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Caltech Biologist Is Used to Defying Expectations : Assistant professor's age, 31, and area of expertise, neuroscience, have been known to surprise some people. She is researching ways in which information is processed and stored in the brain.

October 06, 1994|TALLY GOLDSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The ticket agent at Los Angeles International Airport looked skeptically at Erin Margaret Schuman. Schuman's tickets had her title as Dr. and standing before the agent was a woman much younger than the average college professor.

The 31-year-old assistant professor at Caltech is used to that look, used to people thinking that someone so young, especially if that someone is a woman, couldn't possibly hold a doctorate.

"No one ever believes I'm a professor," said Schuman, who teaches biology and was on her way to a neurobiology conference in Israel. "They'll see the word doctor, look at me and think it's a mistake."

But all Schuman has to do is turn to her microscope and describe how the transference of nitric oxide between neurons in a rat's brain affects memory to persuade nonbelievers that she is, indeed, Dr. Schuman.

Schuman received her Ph.D in neuroscience from Princeton University in 1990 and joined Caltech last year as the biology department's youngest faculty member.

Along with teaching introductory neurobiology this fall, Schuman is researching a number of ways in which information is processed and stored in the brain.

With the help of eight assistants and five grants, ranging from $30,000 to $350,000, Schuman will continue to explore the human body's most mysterious organ.

By studying live tissue from the hippocampus region of the brain, where memory activity takes place, Schuman is trying to learn more about illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and Attention Deficit Disorder, which hinder a person's memory.

Specifically, Schuman is tracking how far nitric oxide can travel between neurons before it is metabolized by other chemicals and what effect that relationship--between the gas and surrounding neurons--has on long-term memory.

A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Schuman is intent on understanding the elusive nature of memory.

"It's like being an artist; I'm consumed by my work. I think and dream about my experiments all the time," she said. "My mood is completely determined by what happened in the lab that day."

Schuman did not explore her interest in biology until graduate school but was always an intense student. She used to get migraine headaches from the self-imposed pressure to achieve perfect grades.

Schuman's mother, Susan, who lives in Fullerton, called her daughter "a compulsive learner. I was concerned about her, because anything less than an A devastated her. I just wanted her to relax," she said.

Schuman's office windowsill is lined with papers about such topics as farnesyltransferase inhibitors, while a pink and black Mickey Mouse hat sits conspicuously on the shelves behind her desk.

Being a young, successful scientist has had its disadvantages, Schuman says. "I didn't get to do the Europe thing," she said about the common post-college adventure. At this point, she said, she often feels lucky just to get a weekend away from the lab.

"But someday, when people ask me why they always lose their car keys, I'll have an answer for them," she said. "That will feel good."

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