Prof John O’Keefe receives honorary doctorate from UCC

Irish-American scientist was awarded 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Nobel Prize winner Professor John O’Keefe at University College Cork, where he delivered a lecture at a neuroscience symposium and received an honorary doctorate. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision.

Nobel Prize winner Professor John O’Keefe at University College Cork, where he delivered a lecture at a neuroscience symposium and received an honorary doctorate. Photograph: Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision.

 

An Irish-American scientist, who earlier this year was awarded the Nobel Prize, has been conferred with an honorary doctorate from University College Cork in recognition of his contribution to neuroscience.

In October, Prof John O’Keefe was jointly awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, together with Norwegian scientists May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, for discovering an “inner GPS” that helps the brain to navigate.

To mark his achievements, UCC honoured Prof O’Keefe when he was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Science at a ceremony in the university’s Aula Maxima, attended by UCC President Dr Michael Murphy and a host of distinguished guests.

Professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, Prof O’Keefe in 1971 discovered place cells, neurons within the hippocampus (the small part of the brain primarily associated with memory and spatial navigation), that become active when one enters a particular place.

His current work focuses on computational models to predict hippocampal function, for which he received the prestigious Kavli Prize in Norway.

Proposing Prof O’Keefe for the honorary doctorate, Prof John Cryan of UCC noted: “His influence on a whole generation of scientists has been immense and this well-deserved and long overdue Nobel is just the pinnacle of an amazing and inspiring career.”

Prof Cryan noted that while Prof O’Keefe was born in South Harlem and grew up in the nearby Bronx, he was always proud of his Irish roots with his father, Mikey, coming from Newmarket in North Cork and his mother, Bridget Bourke, hailing from Breaffy in Co Mayo.

And he recalled the words of the late President John F Kennedy when he speculated in his famous New Ross speech that if his ancestor had not left Ireland, he would be probably working in the local Albatross fertiliser factory.

“What if John’s dad hadn’t left Newmarket or had returned there like one of his brothers, would he be navigating the north Cork farmland or perhaps more likely be a professor here in UCC,” said Prof Cryan.

“O’Keefe’s work has not only revolutionised our understanding of this amazing puzzle, it has opened new avenues for understanding complex cognitive processes, such as memory, thinking and planning and given us insight into our own existence.”