Glenwood native worked in Nobel-winning lab
Our region has produced its fair share of Ph.D.s, but Lisa Giocomo might be the only native to co-author articles with a pair of Nobel Prize winners.
She is a research associate of May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, two of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Giocomo was born in Glenwood Springs in 1981. Her father managed the Hot Springs Pool, and she used to ride her bike down to visit the pool when there was just one slide and a very high dive in the deep end.
She attended St. Stephen’s School until she was 8, when the family moved to Denver. At the time, she wasn’t thinking about her lingering sense of place in the valley in scientific terms.
“Growing up, I always sort of liked biology, but I didn’t really get focused on neuroscience until I was in college,” Giocomo said in a telephone interview.
After attending public school in Denver, she picked up a bachelor’s in psychology from Baylor University in 2002, then went on to get her doctorate in neuroscience from Boston University.
While attending an international neuroscience conference, she met the Mosers, a Norwegian couple who pioneered research on grid cells, the brain’s mechanism for mapping and representing space. Giocomo had some ideas of her own on the subject, and the three hit it off.
“We had a really great scientific connection,” she said.
Giocomo ended up spending the next four years working side by side with the Mosers at the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience in Trondheim, Norway.
“For me, it was the perfect scientific environment and a really good mentorship,” she said. “In some ways it reminds me of Glenwood Springs: very cozy and outdoor focused. The natural beauty is just really spectacular.”
The Mosers’ Nobel, which was shared with Briton John O’Keefe, was announced earlier this month, when Giocomo was starting her second year as an assistant professor at Stanford University.
“I think they were really surprised,” she said. “They’re very appreciative to everyone who worked on the system, not just in their lab. It’s a really great thing for Norway and it really gives a sense of weight to a topic that prior to this was kind of seen as a young field that hadn’t quite matured yet.”
Even for neurobiologists, grid cells are cutting edge. They’re part of a higher order cognitive process, synthesizing information from several senses to provide mental maps. They’re tough to observe in humans, since they require somewhat invasive sensing systems, but data from rats, nonhuman primates and epileptics who already have the sensors has allowed scientists to investigate how they interact with other neurons or which genes might govern spatial memory.
Sometimes it’s tough for Giocomo to explain her work to laymen, but she does her best when people express interest.
“It’s something scientists aren’t always good at, but we learn that communicating these things to people is really important,” she said. “I think the nice thing about the system we work on is that it’s relatable. Everybody’s lost their car in a parking lot, so people get why it’s an important question to understand.”
Plus, there’s the thrill of pushing the borders of human understanding.
“For that moment in time we might be the only people in the world that have seen that result before, which is incredibly exciting,” she said. “That’s the reason I do science.”
As for Glenwood Springs, she has fond recollections of eating spaghetti with meatballs the Italian Underground for special occasions and visits to Sioux Villa Curio, where she still faithfully stops when she is in town to browse the “treasure trove” there.
Her best friend growing up was Kara Brouhard, both before and after Brohard had a serious skiing accident.
“I still often think about her,” Giocomo said. “Her mom’s idea of using an iPad programmed with Kara’s voice to help her navigate her world is really wonderful and ingenious project.“
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