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Navigating the Mind: Dr. Moser's Breakthroughs in Spatial Navigation

Fairfax, VA

Navigation is far more complex than it seems at first glance. More than just movement around a room, this task requires both comprehension of sensory input and pulling from one’s memories to create and modify an internal map of the surroundings. Using this map, our bodies can move around and travel in the coordinated manner they do. Considering all the input into navigation, it is no surprise that this ability is one of our body’s most complex. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the underlying mechanisms were only discovered in the early 2000s. Thanks to Dr. May-Britt Moser, Dr. Edvard Moser, and Dr. John O’Keefe, who all uncovered the presence of grid cells in the brain, we now have a deeper understanding of the workings of the brain behind spatial navigation. 

navigation walking neuroscience grid cells firing signal
This is an example of navigation in an open region.

As a psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. May-Britt Moser, henceforth referred to as Dr. Moser, has significantly advanced the field of neuroscience by discovering grid cells. These cells, part of the mammalian positioning system, are neurons that form a regular triangular or hexagonal pattern that fire when traversing across an open region. Such firing allowed the animal to incorporate information about the space and distance around it for a sense of position. This advance could be considered one of the most valuable contributions to positioning knowledge and overall cognition. It is so valuable that this work made her one of the 2014 Nobel Prize laureates in Physiology or Medicine. As the recipient of this honor and numerous other awards, Dr. Moser has often been recognized as a leading woman in science. Her decades of research have made her a role model for many young girls looking to be scientists. 

Dr. Moser’s journey began in Norway as a child, and she spent a fair bit of her time looking after the animals on her family’s farm. Though Moser’s grades weren’t stellar when she was younger, she attributes her continued curiosity to the encouragement of her parents and teachers, who supported and pushed her to develop her talents. As a young adult, she attended Oslo University to study psychology. Still, she ended up in neuroscience research with her husband, Dr. Edward Moser, under the direction of Norwegian researcher Per Oskar Andersen for her master’s degree. After completing her doctoral studies, despite entering the male-dominated field of research, her path in academic circles continued. She spent time along with her husband as a postdoc with Dr. O’Keefe. These three would later become the joint winners of the 2014 Nobel Prize and make history. This moment would both be a celebration of discoveries in science and of breaking gender barriers in research. 

lab rat science positioning neuroscience research women STEM
Dr. May-Britt Moser

More than a researcher, Dr. Moser was also able to balance her professional life with her life as a mother. Having had two daughters while pursuing their PhDs, Dr. Moser and her husband successfully balanced both time for research and their children--sometimes in novel ways. More than not, they would also bring their daughters into the lab to accompany the two researchers as they worked to expand their understanding of neuroscience. A blurb on the Nobel Prize website states that the lab rats were the daughters’ pets, and scientific journals were the kids’ storybooks. Dr. Moser did not see the same barriers others may have held in such aspects. Her children often jokingly remarked that the lab space was akin to her third child.  Regarding the balance she has struck between her professional and personal life, Dr. Moser considers herself grateful for the privilege she has to do so, having been exposed to less gender bias in Norway. 

Indeed, having lived in a country where the pursuit of gender equality has borne more fruit than in other places, made clear by the gender inequality index of 0.02, Dr. Moser never felt short of female role models for her career. In particular, she notes Gro Harlem Brundtland, the female Prime Minister in 1981 who became the Director-General of the World Health Organization. When she is inquired about her impact on others, especially in the context of research, she stated in an interview with Thought Economics that she considered herself a human rather than a woman in such contexts. With people all consisting of their qualities, she continues, they should be used rather than hidden. Nevertheless, Dr. Moser is proud to be a woman in STEM, and her gala outfit best demonstrates her attitude towards her presence as a role modelas she received the Nobel Prize: a navy blue dress decorated with a beaded neuron. Undeniable is the fact that Dr. Moser is a role model in her own right--and she hopes to be one not just for little girls but for all kids who want to pursue science. 

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