It’s all in the brain
This is May-Britt Moser
Profession: Psychologist, neuroscientist, and Head of Department of the Centre for Neural Computation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
Career highlights: Awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2014 for her discovery of grid cells – a type of neuron in the brains of many species that allows animals to understand their position in space.
When it was announced that May-Britt Moser was the winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Medicine (shared with her then-husband Edvard Moser and colleague John O’Keefe), she entered the pages of history.
Not because the Nobel Prize is the most prestigious and renowned award a researcher can receive, nor because she and Edvard were the first Norwegians – but because she was one of a very small group of women to receive ever this award.
However, this may not be something that Moser herself would like recognition for. “I’ve probably experienced situations where I’ve thought, ‘that would never have happened if I were a man,’ but I wouldn’t like to recall when,” she says. “I’m firmly of the opinion that you should be seen as a person, not put in a box.”
Despite this, the lack of Nobel recognition for women is a glaring anomaly. A hundred years since women were given the vote in Norway, almost 50% of doctorate degrees are awarded to women. In the case of doctorates in medicine, women are in the clear majority. However, the number of female Nobel laureates doesn’t appear to reflect the ability and determination of women to pursue research at a high level. Only around 5% of Nobel Prizes in Medicine had been awarded to women when May-Britt Moser was awarded her Nobel Prize in 2014.
“I’d rather not speculate as to why there are so few female Nobel Prize winners,” Moser says. “Having said that, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that in certain contexts, I’ve perceived women to be more risk- averse than their male colleagues. There are certain exceptions, however. Women need to have faith in themselves. To achieve groundbreaking results, you must be willing to take risks.”
The Nobel Prize in Medicine has been awarded pretty much every year since 1901, but the winners were exclusively male up to 1947. When Gerty Cori won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1947, only two women had actually been awarded a scientific Nobel Prize (in any category) in the previous 46 years: Marie Curie for Physics in 1903 and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie for Chemistry in 1935.
‘Good science has always been more important to Edvard and me than whatever else is around us’
It’s difficult not to compare Moser with Marie Curie. But Moser herself names former Norwegian Prime Minister and Doctor of Medicine Gro Harlem Brundtland as an important role model. “What a star she was. It was great to see, and very important for me.” Otherwise, Moser points to her doctoral supervisor at the University of Oslo, Per Andersen, as an important role model. “Especially his passion for the subject and his ability to communicate this. And he was never put off by people who claimed something wasn’t possible.”
Women, even women who have made enormous contributions to science, tend to be treated differently than men, particularly by the press. When Moser won the Nobel Prize, there was speculation and articles written about what dress she would wear to the Nobel Banquet. She provided the perfect response by wearing a specially designed dress featuring a nerve cell network, which forced every narrow-minded fashion journalist not only to write about the dress, but also about her field of expertise. Nobody asked her husband, Edvard Moser, about his suit or choice of tie. “Comments were actually made about his choice of attire once, when he wore red shoes to a dinner with the king,” she says.
People who work with May-Britt and Edvard Moser say they often forget they’re dealing with Nobel laureates. They are both very down-to-earth researchers. But with mighty visions, including understanding the emergence of brain functions in any system in any species. Nothing less.
Since being awarded the Nobel Prize, they get an estimated 3,000 inquiries a year and they have superstar status in the research world. Our photographer for the day apologizes for using the familiar “you” form. May-Britt gives him a puzzled look, before bursting into laughter. She explains that when seated at Swedish King Carl Gustaf’s table during the Nobel Banquet, she had the misfortune to use the familiar “you” form on several occasions.
Edvard Moser comes into the laboratory in turquoise ankle socks and red converse shoes, while May-Britt is wearing a leather skirt with her hair down.
They are totally themselves, and throughout their careers have been curious and had a determination to put outstanding research of high quality first.
The Mosers, along with their colleague John O’Keefe, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their pioneering research on the brain’s mechanism for representing space. They discovered a type of cell, called Grid Cells, which are important for determining position.
May-Britt is currently Head of the Centre for Neural Computation at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), in Trondheim, where she has been a professor of Neuroscience since 2000.
‘It’s a real advantage knowing each other so well’
Her team is currently unraveling the functional organization of the grid cell circuit, as well as its contribution to memory formation in the hippocampus. Many questions are being examined including whether we are born with a coordinate system in the brain or whether it is something we develop.
“Science is important,” May-Britt Moser says. “Good science has always been more important to Edvard and me than whatever else is around us. There were times when we didn’t know if we were going to get paid the next month, when we asked ourselves what the heck were we doing. We had two delightful daughters to take care of. Fortunately, we complement each other in those kinds of situation. We’ve always worked well together.”
The couple announced they were divorcing in 2016, but it doesn’t seem to have affected their working relationship. “There were concerns that things would change when we were no longer married, but they didn’t,” Moser continues. “It’s a real advantage knowing each other so well, and neither of us needs to be the strong one all the time.”
“One anecdote that isn’t research related, but still speaks volumes about how we work together, is from a time when we were both exhausted and covered in blisters after a mountain trip. If we carried on to the next peak, we would be able to see a magnificent creation by the architects Snøhetta. But if we were to manage that, we couldn’t both be tired and miserable at the same time. We took turns in leading the way for ten minutes at a time, all the way till we reached the summit. During the ten minutes one of us was leading, the other had to be strong and motivational.”
A love of research has been with them ever since their student days. And even before they had completed their psychology studies, pioneering international researchers earmarked them as future stars.
‘I’m firmly of the opinion that you should be seen as a person, not put in a box’
Their daughters learned at an early age that research was the couple’s third child, and both daughters came to work with them even as small children. The lab rats that the Mosers were using for their work became their daughters’ pets. In her doctoral work, May-Britt demonstrated that social learning led to physical changes in the brain. The microscopic space where these findings were made was so tiny, that her daughter had to stay in her playpen outside.
One of these daughters was born before they had completed their doctorates and was only a few months old when they defended their theses. When asked whether she gained her PhD while on maternity leave, May-Britt throws her head back and smiles. “Maternity leave?”
Text: Kaja Nordengen