Advice From a 99-Year-Old Scientist

Dr. Brenda Milner is one of the world’s most renowned scientists known for her pioneering work on the brain. She has had an extraordinary influence on the development of neuroscience and on the work of scientists around the globe.

At 99 years old, Dr. Milner, neuroscientist, and professor at McGill University, continues to explore the mysteries of the brain at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital — The Neuro.

Dr. Milner will turn 100 on July 15, 2018. The Brenda Milner Centennial Symposium on September 6–7, 2018 will celebrate her many accomplishments, reflect on all that has been learned in neuropsychology / cognitive neuroscience, and look to the future.

What motivates you to continue with your research at age 99?

I am very curious about the world around me. That sense of curiosity is certainly one of the things that keeps me going. Human quirks and behaviour interest me. I would not still be working if I did not find it exciting.

Your research with memory has made you world-famous, how did you begin that specific work?

Memory was not a fashionable topic when I started working on it. I only started because the patients complained of poor memory. If a patient complains of memory, you do not say, ‘No, no, I’m interested in perception,’ and then ignore the memory issue. You study memory or you take a different job.

Do you come from a family of scientists?

Both my parents were musicians. My father was a music critic for The Guardian and my mother taught singing. I do not have a musical ear! My brain is better adapted to language than to music.

What led you to brain science?

I started at Cambridge University in mathematics. I thought that I would not make a great mathematician because I do not have enough spatial ability, so I changed to experimental psychology. After earning my degree I got married and came to Canada for one year and here I am 70 years later! I was very lucky to be at The Neuro when this work was being done.

It was probably not trivial for a woman to follow this path in the late 1930s. Were you particularly tenacious?

I had a passion and I was very ambitious. My father died when I was eight; my mother did not have a lot of money. I had no choice. I had to go for grants and funding. Fortunately, I have always had this spirit of competition.

What are the qualities that have allowed you to succeed in science?

I am methodical; we do not succeed in science without that. I also have a lot of patience. I was born like this! That does not mean that I am patient for everything in life. If I am waiting for someone at the restaurant, I am not as patient. In scientific investigation, when we study something, we have to give ourselves time to see what is going on.

Can you describe the relationship you have with the people you work with?

This is definitely true of me — my close friends, friends, social circle is always to do with work. I am friends with all my former students. I keep close contact with friends from all over the world on the phone. I have been told that I am ‘tres telephoneuse’ because I love talking to people on the telephone!

You have had an inspirational career. What career advice would you give?

You do not become successful in any field without some measure of luck. I have always said that. I tell my students that you have to recognize and seize the opportunity when it presents itself, otherwise it is too late.

The other thing I would say is that you should follow your bent. Do not be afraid to change fields if something really appeals to you. I have changed fields. You will have great regrets if you do not.

What do you think we can do to bring in more girls and women into STEM?

Women have to be confident in their abilities and be bold in their expression. The educational system needs to foster a “can-do” spirit.

Dr. Brenda Milner, neuroscientist, and professor at McGill University

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