8 March 2022 – Erin Schuman of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt, Germany, has just been announced as the recipient of this year’s FEBS | EMBO Women in Science Award. She talked to Astrid Gall about her research in neuroscience, balancing a demanding career with family life, and mentoring.
In 1996, you discovered that local protein synthesis in dendrites has a crucial role for synaptic plasticity. It was a paradigm shift and a starting point of a new research field. Fast forward to 2022, what does your current research focus on?
In the 1990s, we were studying mechanisms of synaptic plasticity, the strengthening and weakening of synapses. The dogma was that short-term memories could be elicited without new proteins. But we observed an almost immediate requirement for protein synthesis, meaning the protein source had to be close to the synapse. There were a few pieces of data suggesting local translation – ribosomes in electron micrographs and a handful of mRNA molecules in dendrites – and a lot of skepticism. Micro-dissecting and imaging allowed us to visualize protein synthesis directly, and our discovery of 2500 mRNAs in dendrites was game-changing. We also developed an appreciation for the protein demands of neurons: the processes we were studying are fundamental for their ongoing maintenance, not just used for plasticity.
Today, we explore the parameter space of single neurons quantitatively to understand the dynamics that allow them to maintain or modify their proteome. We and others have found that neurons exploit every chance to diversify, splice, or swap elements of mRNAs and proteins to expand the regulatory potential of the basic toolkit all cells have. Recently, we discovered that the mRNAs for ribosomal proteins are synthesized in dendrites, and that these locally synthesized ribosomal proteins are exchanged dynamically. We are also doing work to sequence tRNA populations present in different cellular compartments, to understand how tRNA availability, codon usage and bias may influence translation dynamics.
What is your motivation for working in this area?
For me, time is best spent dwelling on understanding the single neuron and its synapses and developing methods that others can use. I like to go deep into quantifying and understanding basic neuronal cell biology because it fascinates me, and I feel that this is where I can contribute most to science. The reason science usually works well is because everyone has a different thing that they love and that they are good at. I found this thing and it is how I like to spend my time.
Are there practical applications?
We are focused on understanding basic cell biological synaptic mechanisms, but there has been an interesting convergence of many neurodevelopmental and some neurodegenerative disorders on the synapse. For example, protein synthesis mechanisms are at the heart of Fragile X syndrome, and diseases like Alzheimer’s are now called “synaptopathies”.
Neuroscience has benefited enormously from technological advances, including new protein visualization techniques you have developed. How have these advances influenced other fields?
People use our systems in various contexts. For example, they use our BONCAT (bio-orthogonal non-canonical amino acid tagging) technique in cancer and neurodegeneration. Last year, two papers on Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease used our methods to show that dysfunctional protein synthesis lies at the core of the pathology. We have people visiting our lab to learn methods all the time. I love when people come together, a meeting of the minds, and seeing the methods we have developed help others solve their questions.
What are the major challenges for neuroscience in the future?
The challenges are the small spaces and the diversity. A synapse is about a micron in diameter and has around 40 receptors for the excitatory neurotransmitter. We do not know yet how diverse the synapses of a single cell are – if there is a molecular signature of each cell that is imparted on all synapses, or if there is a mix of synapses that all cells share and the ratio of the synapse types changes between cells. It is important to understand the dynamic range that synapses can occupy, and whether they can occupy the entire space or discrete points, because it may explain disease states.
You are a highly successful scientist and have a family of five. What difficulties have you faced as a woman in science, and what has helped to overcome them?
Everyone’s situation is different and challenging in different ways, too. My solution worked for me, but it is not the only way. It is important to choose a great life partner. A life in science is a special lifestyle and having someone who understands this is invaluable. My husband is a scientist, too. I am very fortunate to have him by my side. We were able to hire part-time help, were incredibly organized and lived close to the lab. There is also the time flexibility of academic life, a big positive, which people now appreciate even more. It is obviously challenging to have a demanding career and a family life, but I am very grateful that I have been able to enjoy and love both. I feel I have the best of both worlds.
What advice do you give to early-career scientists?
My mentoring is very personal. I have some basic advice I give to all early-career researchers, but I also like to see someone’s individual situation and try to understand them and their priorities. One thing I learned is important: Be patient with your own journey and associate with people who believe in you. I had a really difficult PhD experience, almost gave up, and later found myself at a crossroad where I could have chosen a poor mentor for my postdoctoral research period, but luckily I did not!
I also encourage scientists to find their voice as early as possible. People I mentor often come to me with conflicts, troubled relationships, or perceived injustice. Too often people wait too long to speak up, for themselves and for others. It is important to not stay quiet and rely on others to be the talkers. The more voices and the more varied they are, from men and women, the more effective we will be.
What does receiving the FEBS | EMBO Women in Science Award mean to you?
Receiving the FEBS | EMBO Women in Science Award is a huge honour. This recognition is the culmination of a long scientific story that has been revealed together with the many talented scientists I have had the privilege of working with. I smile when I think about each past and present lab member who has contributed to this body of work. As a senior scientist, I am also proud that our efforts to improve the representation and respect for women in science have been recognized.