Woman with ideas on the brain : SCIENCE

Georgina Ferry meets an academic who moves with ease between Oxford high table and TV soapbox
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The Independent Online
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."