Neuroscientist Dr. John O’Keefe of University College London charmed the members of the Phil and BioSoc with his humble disposition today in the Graduates Memorial Building. The Nobel Laureate was awarded the Gold Medal of Honorary Patronage for his outstanding contributions to science.
O’Keefe’s research has contributed hugely to Alzheimer’s research and other neurological diseases through his work on place cells and their role in spatial mapping. By understanding the processes that underlie how we mentally represent our environment, O’Keefe’s research investigates one of the most fundamental problems of the mind; how we perceive and interact with the world.
Dr. O’Keefe opened his talk with the disclaimer that while he’s often asked how to win a Nobel Prize, “There’s no one route to doing that.”. Instead, he said that “anybody [can find success] given the right luck and right motivation.”. Explaining his own background as a first generation immigrant, he recounted his parents moving to New York in the late 1920’s. Describing his parents meeting as an unlikely event , he laughed: “For a Cork man and a Mayo woman to end up together was just unheard of”.
His humble beginnings humanised the professor as he described his often rocky early education. Having struggled with Latin as a scholar of classics in high school, he initially worked rather than attending college. Determined to obtain an education, he then enrolled in aeronautical engineering at New York University. Unhappy with his life trajectory, he later attended the City College of New York (CCNY) to obtain his bachelor’s degree in Philosophy of the Mind. From there, O’Keefe completed his doctorate in 1967 in physiological psychology at McGill University and joined University College London shortly thereafter where he has remained for his career.
Anthropomorphising the cells of the brain, O’Keefe made neurology both accessible and interesting. Describing his college self at CCNY as “a kid in a candy shop” with the huge variety of courses he attended, his broad and interdisciplinary knowledge came across in his ease of communication. From philosophy to psychology to 1920s German films, his interests and ventures were whatever attracted him at the time and spoke of the enthusiasm of a genuine scholar.
A “great believer in free education”, he acknowledged the problem is that the middle classes mainly benefit as they have the prerequisites that allow them to attend university comfortably. Recounting his own experience of discrimination as a member of the working class, his story embodied the value of the American Dream. Despite this success, he acknowledged that for the modern student, work isn’t always enough and luck played a large part in his own tale.