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an online version of the magazine Winter 2005
Features
The House that Sol Built  
 
  He may be one of the most famous scientists in the world, but this schmoozy brain researcher is so fixated on family and friends, he finishes every lecture with pictures of his grandchildren.
BY KATE LEDGER
 
 
 
 

Ask around about neuroscientist Sol Snyder and you hear surprising things.

Snyder may be a superstar—one of the world's most-cited journal authors with a long track record of re-envisioning how messaging takes place within the brain—but he sure doesn't fit the picture of your typical single-track researcher.

Take, for instance, that as a teenager growing up in Washington, D.C., Snyder was a classical guitarist talented enough to give concerts before the virtuoso Andre Segovia—he even considered becoming a musician. Or that he wandered into research as a means to avoid the Vietnam draft. And while Snyder's lab colleagues marvel at his “uncanny,” and even “artistic,” ability to transform a hunch into a discovery, he's also known for a touchy-feely—if not riveting—sensitivity, a guy whose remarkable memory includes birth dates of the children of people in his department and whose attentiveness prompts him to phone daily when friends are in the hospital.

A few straight-laced researchers have been known, of course, to be taken aback by this softie who includes photographs of his own grandkids in the closing graphics of his scientific lectures. “It tends to get mixed reactions, ” acknowledges neuroscientist and Nobel laureate Paul Greengard of the Rockefeller University and a longtime friend of Snyder's. But Snyder's unusual combo of traits seems to have served him—and the field of neuroscience—quite well. As he steps down this year from the directorship of the department he began 25 years ago, it's no modest baton he's passing along. As Greengard notes, “He built one of the best neuroscience departments in the world—from nothing.”

 

*****

 

Sit down with Sol Snyder and you encounter a sometimes disconcerting mix of intensity, kindness and irreverence. At 66, he's lean, all arms and legs, with constantly moving hands that tend to land thoughtfully around his face. Considering all he's packed into a career—leading a prolific lab, creating a world-class department, authoring hundreds of journal articles and six books, participating in elite scientific organizations, founding two biotech companies, editing the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, not to mention collecting art, serving as a trustee of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and, for a time, president of his synagogue—it's hard to believe, as he insists, “I can't do more than one thing at once.” But his office is soundproofed to prevent distractions, and his focus is singular and personable.

Attests neuroscientist Rick Huganir, “When you're sitting with him, it's as if you're the only person he's got to think about that day.”

Snyder's career path was hardly a beeline for the lab. He headed dutifully into medicine, aiming for psychiatry, the right field, he says, “for a nice Jewish boy who couldn't stand the sight of blood.” After an internship year in San Francisco during which “every male medical graduate was figuring out ways to dodge the draft,” he and his wife, Elaine, moved back to the East Coast and Snyder returned to the National Institutes of Health, where he'd worked summers during college. “I walked up and down the hall looking for a job,” he remembers. Finally, Julius Axelrod, a mogul in the studies of brain chemistry who would later win a Nobel Prize for discoveries of neurotransmission, agreed to take him in.

To say you trained under Sol is all anyone needs to know," say Synyder's graduate students.  
> To say you trained under Sol is all anyone needs to know," say Synyder's graduate students.

Under Axelrod's tutelage, Snyder published a handful of papers—and, more importantly, he says, got the gumption “to try out some of my own ideas.” He devised a new method to measure serotonin levels in the minuscule pineal glands in the brains of rats to study the animal's biological clock. With a colleague, he drew up a computerized calculation of the relative psychedelic potency of drugs like LSD and published it in the prestigious PNAS. When the two years at the NIH were up, Snyder headed for Hopkins to commence his psychiatry residency.

Things took another turn, though, when Paul Talalay, the influential chair of Pharmacology, homed in on the young resident with the impressive track record in brain studies, who'd zoomed through college and medical school at Georgetown University by age 23. Eager to bring psychopharmacology research to Hopkins, Talalay pinpointed Snyder as a potential new assistant professor in his department. But Snyder wasn't sure. “I felt it was important to finish the residency,” he says. So, Talalay persuaded then-dean Tommy Turner to bend the rules—residents weren't allowed to hold faculty positions—and let Snyder complete the residency program at the same time he started his faculty post.

 

*****

 

Right away, what became clear to everyone who came in contact with Snyder in those early days was that he had a knack for teaching and an imaginative, “out of the box” way of theorizing about the brain. Joseph Coyle, who eventually went on to spend a decade as chairman of Psychiatry at Harvard, but was a Hopkins medical student in 1966, still recalls the effect of Snyder sitting on a stool to lecture to the second-year class. “You could see the brilliance, how he connected the dots between the clinical phenomena and what was known then about what was going on in the brain.”

Snyder acknowledges that wild ideas have always come naturally to him. “Since I was a little boy,” he says, “I've been brainstorming about how the world works.” But it was, he says, the training he got from Axelrod that gave him tools to put that style of thinking to work in the lab. “Julie taught me to design good experiments, the kind that separate the men from the boys. A really good experiment is one you can do in a day, that teaches you something no matter the outcome.”

And, in fact, by the 1970s Snyder's lab was blasting wide a whole world in the study of the synapse, the space between nerve cells where complex molecular communication takes place. In four years, he'd catapulted to full professor (the youngest in Hopkins history), and was leading a crew of talented students, asking questions about how opiate drugs like heroin grip the nervous system. His group soon discovered that opiate molecules lock into specific receptors on the surfaces of nerve cells. To find the opiate receptors, they developed a straightforward technique—called ligand-binding—that involved grinding brain cells and washing the mixture with radioactively tagged opiate molecules that would be easy to locate and study. In 1978, his role in discovering the brain's opiate receptors with radioactive tags earned Snyder the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, known as the American Nobel Prize. His “grind and bind” technique, as it came to be known, became the basis of a biotech company he founded.

After that, Snyder's eclectic thinking spurred the pursuit of a slew of wide-ranging receptors: the GABA receptor where the drug Valium attaches, the adenosine receptor, which caffeine blocks to cause mental stimulation, the bradykinin receptor connected to pain transmission and the dopamine receptor where anti-psychotic drugs attached. “Each postdoc in the lab was working on a different one, each opening up a new field,” recalls Gavril Pasternak, now professor of neurology at the Sloan-Kettering Institute and Memorial Hospital, who was working toward his M.D./Ph.D. degrees in the supercharged lab in the '70s. “Everybody felt they were working on their own Nobel Prize.”

What Snyder had gleaned from Axelrod went beyond asking elegant questions. It drove to the core of mentoring. “It's like raising a family,” Snyder says. He empowered his graduate students and postdocs not only to take ownership of their labors but to take chances. “He'd come up with a great idea, they'd work on it, and when they left his lab,” Pasternak says, “they'd take it with them. How many scientists would be willing to do that? He didn't care—he'd come up with another great idea!”

In 1980, Rockefeller University began wooing Snyder to move to New York City and made him an offer so huge he knew he couldn't turn it down. “That's real money—you don't have to apply for grants.” Bidding good-bye to then-dean Richard Ross, Ross made him a counter-offer: Stay and form a new department, along with two other colleagues. “The idea was we would be a focal point to attract other neuroscience people, and I'd start building,” Snyder recalls. He asked for three floors to house his department, and accepted.

With the same imagination he shows in the lab, over the next few years Snyder began gambling on “very junior” scientists who were likely to prove themselves. “It was like being the manager of a baseball team,” he muses. “I could spend my money recruiting Roger Clemens, but I'd contribute more to baseball if I brought in new guys. It was much more creative and fun.” Niceness counted in his recruits. “We want the best of the best, but if they're a shmuck, they can go somewhere else,” he says.

The approach paid off. Today, Neuroscience is Hopkins' largest basic science department. Four of its faculty members rank among the world's most-cited people in the field—no other institution anywhere has more than one.

And Snyder is known for going to bat for his faculty. “I believe in building them as leaders,” he says. “I'm a psychiatrist first. I'm about feelings and sensitivities, making people feel good. That's why we're on earth.”

That same emotion creeps into his voice when he talks about his family, his wife, Elaine, a psychotherapist, and daughters Judith Kastenberg, a psychiatrist, and Deborah, a screenwriter. Even when he's asked what it was like in 2005 to receive the National Medal of Science from the U.S. president, he gives a small shrug and says simply, “It was fun.” But what tickled him most about the experience was having his grandchildren attend. “They had the run of the White House.”

 

*****

 

On a brisk evening in November, Snyder's tenure as chair of Neuroscience was honored at a gala affair at a hotel on Baltimore's Inner Harbor attended by more than 800 guests. Dean Edward Miller surprised the crowd with an announcement that the department would be renamed as the Solomon H. Snyder Department of Neuroscience.

The day before, a Baltimore Sun article had revealed that 20 years ago the Snyders had quietly made a large gift of stock to the department from the early biotech ventures. That now-public donation, along with other invested funds, has accrued to nearly $30 million. At the banquet, Snyder spoke briefly about the legacy of mentoring, but he didn't mention the contribution. A few days later, he explained that some of the funds will be available immediately to the new department chair, some will be provided when he retires and the rest will come when he and Elaine are no longer alive.

He demands no stipulations for how the money is to be used, paving the way, perhaps, for a successor who also will dare to think out of the box. “A gift with strings?” asks this bundle of affability. “That wouldn't be a very good gift, would it?”
 
 
 
 
Features
 The House that Sol Built
 Time Clocks in the Trenches
 Beyond the Abyss
 The Sum of All Fears
 
Departments
 Circling the Dome
 Medical Rounds
 Bench Press
 Annals of Hopkins
 
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 Learning Curve
 Post-Op
 
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