July 2011

Molecules and music on the mind

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 A musical family: Solomon Snyder with daughters Judy (guitar) and Debby (flute) and wife Elaine around 1980. Snyder continues to play daily and has served on the board of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra for two decades.

If Solomon Snyder’s scientific life had its own musical score, it would have mystery, joy and many crescendos. It would be fast and full.

“For me,” Snyder writes in the June 17 issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry, “research is largely about the unfettered pursuit of novel ideas and experiments that can test multiple ideas in a day – not a year.”

Those swift and nimble movements onward yielded a number of greatest hits for Snyder, a neuroscientist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

His group’s feats include the discovery of the opiate receptor, the discovery of opiatelike peptides in the brain, and the characterization of the actions of neurotransmitters and psychoactive drugs. He helped start Nova Pharmaceuticals and Guilford Pharmaceuticals. He won the Lasker award. Hopkins’ neuroscience department is named in his honor. He has more accolades and honorary degrees than can be named here. He has been busy.

But how does someone who acknowledges not having a knack for science in his youth manage to develop such a research repertoire? In his JBC “Reflections” article, Snyder explains that it all started with his love of music.

Snyder was taught how to play the guitar by Sophocles Papas, a close friend and, in Snyder’s words, disciple of famed classical guitarist Andrés Segovia. Snyder manned Papas’ guitar shop and taught lessons on weekends while pursuing a pre-med degree at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. At the time, he wanted to become a psychiatrist.

Web Extra

You can view a YouTube slideshow of excerpts and photos from Solomon Snyder’s “Reflections” article. Note that the song playing in the background (by composer Jonathan Leshnoff) was written for and performed by Snyder. Fittingly, it is titled “Shir Shel Shlomo,” which is Hebrew for “Song for Solomon.”

In 1958, Dan Brown, then a young research associate at the National Institutes of Health, came into the guitar shop for lessons. Brown happened to need a lab technician, and Snyder fit the part. He ended up working in the lab during summers and breaks.

Just a few years later, Snyder wrote his first paper, “The mammalian metabolism of L-histidine. IV. Purification and properties of imidazolone propionic acid hydrolase.” It was published in the JBC and “accepted with no revisions, the only time that’s ever happened,” he writes.

While the Doctors Draft Act rerouted Snyder’s pursuit of practicing psychiatry, his summer lab’s proximity to that of Julius Axelrod’s proved advantageous. He moved across the hall in 1963, and that’s when the tempo really picked up.

“Working with Julie was exhilarating,” Snyder writes. “Each of us in the lab pursued multiple projects with a surprisingly high yield of successful outcomes. The two years in Julie’s lab constituted my sole full-time research training, but the impact of his inspirational mentorship on me, as on all of his students, was transformative.”

Angela Hopp (ahopp@asbmb.org) is managing editor for special projects at ASBMB.

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