It’s ok to be wrong, and it’s ok to fail.
Larry Sherman, 46
Head of the Sherman lab
at the Oregon National Primate
Research Center at OHSU
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED to neuroscientist Larry Sherman on his way to a cure for neurofibromatosis, a tumor-producing genetic disorder. He suddenly found himself on a road to solving the mysteries of multiple sclerosis.
The unlikely turn arose from a failed 2002 experiment. Sherman had genetically altered mice to produce a protein called CD44 that he theorized would produce tumors. Instead, the mice began shaking—a lot. Rather than casting the tumorless rodents aside, Sherman recalls thinking, “This is really cool; let’s figure this out.” Turns out, the protein had prevented the formation of myelin in the mice’s brains and spinal cords—making them look eerily like patients with MS. The shaking mice became part of a successful grant application to the National MS Society and a whole new direction in his research.
Now head of the Sherman Research Center at OHSU’s Oregon National Primate Research Center, Sherman is one of the world’s leading experts on myelinating nerve cells. His work is leading to possibilities for fixing damaged brains, whether ravaged by MS, shaken by chemotherapy, or eroded by simple aging.
The San Diego native’s career-changing nimbleness and skilled eye for putting together puzzle pieces from many disparate experiments in novel and often-surprising ways pervades all of Sherman’s research, indeed, his entire life. Case in point: having played piano by ear since he first banged out a song from a musical at age 4, when he’s stuck on a problem he’ll improvise on the piano for 30 minutes and then go back to the enigma with new clarity. After hearing him play, a colleague suggested he do a talk on the neuroscience of music; instead, he created a concert-lecture that is one of the city’s hottest lecture tickets. He’s even in talks with the Portland Chamber Orchestra about a new project on the nature vs. nurture debate.
“He’s very open to proposing an oddball way of thinking about things,” says David Gutmann, director of the Neurofibromatosis Center at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a collaborator with Sherman since he was a post-doc. “As a scientist, it’s very easy to get so enamored with your own ideas that you will continue down the path even when the data suggests another explanation. Larry doesn’t do that.”
For Sherman, curing disease is just a bonus of what really gets him up in the morning: the pure research. “The basic motivation,” he says, “is that we’re doing something that no one’s done before, and we could make a new discovery today.”