My hero

Every young scientist needs a role model. Susan Greenfield recalls the woman who inspired her

Most of us can name great painters and writers - those we admire and who serve as some kind of role model. So what about in science? As we move into the 21st century, science is increasingly touching everything that we care about. Role models across the science spectrum have a doubly important role to play - both one of communicating information and of inspiring others to understand and value the work of the scientist and engineer today.

Most of us can name great painters and writers - those we admire and who serve as some kind of role model. So what about in science? As we move into the 21st century, science is increasingly touching everything that we care about. Role models across the science spectrum have a doubly important role to play - both one of communicating information and of inspiring others to understand and value the work of the scientist and engineer today.

Who are the role models that might set the example? Surely in order to excite people about science, one way would be to reveal the human stories behind the everyday lives of scientists and engineers. Who are the organisations and, indeed, the people behind the major discoveries and inventions of our world?

A scientist whom I've always admired is Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini, the 1986 Nobel Prize winner in physiology/medicine, and an extraordinary person. At the age of 96, Rita continues to show her passion, drive and curiosity in science and is actively engaged in establishing a new Institute of Neurosciences in Rome, where she lives. We share a passion for this particular branch of science, and although I am fascinated by her work, my admiration for her as a person runs far deeper and is rooted in her extraordinary tenacity and character.

Although she would probably not describe herself as such, Rita was certainly one of the unrecognised feminists of the 20th century. She enjoyed a loving and cultured upbringing in a Jewish/Italian family, but one in which in true Latin, Victorian style, all decisions were taken by the head of the family - her father Adamo Levi, an electrical engineer and gifted mathematician. His view that a career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother pervaded the Levi household.

Rita accepted his decision until, at the age of 20, she realised that she simply could not adjust to the role conceived by her father. She spent eight months learning Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school and entered medical school in Turin. Why medicine?

A simple tale of devotion. Rita's nanny/governess, Giovanna, who had been with the family since before Rita was born, contracted stomach cancer. Rita decided to study medicine and assured Giovanna that she would make her well again. But Giovanna died very soon after she left hospital.

Rita was one of only seven young women among 300 students at medical school, and in 1936 she graduated with flying colours in medicine and surgery. But in the same year, Mussolini issued the "Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza" (Manifesto for the Defence of Race), signed by 10 Italian "scientists", which was followed by laws barring academic and professional careers to non-Aryan Italian citizens.

The Levi family fled to the country in northern Italy, where Rita's strength of character encouraged her to continue her scientific research. She built a mini-laboratory in the country kitchen. Chick embryos could easily be incubated at home, and she invested in two or three items, such as a stereomicroscope for operating on the embryos and a binocular Zeiss microscope with eyepieces and photographic apparatus. Other items with which she improvised included sewing needles which she ground into very sharp microscalpels.

Despite the difficult practical circumstances and the horrors of life in Nazi-occupied Italy - with its round-ups, shootings, interrogations, incarcerations, disappearances and eventual deportations to extermination camps - Rita achieved success in many of her experiments.

Early in September 1944, the British liberated Florence, where Rita was then living, and she registered with the Allied Health Service, where she underwent her most exhausting, traumatic and what turned out to be her final experience as a medical doctor. Malnutrition and typhoid raged, and she was unable to help the hundreds of old people and babies who lay dying. Unable to detach herself from this traumatic experience, she returned to Turin in July 1945 and resolved that she would never practice medicine again.

In the autumn of 1947, she received an invitation from a professor at the University of Washington, based in St Louis, to join him and to repeat the experiments which she had performed successfully in her makeshift laboratory during the war. This move was to change her life - an invitation to stay for one term turned into 30 years, an opportunity to set up a comparable laboratory in Rome, and eventually a Nobel prize for the discovery of nerve growth factor (NGF).

Besides Rita's prolific academic career, she has published several articles on the social significance of science, and a paper called "The Feminine Awakening" which deals with the women's emancipation movement from its origin in the early 19th century to 1970.

Since her appointment in 1999 to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), she has devoted countless hours to acting as an FAO envoy and spokesperson across the world to highlight the plight of the hungry. She speaks to young people in schools throughout Italy about the need to face life with optimism and faith in people.

To this day, she's still campaigning to get rid of corruption in Italian universities. I marvel that behind her passion for science lies a vital message about values and ethics. She's an extraordinary role model from all sorts of perspectives. She's not afraid to confront the "big questions" in science and she's prepared to stand up against dogma, whether it's scientific, racial or sexual. She's an example to us all about the importance of carrying on contributing to life and never giving up, even as the years advance. Such a human story shows how science is very much a personal struggle, a crusade or a challenge - but one which is hugely worthwhile.

Baroness Susan Greenfield CBE is a Professor of Pharmacology at the University of Oxford, director of The Royal Institution and chair of the judging panel of The Dan David Prize for Students

Who's your hero? £10,000 essay prize

Write a feature about your living hero of science for the chance to win cash prizes of up to £10,000, and have your article published in The Independent.

The Dan David Prize for Students, organised by The Royal Institution, is open to all 16- to 18-year-olds in full-time education, either as individuals or with their schools, which also stand the chance of winning additional cash prizes for submitting the most entries from students.

More than 100 entries profiling some extraordinary people have already been received but we've extended the closing deadline to Monday 23 May to give more students the chance to enter.

For further information about the cash prizes and how to enter, go to www.rigb.org/ddp or telephone 020-7409 2992.

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