Nobel Lesson: Investment Fosters Global Achievement

Jan. 21, 2015

I learned how to be a neuroscientist from many people, including my post-doctorate mentor John O'Keefe, a professor at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and the Department of Anatomy at University College London.

UA Regents' Professor Carol Barnes

O'Keefe encouraged me to be bold and persistent. And I discovered the joy of conducting research and the value of cross-disciplinary exposure to fields ranging from physiology to psychology, engineering, philosophy, music and art.

O'Keefe has become a lifelong friend and collaborator who inspires me even today as I lead the University of Arizona's Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute.

In December, O'Keefe invited Lynn Nadel, UA Regents' Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science, and me to be his guests at the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. O'Keefe, May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser shared the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for research that began in the laboratory we shared more than 40 years ago.

O'Keefe is important to me for what he taught me about leadership and the skills that define a great researcher. He always made time for me, just as today I open my door to students. He also gave me the space to explore my ideas, even the wacky ones. Now as I work with students, I've learned to hold the reins loosely, too.

A scientist's life is rarely glamorous, but the Nobel Prize ceremonies were a flurry of banquets, tours of museums, concerts and lectures. Even the Swedish Royal Family attended the awards ceremony. Throughout the week, women donned gowns, men dressed in tuxedos and gourmet meals were served with choreographed precision. But most meaningful were the rare opportunities to be around my dear colleagues, who are like family.

The UA's intimate connection to Nobel Prize-winning research is not a coincidence. The University invests in talented, top-notch scientists, including promising students, and builds state-of-the-art laboratories and equipment. In many fields, not just neuroscience, UA researchers are global leaders.

If we want to continue to achieve great things, it is imperative that we invest in all of our academic disciplines, not just mine, and not just the sciences. We have demonstrated expertise in optics, engineering, health sciences, dance and music, philosophy and more. The interdisciplinary nature of this University, paired with its renowned expertise, sets us apart and fosters our creativity.

What does it take to continue our success?

We must build trust in each other, from leadership to lawmakers, philanthropists to peers. It's the same principle that O'Keefe instilled in me years ago and that I give to my students today. It takes active engagement and resources. It takes the nurture and support of faculty through endowments, and student scholarships and fellowships. It takes a continued investment in our infrastructure. And it requires a visionary perspective that measures return on investment in terms of decades, not merely years.

And sometimes it takes putting on a fancy gown and remembering that the work we do matters. The relationships established here, today, and the investments we make in the UA, are filled with a potential we can only imagine.

Carol Barnes is a Regents' Professor in the Departments of Psychology, Neurology and Neuroscience, the Evelyn F. McKnight Endowed Chair for Learning and Memory in Aging and director of the Evelyn F. McKnight Brain Institute. Barnes also serves as director of the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neural Systems, Memory & Aging, and also as associate director of the BIO5 Institute at the UA. She is past president of the 42,000-member Society for Neuroscience, an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an elected foreign member of the Royal Norwegian Society of Sciences and Letters.

O'Keefe, the Mosers and neuroscientist Eleanor Maguire are expected to visit the UA campus on March 26 and 27 as part of festivities celebrating the 10th anniversary of the McKnight Brain Institute and the fifth anniversary of the School of Mind, Brain and Behavior.