Woman with ideas on the brain : SCIENCE

Georgina Ferry meets an academic who moves with ease between Oxford high table and TV soapbox

For the first time in the Royal Institution's 165-year history, a woman is presenting its Christmas lectures for young people. The tradition of giving a series of science lectures to a youthful audience during the Christmas holidays began with Michael Faraday, perhaps the institution's most celebrated scientist. The lectures are now broadcast on BBC television; recent lecturers have ranged from researchers of international renown, such as Richard Dawkins, to indefatigable popularisers such as Sir David Attenborough and Carl Sagan.

Dr Susan Greenfield of Oxford University faced her first audience before Christmas. In her lectures "Journey to the Centres of the Brain", the first of which will be broadcast tomorrow, she will be telling her young listeners that it will be up to them to solve the ultimate problem of the nature of human consciousness because her own generation of researchers has only just begun to scratch the surface of the problem.

It might seem unreasonable to expect the average teenager to grapple with the nature of consciousness, but Dr Greenfield herself has been at it since she was eight years old. "It started with my mother saying that she had no way of knowing that what she saw as red was the same as what I saw as red," she says. "I found this idea absolutely tantalising - I couldn't see a way round it."

This little philosophical exchange evokes an image of some north Oxford hothouse in which the young Susan was groomed for a life of intellectual inquiry. In fact, she grew up in London, the daughter of a dancer and an electrician, neither of whom received more than a secondary education. "I was brought up against a background not of very disciplined or formalised questions, but certainly of curiosity and respect for education. One advantage was that my parents didn't try and dictate to me what I should do. From a very early stage, I realised I was responsible for myself and could make my own decisions."

Known as "Springy" to her friends, Dr Greenfield studied Latin, Greek, ancient history and mathematics at A level. She then won a place at St Hilda's College, Oxford, to read psychology with philosophy. "What really intrigued me at the time was the nature of subjectivity and consciousness, as I'd learnt about it through reading Plato, and I thought psychology was the area to study. But I was rather disillusioned when it turned out to be all about rats in mazes, imprinting in birds and so on."

Nevertheless, she did discover a fascination for the physiological side of psychology - how the brain actually works. "I never realised that the brain was divided into bits, that different bits did different things, and how you could record electricity from brain cells." As soon as she got her degree she was offered, and accepted, the opportunity to do a doctorate on brain chemistry in the department of pharmacology.

In 1985, she was appointed university lecturer, reaching the safe haven of academic security in her early thirties after several years of living from one grant to another. With the lectureship went a fellowship at Lincoln College, founded in the 15th century and all-male until six years before her appointment. She was Lincoln's second female tutorial fellow; today there are four, out of a total of 30-odd on the governing body.

Was that intimidating?

Silly question. "I've heard that women at some other colleges felt marginalised by the men, but I've never felt that." Dr Greenfield fell for the ceremony and eclectic conversation of high table, and for the other advantages of belonging to a college - not least free accommodation in the centre of town. "It never concerned me that I didn't have my own house or car or pots and pans - it sounds rather frivolous, but I like to spend my money on clothes and holidays and food. So when I had the chance of a rent-free flat in college, I just jumped at it."

Having married a fellow academic in 1991, she has now had to move out of college. Her husband, Peter Atkins, is tutor in chemistry, author of The Creation and a number of other successful scholarly and popular titles. "I found him a natural sparring partner over dinner, and you could get to know someone very well in that way without having to contrive ways of meeting one another. We were very adversarial to begin with because he had very dogmatic views ... he probably thinks I do, too, but I'd just call them sound."

Dr Greenfield's sudden rise to TV stardom came about after she took part in a televised discussion at the Bristol Exploratorium late one evening during the National Week of Science, Engineering and Technology in March. She caught the eye of Caroline van den Brul of the BBC's science and features department, who some months later asked her to do an audition for William Woollard of Inca, the independent company that produces the lectures for television.

"I really don't know how they came to choose me," Dr Greenfield says. "It was a bit like the advert for the National Lottery: they said `it could be you', and then suddenly there was this finger pointing at me. I don't think there's anything particularlydistinguished about me that none of my female colleagues have. I was just very fortunate in being in the right place at the right time." Her infectious enthusiasm, the striking out- fits she favours, her brown eyes, blonde hair and wide smile will not have gone unnoticed.

Does she feel a certain responsibility, as the first woman to give the lectures? "Of course. It's very important that yet another all-male bastion has fallen. I'd like the success of these lectures to depend on me rather than on my gender. But even though I don't want to be judged as the first woman, I know that I will be, and so I want to make a really good show of it."

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Lane Del Rey performing on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury 2014
people... but none of them helped me get a record deal, insists Lana Del Rey
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules
filmReview: The Rock is a muscular Davy Crockett in this preposterous film, says Geoffrey Macnab
News
i100
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Sport
Louis van Gaal watches over Nani
transfers
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Sport
New Real Madrid signing James Rodríguez with club president Florentino Perez
transfersColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Travel
Hotel Tour d’Auvergne in Paris launches pay-what-you-want
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Developer - Permanent - London - Up to £50k

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum 23 days holiday plus Pension scheme: Clearwater Peop...

Physics Teacher

£130 - £162 per day + UPS: Randstad Education Hull: Physics Teacher Long Term ...

IT Technician (1st/2nd line support) - Leatherhead, Surrey

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Technician (1st/2nd line support)...

Primary Teacher EYFS, KS1 and KS2

£85 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: Randstad Education are urgentl...

Day In a Page

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

A land of the outright bizarre
What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

The worst kept secret in cinema

A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

The new hatched, matched and dispatched

Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
Why do we have blood types?

Are you my type?

All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

Honesty box hotels

Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn