A leading neuroscientist – Professor of Pharmacology at Oxford University and the first female Director of the Royal Institution – remembers how she first caught the science bug...
I went to Godolphin and Latymer School a selective school in west London, and I didn't do any science O-levels. In those days, if you were going to take science at A level, you didn't need to take physics and chemistry O-level. I had planned on doing a science A level but I changed my mind and ended up taking maths and classics.
I wasn't especially academic at first. Because I came from a non-academic background, I wasn't trained in doing homework and I was in the middle, not the top, streams. I had an inspiring Greek teacher and started to work hard, something I'd never done in my life. I did very well in Greek and I mentally made the connection between working and getting good results. After that, things changed and I was promoted to the Oxbridge stream and described as academic. If anything, I had initially enjoyed painting and writing stories.
My A-levels gave me a great interest in the big questions about individuality and the mind and so on. At that time I got the answers through philosophy, literature and history. At Oxford, I studied philosophy with psychology but I dropped philosophy because I had become so interested in psychology.
That was when I became more interested in science. When doing my doctorate I was lucky to have very supportive tutors who suggested that I do a DPhil in pharmacology.
I certainly never thought I wanted to be a scientist. I was interested in how the brain works and science was the obvious way of finding out. Even when I was doing my doctorate I never thought of myself as a career scientist, only that I would do it for three years and then go on to do something else.
When I was in my late twenties, my then boyfriend said that I could always give up science and I remember feeling a knife in my stomach at the thought. Perhaps even before I realised it myself, science was something I was determined to do. For me it was an exciting intellectual way of spending my time. My interest in science only really crystallised when I applied for and got a tenured position at Oxford. Science attracts me because of the thrill of finding something out and doing something that no one else has done. It is to see what everyone else has seen but to think what no one else has thought and to suddenly see a new connection.
You have data that doesn't seem to make sense and suddenly you understand. It is that roller-coaster of not quite knowing – nature yields her secrets grudgingly so things don't usually work out and the experiment fails for some technical or practical reason. Sometimes everything will come together and you'll be surprised and it is that unexpected thrill that is exciting.
I was particularly inspired by Jane Mellanby who is a tutor at St Hilda's, my undergraduate college, and by John Stein, the Professor of Physiology at Oxford. John's been a lifelong friend – I've had endless meals with him drawing brain diagrams on napkins in restaurants. Both had faith in me when no one else did.
To make science interesting for younger children I tell stories and relate science to their lives by using metaphors. Brain science, for example, is too small or too fast to understand. So you have to make it relevant to people's real lives.
Parents should not worry about bombarding their children with facts but instead let them play and imagine and ask questions. Let them find out things for themselves and encourage them to do experiments, however simple. They could let bread dissolve on their tongue and taste the sweetness, which shows that it's being broken down into sugars – even that is an experiment! Everyday life, through simple experiments, can demonstrate the wonder and excitement of science, without having a proper laboratory.
Girls seem to be interested in relationships and people. The reason I didn't take science at school was because it didn't seem to have anything to do with what I was interested in, which was falling in love, having boyfriends and considering why wars started. I think that neuroscience relates exquisitely to all those questions. People need to be shown how science is part of their lives.
Interview by Zoe FloodReuse content