2009, she moved to Frankfurt, Germany to found the Department of Synaptic Plasticity in Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. Erin’s long-standing research interest is the study of cell biological mechanisms that underlie information processing and storage in neural circuits.
Erin's Unofficial CV
Erin spent her youth in Southern California, mostly educated in Catholic Schools that were known more for their athletic prowess than their academics. She attended the University of Southern California before it upped its game to become a reputable intellectual institution. She shunned the “rich” social life that USC’s Fraternity and Sorority row had to offer in order to frequent the punk and rockabilly gigs that were abundant in L.A. at the time. She studied Psychology because of her interest in humans and other animals- and after ruling out Medicine as an option. She was lucky to have as a mentor a young female Assistant Professor (Dr. Laura Baker) who gave her the confidence she would need to endure graduate school. In grad school, Erin worked with (as an experimental system) and for (her thesis advisor) an “impossible slug”. She was captivated by recording from living neurons but had a very hard slog through grad school (slog because of slug advisor) and thought seriously about quitting science.
Fortuitously, she attended the Neural Systems course at the MBL in the summer before her PhD advisor’s lab moved from Princeton to Indiana U (slugs don’t get tenure?). Connections that she made there saved her. First, they recognized something good in her, second they encouraged her to continue and third, they prevented her from choosing another abusive mentor for a postdoc. Working with Dan Madison as a post-doc, Erin was on an intense, life-affirming scientific joy-ride. It was a brand new department at Stanford and there were lots of smart, interesting and fun colleagues. Experiments went well and life was good. Without the benefit of mentoring networks, CV preparing seminars, or a post-doc association, she thought briefly approaching Chuck Stevens at the Salk for a second postdoc.
Instead, Caltech asked her to apply for a faculty position, she did and she got it. She began her faculty position feeling a bit plucked-from-the-nest too early, but soldiered on. A daily cry in her office after screwing amplifiers into racks and unpacking boxes allowed her to keep moving. She started with one great student and one lousy one, the great one was a gift. Those early experiments are still at the core of much of what Erin’s lab does now. One unanticipated pleasure (and pain, if one is honest) of the lab head job for Erin has been the intensity and fun of doing science with the staff, techs, students and postdocs in the lab. Although not a religious person, she feels “blessed” to have had so many wonderful colleagues- the best of whom are in her lab now! Erin met her husband Gilles’ at Caltech. Their (nerdy) courtship began when Gilles asked if he could build a rig in her lab over the summer. After ~20 years on the faculty, the two of them, with differing levels of discontent about doing science in the U.S., decided to move to Germany and build a new MPI for Brain Research in Frankfurt. In doing so, they tested the limits of their own “plasticity” and hoped to build a high-energy, creative and ambitious institute that does great science with smart and happy people.
Gilles' Official CV
Gilles Laurent was born in 1960 in Casablanca (Morocco) and grew up in Marrakech and Rabat. He spent his teenage years in Toulouse (France), studied veterinary medicine at Toulouse’s national vet school, and did a PhD in Neuroethology concurrently at the University of Toulouse. He moved to Cambridge (UK) in 1985 for a postdoc with Malcolm Burrows. He moved to Pasadena CA (USA) 4.5 years later, to join the Caltech faculty in the Biology Division. In 2009, he moved, together with Erin schuman, to Frankfurt (Germany) where he now runs the "Neural Systems and Coding” Department at the new Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. His research interests are centered on neural systems dynamics and function, with recent foci on cortical computation, sleep, brain evolution and cephalopod texture matching behavior. His approach is multidisciplinary (molecular, electrophysiological, behavioral, computational) and follows at least one neuroethological precept, which is to search for experimental model systems best adapted to the questions asked.
Gilles' Unofficial CV
I was born and grew up in Morocco, went to high school in Toulouse, France, opted to go to vet school (for reasons not entirely clear to me still) and had a change of heart in the second year of vet school. I therefore started doing some research on the side at the University, replacing fascinating formal lectures on porcine parasitology and bovine breeding with months of worthless attempts at building amplifiers for electrophysiology. (I spent, during those student years, 2 monastic months at Seewiesen’s MPI Verhaltensphysiologie, as it was called then, and learned there my first rudiments of electrophysiology.)
After finishing vet school and completing my PhD, I practiced for 6 months in Bergerac (France) in a large-animal practice before receiving a letter from Malcolm Burrows (Cambridge), whom I had met at a meeting in Glasgow two years earlier. In his letter Malcolm answered my plea to be spared a life of castrations and seasonal calving with an offer of one-year postdoctoral funding in his lab. I was on a train to Cambridge the next day, and things worked out. One year became nearly 5 and I then left to the United States for my first real job.
I met Erin when she interviewed for a faculty job at Caltech (where I was a young faculty — she was a star postdoctoral at Stanford then), although we might have met in Woods Hole 3 or 4 summers earlier when we took separate courses there. As Erin will surely point out with a touch of reproachful and pointed humor, things could have worked out differently for us had my Caltech colleagues not prevailed over me during that faculty search...
My take on life as a scientist is that if you find passion, if you work hard (which comes with passion) and if you are lucky every once in a while, things tend to work out. Life as a scientist is one of privilege. Music alone might bring comparable joy.