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A Stanford neuroscientist who goes where her curiosity leads

Carla Shatz, PhD, sits inside what might be usefully thought of as a cube of wonder. For one thing, her office is literally a cube, a black steel frame housing translucent panels that hint at what’s inside: her computer, books, awards and art, including her mother’s rendering of the neuromuscular junction where nerve fibers carrying signals from the brain merge with muscle tissue.

And then there is Shatz herself, who seems, after four decades in science, still a bit amazed by what she and her lab accomplished — namely, a nearly complete reappraisal of how our brains wire and rewire themselves over time.

You can read a fair bit more about Shatz’s story in the latest issue Stanford Medicine — it’s safe to say she’s seen a lot since she began studying the brain — but the thing that struck me most about her is the sense that, time and again, she discovered something incredible, asked “what’s next?” and then went wherever a seemingly boundless curiosity led her. That’s how her research went from the prenatal development of the mammalian visual system to stroke and neurodegenerative disease, after all.

It’s a bit as if the Dutch sailors on the last page of The Great Gatsby arrived in North America — “face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate with their capacity to wonder,” Fitzgerald wrote — thought it was pretty cool, and then went out and discovered an eighth and ninth continent.

I’m not entirely exaggerating.

The other thing that struck me was that despite how hard Shatz had to work — and, as one of the first women to join the basic science faculty at Stanford’s Medical School, the barriers she had to overcome — she thinks she had it a bit easy compared to young researchers today. As I write in the magazine:

...she worries for the future. Throughout her career, she says, she has benefited from interdisciplinary work. A major factor in her return to Stanford was the chance to lead Bio-X, where she could help foster — and, more to the point, fund — occasionally bonkers-sounding collaborations between doctors, engineers and basic scientists that might not happen any other way.

And, she says, her career benefited from the ability to focus on basic science without regard to the drugs or therapies that might result. She laments the pressure on a younger generation of researchers to translate their research into treatments as quickly as possible.

“It’s crazy to think that just by studying fundamental aspects of the development of the visual system, it’s led us to think in new ways, potentially really important clinical ways, about not just treating visual problems but possibly problems of synapse loss as occurs in Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s or even multiple sclerosis. You never know where basic research questions will lead.”

In her case, it led somewhere pretty wonderful.

Previously: Stanford Medicine magazine reports on the future of visionStanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz wins Kavli Neuroscience PrizeStanford neurobiologist Carla Shatz on learning and the value of collaboration and Pioneers in science

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