Baring Family Secrets for Science

Thought experiment: Let’s say you’re a Ph.D. researcher in an academic medical center and your career is going gangbusters. You have lots of grant funding and refereed papers, a track record of regular promotions, and even some history of attracting media attention.

Now let’s say you find something out about your family history—something personal that bears strongly on the essence of who you are and might become, and that’s awkward at least, if not embarrassing. What do you do?

“Science seems to be a victim of these culture wars that we are having. I talk to people who don’t trust science anymore. I can understand part of that, but I think the problem is people don’t understand the value of what we scientists do.” —Larry Sherman

If you’re Larry Sherman, you hire a band and a graphic artist and use the material to create a public performance on neuroscience.

Sherman, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), mostly studies neurodegenerative diseases, including multiple sclerosis (MS). He fits all of the above criteria, from successful grantee (more than $5 million in National Institutes of Health funding since 2004 and millions more from the Defense Department, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and elsewhere) to minor media darling, locally at least. (In 2011 Portland Monthly magazine put Sherman on its list of “12 Oregonians Changing Our World.”)

On 20 May at 7:00 p.m., Sherman stood onstage at the 880-seat Newmark Theater in Portland, Oregon, flanked by an 11-piece band that included Grammy-nominated singer Valerie Day. For the next hour and a half, he shared family secrets in front of several hundred people, most of whom had paid $30 per ticket. “I joked at the beginning that this was my favorite topic—me—but actually getting up in front of a bunch of people and sharing family stories and talking about myself is a little daunting,” Sherman says.  

Not that any nerves showed. Sherman, who was adopted as a child, told the audience how he started to track down information about his biological family a few years ago. He told them about learning, in middle age, that he had five biological siblings—a brother, two half-brothers and two half-sisters. He told the audience how his birth mother, whom he is just getting to know, had struggled on and off with mental illness, and how she had been treated with shock therapy as a child, back when the treatment was relatively common. He told them about his maternal grandmother, who competed in bathing beauty contests in Los Angeles in the 1930s and was found naked and unconscious by railroad tracks after one such contest. She’d been raped and presumably left for dead and, according to firsthand family accounts, was never the same after that.

Looking relaxed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and a sport coat, standing by himself at the edge of the stage before a solitary microphone, Sherman described the questions, many of the existential variety, that now loomed for him: How much of his life’s course was determined that night by those railroad tracks? It’s plausible that his grandmother had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being raped. Did growing up with a mother suffering from PTSD send his own mother down the road to mental illness and shock therapy? And is it possible that these stressful events, the rape or the shock therapy or both, actually caused structural changes in the brains of his grandmother or mother that might be passed down to him? The burgeoning field of epigenetics, which he would go on to explain to the audience, holds that this is at least theoretically possible. 

Now, the good news

Rape, mental illness, and shock therapy can be hard topics to discuss. But somewhat remarkably, the night was marked more by Sherman’s mostly successful attempts at scientific clarity and levity than the sorrow associated with his stories.

The levity came from Sherman’s comedic asides, delivered with the timing of someone who’s been onstage before. (He minored in theater as an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Oregon, and ran a small local theater company in the late 1980s.) One newly discovered brother—who, like him, works in the field of neuroscience—is a musician, athlete, sports buff, and asthmatic, and is also named Larry. When the siblings get together, Sherman said, they have fun riffing on the oldTV show “This is my brother Larry, and this is my other brother Larry.” The audience laughed at that—and also as he recounted his mother’s deadpan response when he asked her how she wound up with six children, all but two of whom have different fathers: “It was the 1960s and people were having a lot of sex.”

The audience laughed again when he talked about research into what causes couples to stay together, relevant in light of the story of his biological parents. Research on prairie voles suggests that it’s possible to predict which voles will exhibit pair-bonding behavior just by looking for those expressing the gene for AVPR1a, a specific vasopressin receptor. Sherman, a self-described romance nut who is a devoted husband and father of three, gave his take on the idea that vasopressin treatments might someday be used on humans—maybe via nasal spray—to encourage commitment-phobes to stick around: “I think if you have to snort hormones to be committed, it’s probably not the right person.”

After the genetics lesson, dancing to a ’70s dance hit

It’s unlikely that your average Ph.D. researcher would consider such a public airing of family history, though it’s not without precedent. Sir Paul Nurse, a 2001 Nobel laureate for his discoveries regarding cell cycle regulation, went on “The Moth” radio program earlier this year to talk about his discovery of his own origins. (The headline from a 2010 article in the Daily Mail sums it up: “Revealed: The Nobel Prize winner who discovered his sister was really his mother.”)

Sherman has spent years honing his skills as a science storyteller. Since 2009, he has been a regular in the science pub lecture series sponsored by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, which sends scientists out into Portland’s vibrant bar scene. And he has given public lectures all around Oregon, from elementary schools to senior centers.

His enjoyment of being onstage is apparent—though he says his motivation stems more from a concern about support for science in the United States than it does from a love of the limelight.

Sherman notes that when he was an undergraduate it seemed impossible that ailments like MS would be reversible—but last year, Sherman was first author on a paper in Annals of Neurology suggesting that blocking the enzyme hyaluronidase might help the brain repair lesions associated with MS and other neurological disorders. The logical next step is to develop drugs that target the enzyme, a promise that landed Sherman on the local nightly news talking about the result.

Yet, while Sherman’s lab is funded well, he’s concerned that there’s less and less money for research. Sherman has long seen his lectures as his small bit to counteract science’s budgetary squeeze and public attitudes about science that he fears are shifting toward disinterest or outright hostility. His evolving storytelling format—one-part cabaret, one-part Oprah-confessional, one-part science lesson—is an attempt to change those attitudes.   

“I have a huge concern in this country that we are abandoning science,” he says. “Science seems to be a victim of these culture wars that we are having. I talk to people who don’t trust science anymore. I can understand part of that, but I think the problem is people don’t understand the value of what we scientists do.”

“I wanted to explore some compelling topics in neuroscience that people could relate to,” he says. “The story of my biological family lets me do that in a personal way. If it is personal to me, I figured it would be gripping for audiences.”

Sherman wants to remind people of the basic value of science. “I feel like part of my duty, one of my hats—I’m president of the Oregon chapter of Society for Neuroscience—is to go out and get the public engaged in this,” Sherman says. “My underlying goal is for people to understand the big questions and how science is addressing these big questions and making it personal. Everybody has at some point asked ‘who am I?’ We’ve all have had our existential crises.”

Along the way, the audience got a primer on the field of genetics, from Gregor Mendel’s work with pea plants to the finer points of histone methylation and acetylation, which are two ways epigenetics is thought to operate. The jargon was a bit thick on occasion, but the audience seemed content.

Sherman doesn’t get all of the credit for the success of the performance. The band gets credit, too, for their several musical interludes during the course of the show, from an original piece of music inspired by the DNA sequence for blue to the conclusion, when the audience was literally dancing in the aisles to the band’s account of “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.

Many scientists might find it uncomfortable to put their private lives on display. But in that moment turning private family history into a big public scientific spectacle seemed a natural—and toe-tapping fun—thing to do.

CREDIT: Geoff Koch and Reed College

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