FACULTY PROFILE: Uncovering the mysteries of schizophrenia

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By Kelly Quance
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Over a year ago, two German boys aged eight and 11 moved to London. They walked into their new classrooms speaking virtually no English. The following September, the boys switched schools again. Their mother, Susanne Schmid, went in to meet their teachers and what they told her was astonishing.
 
“None of them had realized that our kids are not native English speaking,” says Schmid. “So, after one year, they were completely fluent.”
 
Exactly how the boys mastered English remains a mystery to Schmid because they “speak only German at home, read German books, and even download German movies.”
 
Schmid wondered how they learned so quickly. But as a neuroscientist, she’s always been fascinated by how the human brain works.
 
Her passionate interest in neuroscience led her to Canada in August 2007.
 
Schmid is an assistant professor in the department of anatomy and cell biology. She moved to London to conduct research and teach at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.
 
Today, Schmid spends long days working in her approximately 1,000 square-foot lab. The space is filled with a mix of clear and coloured flasks, stainless-steel instruments, and rat brain slices.  
 
She works closely with two graduate students and two fourth year students. They perform what she calls “very exciting” experiments on mammalian brains. Her research is designed to determine the mechanisms, at the cellular and molecular level, underlying how sensory information is processed. To do this, Schmid studies the behaviour of rats, as well as the electrical activity in their brains. 
 
“I’m always curious about the experiments because we really don’t know what the outcome will be.  What we discover could contribute to the development of new drugs that may help schizophrenic patients in the future,” says Schmid. “There’s so much to learn. And I love teaching too.”
                       
 Tyler Brown, an MA candidate in anatomy and cell biology, describes Schmid as an excellent teacher.
 
“When I need to ask something, I walk across the hall to her office, and she jumps up from her desk to help me,” says Brown. “She knows so much about the field but it’s not daunting to work with her. She spends a lot of time making sure concepts are clear to us. She’s so passionate about science.” She’s been that way all her life.
 
Born and raised in Germany, Schmid is the daughter of a history professor. She learned many things from her parents, but didn’t share her father’s love of history.
 
“I was clearly determined to go into natural science, probably because it was the contrast to what my father did,” says Schmid. “I hated history as a child, although I regret that now. But at least I learned what it was like to work in a university.”
 
After completing a doctor of natural sciences in 1997 at Eberhard-Karls-University of Tuebingen, Germany, she completed a post-doctorate degree in neuro-plasticity and retinol development.
 
In 2000, she established her own research group that studied the mechanisms underlying memory. The research group worked together until 2006, at which time Schmid was awarded a Heisenberg Fellowship from the German Research Council. The fellowship is a salary award provided to recipients for up to five years. She moved to Canada during the first year of the fellowship. 
 
Although Schmid and her family began to love their new country quickly, some memories of Germany linger.
 
“There are two things we miss, the culture and the mountains. We lived in a small city where you could walk downtown on Saturdays and just bump into people you knew for a coffee at one of the squares. It was really nice,” says Schmid.
 
She’s doing her part to create a similar sense of community in Canada.
           
She founded The German Club at Western last year. It has approximately 30 members, and is open to all German faculty members, post-doctorate and graduate students. The monthly socials have helped Schmid and her husband adjust to life in Canada.  So has the fact that their boys are happy.
                       
“After four weeks in Canada, they told us they never wanted to move back to Germany.” 
 
Fact Box:
 
Favourite film: Dark Star by John Carpenter (1974)
Favourite book: Mephisto by Klaus Mann
Favourite leisure activities: camping, hiking, canoeing
Favourite city: Lisbon, Portugal
If Schmid weren't a neuroscientist, she would be in politics.
 
The writer is a graduate student studying Journalism. This feature profiles faculty members hired over the past two years 

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