Carla Shatz

2015 Neuroscience Prize

Laureate Profile

Carla Shatz grew up in West Hartford, Conn., during the 1950s and 1960s as a self-described “science nerd” — an unorthodox stance for a girl at that time. Her interest in science only deepened during her undergraduate years as a chemistry major at Radcliffe College, particularly after working on her honor thesis with Harvard University neurophysiologists (and future Nobel laureates) David Hubel and Torsten Wiesel. 

After graduating from Radcliffe in 1969, Shatz won a Marshall scholarship to study physiology at University College London, leading her to become a neuroscientist. She then returned to Hubel and Wiesel’s lab for her doctoral studies. In 1976, she became the first woman to receive a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard University. She was then hired by Stanford University School of Medicine, becoming the first woman at that institution to receive a tenured professorship in basic science. Shatz remained at Stanford until 1992, when she moved with her then-husband to the University of California, Berkeley. In 2000, she returned to Boston to chair the Department of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School. Seven years later, Shatz traveled across country one more time, when Stanford University invited her to become the David Starr Jordan Director of Bio-X, a multidisciplinary institute that fosters collaboration among biomedical and life science researchers, clinicians, engineers, physicists, and computer sciences. She continues in that position today. 

For more than three decades — and in labs at three major institutions — Shatz has been a pioneer in identifying and describing what happens during critical periods of brain development, both before and after birth. She was the first to demonstrate that the visual system in the mammalian brain is not hardwired, but is shaped even in utero by spontaneous “waves” of neural activity that prune and strengthen neural connections. She also made the groundbreaking discovery that MHC (major histocompatibility) Class I genes play a major role in this synaptic remodeling. At the time, MHCI proteins were known only for their role in the immune system, but she found that they are also present in nerve cells. Other major discoveries by Shatz include the finding that MHCI molecules interact with another immune system molecule shared with neurons, the PirB receptor. By removing PirB receptors from the brains of mice with Alzheimer’s disease, Shatz demonstrated that the animals did not develop the disease. These and other findings have opened entirely new avenues of research into the causes and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and other devastating brain diseases