Susanne Schreiber, Professor of Theoretical Neurophysiology, receives the Caroline von Humboldt Professorship
Photo: Matthias Heyde
On the occasion of the award ceremony for the Caroline von Humboldt Professorship, Isabel Fannrich-Lautenschläger from the Humboldt-Universität conducted an interview with awardee Susanne Schreiber. The interview is only published in German. Please find a link to the repective website below. Here we provide a translation of the interview.
Prof. Schreiber, what are you researching in your Computational Neurophysiology group?
Prof. Dr. Susanne Schreiber: In short, we use mathematics to describe nerve cells and thereby understand what the brain does.
And in more detail?
Schreiber: We deal with the hypothesis that the properties of the nerve cells themselves – and not just their interconnections – determine how our brain processes information. I like to call this “the personality” of the nerve cells. We take into account evolutionary influences, such as the fact that temperature is not always the same, nor is energy available in unlimited quantities.
What would be a concrete example?
Schreiber: We recently published an article in Nature on the flight system of the fruit fly. It specifically handles a circuit that controls the insect’s muscles. Our mathematical considerations showed that nerve cells with a certain personality produce the correct flight pattern when they are electrically coupled, not chemically. This was surprising. Electrical connections were not thought to have such behavior.
How can such research be applied to humans?
Schreiber: In the long term, for example, we hope to help clarify the mechanisms by which epilepsies develop.
To what extent do you work on an interdisciplinary basis?
Schreiber: Ideally – as was the case with the fruit fly – we discover a principle on the basis of mathematical calculations. Then, together with colleagues working experimentally, in this case at the University of Mainz, we look at whether this principle actually exists in the real system, in nature.
You have received numerous awards and have held the Einstein Professorship for Computational Neurophysiology since 2021. How do you outline your career as a woman in science?
Schreiber: Looking back, it may look straightforward, but it never is. I’ve had times in my career when I didn’t know what to do next. It was good to continuously follow your my scientific interests without getting discouraged. There’s a quote from Michelle Obama on my webpage that goes something like this: figure out what your passion is and stay true to it.
(“Be passionate about something and lean to that strength.”)
What specific support has helped you?
Schreiber: I benefited greatly from being able to acquire my own project funding. And from mentoring programs. These include the Profile Mentoring Program and the Leadership Program. That helps to network with female researchers, to exchange ideas, to gain courage and to learn strategies – for example for job applications.
You yourself promote young researchers, including postdocs, doctoral and master’s students, in a special way. In 2018, you were awarded the HU Teaching Prize for this and were on the nomination list again four years later. What is important to you as a mentor?
Schreiber: That you awaken young people’s interest and accompany them on their way to becoming independent researcher personalities. It’s important to encourage them to develop their own ideas and to think outside the box. I enjoy helping a little by providing advice and interaction.
In addition to your research and teaching activities, you are the vice chair of the German Ethics Council. What is your concern there?
Schreiber: I believe that scientific research – and that includes the life sciences – advances society. We have many findings and technical developments in biology that are medically and socially relevant. On the other hand, with every technical innovation, we also have ethical lines of conflict.
Schreiber: Artificial intelligence. In our research group, too, we use methods of AI and machine learning – especially in neuroscience, we are very close to it. It offers great opportunities. However, the risks in the process of its development must also be minimized. Society needs to be broadly informed about the light and dark sides and understand what it’s all about.
Do you already know how you want to invest the prize money?
Schreiber: We have the idea of researching special organelles in our cells in more detail – a kind of small power plant that provides the energy. I would like to invest in experimental technology to find out how these organelles help nerve cells do their work. Our brain is one of the most energy-intensive organs of all.
By Isabel Fannrich-Lautenschläger
About the Caroline von Humboldt Professorship
The Caroline von Humboldt Professorship will be awarded for the tenth time in 2023. The aim of the professorship is to make outstanding female professors at Humboldt-Universität even more visible and to support their work. The Caroline von Humboldt Professorship is awarded to excellent female professors from all disciplines at HU who distinguish themselves through their international reputation, the relevance of their research results beyond their own field, and their outstanding publication activity.
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