The new Nobel laureate in Medicine, John O’Keefe, is an interesting mix of Irish, American and British.
He discovered how the “GPS” in our brains allows us to locate where we are. His research could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s, since this locational function sadly deteriorates when the dreaded disease hits.
Which begs the question, which identity is he? Where does his brain geonome call home?
All three cultures – British, Irish and American – are claiming him. The Daily Mail called him a British scientist, IrishCentral.com and the Irish Times called him an Irish American and many other outlets called him an American who resides in London.
He was born of Irish immigrant parents from Newmarket, County Cork, according to University College Cork, which is awarding him an honorary degree in December.
He still has relatives in the Cork area and, no doubt, living in London since 1967, he has had ample opportunity to connect with them.
But he is clearly also British, having been resident there most of his working life, and it is where he made his great scientific breakthroughs on mapping the brain which some day could help find the Alzheimer’s cure.
Since the announcement of his Nobel Prize yesterday, O’Keefe, an immigrant himself, has wasted no time in speaking out against the UK’s immigration policies.
In an interview with BBC Radio, he warned that current immigration laws present a significant obstacle in working with and recruiting the best foreign scientists.
"The immigration rules are a very, very large obstacle,” he said.
"I am very, very acutely aware of what you have to do if you want to bring people into Britain and to get through immigration, I'm not saying it's impossible, but we should be thinking hard about making Britain a more welcoming place."
The reports note that he became a British citizen. Through his Irish parents he is entitled to Irish citizenship and his having been born in the US automatically makes him a citizen here.
So which is he? He is all three, of course, a remarkable example of our ever more integrated world.
There have always been questions when sporting stars such as Rory McIlroy hesitate to be identified as British or Irish.
The joke in Ireland has long been that if a British/Irish star falters he becomes Irish in all reports and British when he succeeds.
Many British remain annoyed that back in the 80s and 90s Ireland 'stole' some top British soccer stars of Irish lineage as the expansion of what the Irish diaspora meant kicked in.
Rory McIlroy had quite a demanding time of it choosing his country for the Olympic Games, where golf will be a sport in 2016 for the first time in decades. He eventually chose Irish.
When he accepts his Nobel, Doctor O’Keefe will no doubt get many of the same type of questions as to where he considers home.
It is all three places and identities I’m sure, and he is undoubtedly comfortable with that.
His parents would be bursting with pride if they were still living. No matter what the media call him, it is a remarkable achievement for this son of Irish immigrants, a man who was certainly born with no silver spoon in his mouth, to succeed the way he has.
He went to tuition–free City College of New York, which likely means his parents did not have the money to send him to a fancy college. There seems little doubt he had the ability for a Harvard or Yale.
He did his postgraduate degree at McGill University in Canada, again a college that is not quite in the highest echelon in North America, and he went on to London rather than a top class US research facility.
To win the Nobel Prize given that humble background is an incredible achievement.
And the folks who may eventually benefit from his original research will be Irish, British, American and from every corner of the globe.
That is what is important.
Watch Dr. O'Keefe's Nobel interview: