When Carla Shatz, PhD, was an undergraduate at Radcliffe College, her grandmother suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Shatz was devastated.
“My grandmother was the first person in our family to go to college, and she was an unbelievable athlete and a brilliant woman,” she told a Stanford audience during a recent Personal Perspectives lecture hosted by the Translational Research and Applied Medicine (TRAM) program in the Department of Medicine.
“After the stroke, my grandmother was miserable. All of these diagnosticians could say exactly where the stroke was, but there weren’t many treatment options.” The experience unexpectedly sparked Shatz’s curiosity – and got her thinking about neuroscience and the brain.
Today, Shatz, the director of Stanford Bio-X, is widely considered a leader in neuroscience. She has spent the last 40 years studying the brain and has made significant discoveries about its development and plasticity. She has authored over 120 publications, received countless awards and nurtured the careers of many young academics.
She’s also blazed trails for women in science. She was the first woman to receive a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard and later became the first female chair of the same program. She was also the first woman to receive tenure in the basic sciences at Stanford.
Shatz, who refers to herself as a “child of the space race,” says she benefitted from the period’s intense focus on scientific progress. As a high school student, she took “extraordinary research- and discovery-based science classes” that immediately captured her attention.
She grew up in an accomplished household: Her mother was a painter who studied under the artist Philip Guston and her father was an engineer and systems scientist who helped design the internal navigation system for the Apollo 11 lunar module. “They both loved what they were doing,” she explained. “I think that was an extremely important environment to be in.”
Shatz described her parents as tough and supportive. She said she and her brother were encouraged to trust in their abilities, take risks and pursue their interests and passions.
“Part of why I love coming to work – even with a million grant deadlines and everything is that it gives me the license to explore my passion about how the brain works and how brain connections can change with experience. These passions started early, but they’re still with me now.”
Learn more about TRAM’s Personal Perspectives lecture series.
Previously: Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz on learning and the value of collaboration, Science is like an ongoing mystery novel, says Stanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz and Taking the “molecular brakes” off learning
Photo by Norbert von der Groeben