Signal Master (continued)

Illustration by David Sparshott


Larry’s skills go far beyond science. He is a talented piano player and a natural on stage. His talks on the effects of music and love in the brain have attracted international attention and have made him something of a star in the OMSI Science Pub series, which sends local scientists out into Portland’s vibrant bar scene to give informal talks. As part of the series, he appears a couple times each year at the Bagdad Theater on Hawthorne Boulevard, which is routinely sold out when he performs.

This ability to bridge science and the arts was honed at Reed, where he paired his longstanding fascination with biology with classes in theatre. His scientific aptitude was apparent growing up in San Diego where, yes, he did win his middle school science fair. (No big deal, he says—he just plugged in all the relevant information from the several-thousand-page Merck diagnostic manual and built a database that could predict whether a given set of symptoms might add up to chronic lung disease.) He assumed he would be headed to a big research university, like Berkeley or Cornell. Then a high school math teacher mentioned that her son, a Reedie, had done a thesis on medieval garbage.

Larry Sherman

Illustration by David Sparshott

“I thought, ‘That sounds really cool,’ and I started to look into Reed more and more,” he says. “I found out they had this fantastic biology program and an opportunity to do research for students during their entire time on campus, but they also had this great emphasis on humanities.”

Naming professors he remembers, Sherman lists faculty from science and the humanities in roughly equal numbers. He talks of a lifelong bond with thesis adviser Larry Ruben [biology 1955–92], who’s closing down his lab in May after a career at Reed that started in the 1950s. Maryanne McClellan [biology 1981–] and Steve Arch [biology 1972–2012] were “amazing mentors.” But don’t leave out John Kenney [religion 1980–95], who taught the iconic Hum 110 when Sherman was a freshman: “He taught me how to write.” And Craig Clinton [theatre 1978–2010]: “I learned so much more than theatre from him.”

He learned from his fellow Reedies, too, even after graduation. In the late 1980s, while earning his PhD at OHSU, he teamed up with several alumni to put on shows as part of Portland-area theatre troupe, Oracle Theatre. Several of his fellow performers went on to success in the entertainment industry, including Mark Worthington ’83, who later worked as a production designer on the television series Ugly Betty, and playwright and novelist Gordon Dahlquist ’83, perhaps best known for his 2006 book, The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters.

Collaboration with these creative heavyweights helps explain how Larry got his start as a sort of vaudevillian scientist, a genre that’s unique even by Portland’s quirky standards. It all started a few years ago when he was playing piano at a department party. A colleague, who didn’t know of his talents, approached with a question. Would Larry be willing to give a talk on music and the brain for a local philanthropic group?

Drawing on his theatre training at Reed, Larry put together a show quoting everyone from great neuroscientists to Mel Brooks, and also displaying his own prodigious piano skills. (He has been playing since he was four and, to the chagrin of any music student who has ever struggled through hours of rote practice just to play a passable version of “Für Elise,” can hear a song a few times and then generally play it by ear.)  

The talk was an immediate hit and word quickly spread through both the science and music communities. Larry has since given popular lectures on the neuroscience of music, love, and creativity at least 50 times in the last few years, in venues ranging from elementary schools and senior centers to Severance Hall in Cleveland. In 2009, he collaborated with vocalist Valerie Day (former lead singer of the ’80s band Nu Shooz) for a show called “Brain Chemistry for Lovers,” which nearly sold out Portland’s 800-seat Newmark Theatre. The Oregonian described it as “science lecture as cabaret,” adding that “the show’s great strength might be how its microscopic perspective on emotions shows us just why these particular expressions of love’s joys and travails have endured.”

Larry, who’s not hard to find on YouTube, obviously has fun in front of a crowd. But mainly he takes to the stage to make the case for neuroscience to nonscientists.

“I have a huge concern that we in this country are abandoning science,” he says, adding that when he was an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati in the late 1990s, the NIH funded about the top quarter of all grant proposals. Now it’s just the top 7%. “I feel like it’s my duty to go out and get the public engaged in this.”

At the moment, he’s preparing for another show on nature versus nurture. Larry, as it happens, was adopted as a child. Never one to shy away from risks as a performer, he will take to the stage at the Newmark Theatre in May and reveal what he’s learned in his efforts to track down his birth parents and biological siblings—along with illustrations and graphics from an accomplished artist, a live orchestra, singing by Day, and original music composed by Day’s husband, John Smith, inspired by a DNA sequence.  

In the meantime, there is more work to be done in his lab. Drug development is a tortuous process fraught with more failure than success. Any compounds that show promise will have to be tested on mice and macaques before human trials can begin.

When his research hits a brick wall, Larry turns to a piano and plays the blues—improvising sometimes in a major key, sometimes in a minor key, but always building towards a cadence that rings true.

—Author info: Geoff Koch works at a software company in the Portland area, is a father to two faultless daughters, and obsessively reads the poetry and fiction of Jim Harrison.