Melissa Herman, PhD

Melissa Herman graduated with her PhD from the Neuroscience Graduate Program (NGP) in 2009 and left Craig Jahr’s lab on the second floor of the Vollum Institute for a postdoc in a lab half-way around the world at Charite Universitätsmedizin in Germany. While it might seem like a radical change, Herman has found many parallels with her new life in Berlin and her time at OHSU. One contributing factor: her new boss, Christian Rosenmund, also earned his PhD on the Vollum’s second floor.

Herman grew up “really in the middle of nowhere, in Northeastern Washington,” where her parents run a small organic orchard growing cherries, apricots, peaches, apples, and pears. As an undergraduate at Reed College in Portland, Herman worked with NGP faculty member Steve Arch. “My hands-on experience certainly helped with graduate school in terms of thinking critically about research, experimental design, and the importance of asking questions.” Though she initially planned to stick to molecular biology-based techniques, “the neurophysiology course really changed my mind about working in electrophysiology.” She chose to work in Craig Jahr's lab “because of the questions, the way he approached science…and the overall environment. The level of science being conducted in his lab is so high. I also really appreciated how much freedom he gave me to explore my own ideas. He really was a great mentor.”

In the Jahr lab, Herman worked in hippocampal brain slices to determine how glutamate transporters set the level of ambient glutamate, and how this affects synaptic transmission. Now in the Rosenmund lab, she has turned her attention to studying the role of synaptic vesicular glutamate transporters. Once she decided to work in electrophysiology, she wasn’t deterred by the male-dominated atmosphere. She started as one of only a few women on the second floor, but that ratio grew to nearly fifty-fifty by the time she left. Regardless of gender makeup, “the level of the discussion was very high. People weren't afraid to participate and ask good questions,” particularly in the weekly Journal Club held on the second floor.

Herman knew she wanted to work for Rosenmund after meeting him at a Vollum seminar, when he was still working at Baylor College of Medicine in Huston, Texas. “He asked me right away if I had any ‘location restrictions’…and then told me he was thinking of moving to Berlin. I told him that that was great, because I thought that coming from Portland, Berlin would probably be less culture shock than Houston.” Indeed, Herman has found likenesses between the cities. “There's a similar style between Berlin and Portland. People are very progressive; there are lots of young intellectuals everywhere.”

Rosenmund’s lab is substantially larger at 12 people than the four usually found in the Jahr lab. And Herman is learning more molecular techniques with the shift to presynaptic machinery. But she still feels quite at home in her new lab. “I think Christian is trying to get that 2nd floor feeling into our institute. We're doing a bi-monthly journal club, and just started a pizza-and-beer happy hour once a week.”