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Faces of Science: Paul Greengard

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Mariana Cook’s book , “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: .

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Faces of Science: Paul Greengard-greengard_paul.jpg
Paul Greengard - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

I went into science because I think better than I do anything else. As a child, I was always the last to be picked on a sports team. The only sport I ever succeeded at was in a Boy Scout jamboree where I came in first in the state of New York for potato sack racing. All the athletic frustrations of my childhood were eradicated in that one glorious afternoon. I then went back to thinking and the world of ideas.

My mother died in childbirth. She was, I have been told, a very brilliant person. I’ve noticed a great deal of discrimination against women in academia, and my wife and I decided to establish an annual prize in biology and medicine to be given to women. The Rockefeller University administers the prize. We have named the prize after my mother. The idea is to help women achieve a more equal status in science than they otherwise would. It’s called the Pearl Meister Greengard Prize.

I was very good in mathematics and theoretical physics. The GI bill put me through college, and then I wanted to get support for graduate school. At that time, the only support available in the area of physics for graduate studies was in the form of fellowship from Atomic Energy Commission. This was just three years after the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I didn’t want to contribute to a field which might then be exploited to make more potent weapons. I went into the biophysics of the nervous system, honing my skills in terms of understanding both the biochemical and the electrical properties of nerve cells. The study of biochemical basis of nerve cell function was virtually nonexistent at the time.

As a result of our work, it is now clear that there are two basic types of synaptic transmission, termed fast and slow. Fast transmission from one cell to another across a structure called the synapse takes about one-thousandth of a second. Once cell releases a chemical called a neurotransmitter, which then activates a second cell, the target cell. This fast synaptic transmission was the only kind that was partially understood at the time. The reason it’s so fast is that the neurotransmitter binds to a protein on the surface of the target cell and causes a change in the protein’s structure so that ions flow through it. There’s only one protein involved.

In terms of the brain, you can in a crude way think of the human brain as a computer. Furthermore, you can think fast transmission as the hardware of the brain and slow transmissions as the software that directs the hardware whether or not to communicate. the fast transmission tells the cell to fire or not to fire, whereas the slow transmission is much more subtle.

I continue to be interested in and work on trying to understand the basis for various neurological and psychiatric disorders and the mechanism of action of various therapeutic drugs and drugs of abuse. Those are the things we are doing now.

Original funding for "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers" was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.