We've updated our Privacy Policy to make it clearer how we use your personal data. We use cookies to provide you with a better experience. You can read our Cookie Policy here.


Nobel Prize Winner Discusses Research, Motivations and Maintaining a Work-Life Balance

Professor May Britt Moser sits at a table in front of a large window.
Professor May Britt Moser. Credit: Torgrim Melhuus/ Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience.
Listen with
Register for free to listen to this article
Thank you. Listen to this article using the player above.

Want to listen to this article for FREE?

Complete the form below to unlock access to ALL audio articles.

Read time: 10 minutes

Professor May-Britt Moser was born in the small town of Fosnavåg in Norway and moved to Oslo after finishing high school. She was awarded a degree in psychology and a PhD in Neurophysiology at the University of Oslo. After pre- and postdoctoral stays at the University of Edinburgh and University College London, she returned to Norway where she was appointed as associate professor in biological psychology at the Department of Psychology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim.

Later, in 2000, she was promoted to full professor of neuroscience. May-Britt shared all the steps in her career path with her long-term collaborator – and then-husband – Edvard Moser. The couple established the Centre for the Biology of Memory (CBM) in 2002 and the Institute for Systems Neuroscience at NTNU in 2007.

In 2013, May-Britt became director of the Centre for Neural Computation. May-Britt and Edvard Moser shared half of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, as well as other cell types in the same circuit. All these space-representing cells form part of the positioning system in the brain.

Since 2023, she has been the director of the Centre for Algorithms in the Cortex. In addition to her groundbreaking contributions to neuroscience, May-Britt is recognized for her robust leadership, high ethical standards and her community spirit.

In this interview, May-Britt discusses what led her to a career in science, her research on the neural basis of spatial location and memory, winning a noble prize and raising a family while building a successful career.

Mariana Gil (MG): What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

May-Britt Moser (MBM): It was a long road. I was an extremely curious child and had so much passion for questions about why animals behave like they do. Coming from a family with not many academic people, I was weird, because I had so many questions all the time. I was so happy when I met people who could answer my questions.

During high school, I wanted to be a medical doctor to rescue the world like “Doctors Without Borders”. However, I was too lazy to get better marks from high school so that I could attend medical school. Thus, I started studying mathematics and physics at the university in Oslo. But I couldn't imagine myself as a professor or researcher in this field. Soon after, I met Edvard in Oslo (who was also from my same class in high school).

We discussed our interests and we both decided that the brain would be where we could get answers to our most urgent questions. But we didn't know how or where to learn about the brain. We talked with several professors who suggested taking a clinical degree in psychology. So, we did that.

During our education, we kept asking how we could dig out this path towards getting to know how the brain is generating our behavior and cognitive functions. This question was burning in our minds.

After doing behavioral research for two years at the medical faculty, we were lucky to be accepted in Per Andersen’s lab. He asked us to build a behavioral lab for him and in exchange he trained us in the brain. Not only that, but he also gave us access to his international network. Even though we didn’t have a strategic plan behind all these things, we still found our way. We were so naïve; we just had a passion for questions.

This passion is almost like being insane because you can't stop yourself from doing what you do. And the more you understand, the more you have to understand, too.

MG: You are world-renowned for your research on the neural basis of spatial location and memory. Can you tell us a little about your most significant contributions in this field?

MBM: Of course, I can talk about specific discoveries, but what I'm most proud of is that we (Edvard and I, and the team we built) are very honest. As we really want to understand things, when we finally publish, our research is very solid. That is what I'm extremely proud of. Then, I can mention different contributions even before the discovery of grid cells.

We found that saturation of hippocampal synapses with long-term potentiation blocks spatial learning and memory is distributed but learning can be condensed in smaller hippocampal volumes. We also showed that spatial information in hippocampal place cells most likely is inherited from the entorhinal cortex. Also, we helped to understand how the hippocampus and entorhinal cortex work together to generate spatial navigation and memory.

Now we have new tools – such as probes and miniature 2-photon microscopes that weigh less than 1 and 2.5 grams, respectively – that allow us to record thousands of functional brain cells simultaneously in freely behaving rats or mice. Thus, we can go far beyond just describing the functions of single cells.

With access to the simultaneous activity of hundreds to thousands of neurons in the brain circuit, we can start to understand the algorithms in the brain, the recipes the brain is using to generate cognitive functions (such us episodic memory, spatial navigation and coding for time). The whole journey has been quite impactful for us personally.

It's such a blessing to be in a field where we discovered functional cells and now try to understand how they work together to generate spatial behavior.

MG: I know you love animals, so how do you handle doing research that involves invasive animal procedures?

MBM: I'm in love with animals. I think it’s important that we talk about animal welfare. The slogan of our institute is “Excellent science, happy people, happy animals, and diversity”. And that is important for me.

I have discussed this issue with people and with my children because I wonder how I can do my research on animals without asking them for permission. That said, I can say without blushing that in our group we treat our animals as pets. We give each animal a name, so we are very attached to each animal, so that we make sure to obtain as much good quality data as possible from each of them. If we as leaders have this attitude, it's so much better for everyone.

We have a dedicated vet as well as experienced, well-trained and caring animal technicians. Moreover, our animals live in big, enriched cages and we of course follow the 3R's principles (replacement, reduction and refinement) – thanks to new techniques we are now able to reduce the number of animals because we can get so many cells per animal. And we try to do science answering broad and important questions. This makes me happy. 

MG: How can your research on rodents be extrapolated to humans?

MBM: We study brain structures in rats and mice that are important for space and time (and thus relevant for spatial orientation and memory). We know that we humans share these structures and functions with rodents. We also know that to be able to understand brain diseases, we have to understand how the normal brain works. So even though we do basic science, our research is important for translation to normal humans and then to humans with brain diseases.

The brain structures we study, such as the entorhinal cortex and the hippocampus, are relevant for many neurodegenerative diseases. For example, these brain areas are the first ones to show cell death in Alzheimer's disease (AD). And, interestingly, the first symptoms are problems with spatial navigation ability and memory.

Many billions of dollars have been used to get rid of plaques in AD, which is a symptom and not the cause of the disease. However, trying to understand how these cells work together could shed light on the mechanisms leading to cell death in this pathology.

At our Institute, we have established the Jebsen Centre for Alzheimer’s Disease (JCA). This interdisciplinary centre is organized into five work packages from basic science to translational and clinical research aiming to bring our basic research from the lab to patients. We meet regularly with neurologists and researchers doing fMRI to discuss how can collaborate better. Scientists working with humans can learn from our animal experiments and vice versa. It is a very interesting collaboration.

MG: Since the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded for the first time in 1901, only 13 women received this honor (versus 215 men). You are one of these women. How do you feel about this? Would you say that this is one of your proudest professional achievements?

MBM: Of course, I'm extremely proud that we received this prize because of the work we did. But I've never thought that much about me being a woman because I haven't tried to be a man and cannot compare. I'm me; I'm a scientist who is in love with science, with our group and with our community.

To be allowed to do science and be recognized by the international community is priceless. This means that is not only us who think that our work is solid, but also the Nobel Prize Committee, who evaluates the work of many other scientists, finds it worth it. That is very rewarding. Because there are so many resources going to our projects; animals and people who are dedicating almost a life to their work.

The people working in our team have families and responsibilities that could prohibit them from doing this fantastic work. And still, they're driven by the same passion as Edvard and me. They just give it all! This means that we have done something right. Otherwise, we couldn’t have managed this. And that was quite shocking when we understood that we had received this price. This prize was a big, big, big surprise. We knew we were potential candidates, but we assumed that people needed to retire before they could receive this prize. We also knew that the competition was just insane. So, we did not expect it. I still get goosebumps about it because it was such a shock and so fantastic for all the scientists working in this field. The people on the streets were so happy and even the Swedish king told me, “We're all Scandinavian today, we all received this prize today”. It was so moving to share the joy with so many people.

MG: Did you encounter any gender inequalities along your career path?

MBM: I’ve been thinking about this. Of course, we all encounter strange people who say strange things to us. But we can choose to believe that maybe this is not about being a woman, maybe it's only because they don't know better.

If I had been very preoccupied by thinking I'm treated badly because I'm a woman, I can’t change anything. If instead I think that I'm treated badly because people don’t know better. Fine! Let them be! This kind of people exist; they are sometimes mean towards animals, women, men, or people from other cultures. I know it's the nature of humans to try to put people in boxes. And I've always been fighting out of the box. I hate to be in a box. So, then we just have to think: this box doesn't fit me.

MG: You did all your career next to Edvard Moser; do you think that your path might have been different if you hadn't had a man next to you?

MBM: Of course, I don't know because I don't have the right data. But I can speculate that he also would be in trouble if he wouldn't have me. He can admit that because, even though we have been divorced since 2016, we still depend on each other, we support each other and we share the joy of science.

I tell people that science is harsh – even though you can’t stop yourself from doing science. You have to put all your energy into it. So, you need support. So, if you don't have a partner or ex-husband, then find somebody else because you need a network. I always tell this to the people in our group, build your network because you need all the support you can get.

MG: You raised two daughters while building a successful career in science, did you find it challenging to manage a healthy work-life balance? Do you have any tips for women who want to stay in science after starting a family?

MBM: My tip is that please don't sacrifice family for science. Even though scientists are sometimes insane because they can't stop themselves from working.

Looking at how my two daughters struggle with time after their babies were born, I realize I was very lucky. I didn't have any problems with my children; they were so good that I was almost bored sometimes. So, it wasn't difficult to work because they were calm children. I cannot give advice based on my experience because I have been extremely spoiled with my children. But what I can say is please don't skip science if you are in love with science.

Take a longer break if you need it and find a good support network so that you can come back.

If you are a PhD student, talk with your supervisor if it is possible to join other people's projects when you are having your child so that you're not lost. There should be possibilities for everybody. I think that the scientific community should think more about the needs of families. It would be ideal for families to have access to kindergartens close to their workplace so that they can go and visit their children.

We need diversity, we need families in science, we need all cultures, we need all genders. Because if we clone ourselves, there is less creativity, science depends on creativity.

MG: What do you love most about your job?

MBM: What I love most is to understand things that I didn't understand before. I feel blessed to be challenged and learn new things. It's so rewarding when I participate in our lab meetings and other discussions and realize that I learned something.

I don't have words to express how important that is for me. And I am proud that our team is able to make a difference – knowledge for a better world which is the slogan of my university, NTNU.

MG: Then, I guess if you have to choose again your career you will do exactly the same

MBM: Absolutely! I will do that! But of course, then I would have to have the same opportunities. When I think about it, in retrospect, I think that people couldn't resist our eagerness. We were so eager, so naive and kind. We were just in love with questions; we got support without pushing people.

MG: What are your plans for the future?

MBM: I just got appointed as the director of the new Centre for Algorithms in the Cortex this summer, and that will last for 10 years. So, I’m planning to stay there for 10 more years. But if I don't, I have so many other things to do, which I love. As long as I can learn things, be with animals, be with people who can teach me things, and be with my family, then I'm extremely happy.

Prof. May-Britt Moser was speaking to Dr. Mariana Gil, Custom Content Manager at Technology Networks.

About the interviewee:

Professor May-Britt Moser is the founding director of the Centre for Algorithms in the Cortex and co-director of the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience. She is interested in the neural basis of spatial location and spatial memory. Her work, conducted with Edvard I. Moser as a long-term collaborator, includes the discovery of grid cells in the entorhinal cortex, as well as several additional space-representing cell types in the same circuit.