Science for the masses

Susan Greenfield takes over the Royal Institution

IN 1994, someone gave me a call – says Susan Greenfield – and said that no woman had ever given the Christmas Lecture at the Royal Institution. I was astonished; I thought that was far ahead of me, something for the men in grey suits. But I went for an audition, and I knew I really wanted to do it.

I’d done a book review for the science magazine Nature and the books editor had transferred to the BBC. He asked me to do a late-night discussion programme, just one man and his dog watching, and it was great. When they said: “Stand by for cameras” I felt I had come home. My mum was on the stage, a dancer, and that might have given me my love of standing up in front of people (my dad was an electrician).

By the end of the year I was getting all sorts of invitations, writing for the papers and doing local radio interviews. I’ve been on Tomorrow’s World, Question Time, Any Questions, Desert Island Discs and Start The Week. People sometimes say: “Are you a real scientist?” But scientists shouldn’t dismiss public speaking. The more you present things – and especially to the general public – the more you have to sift it. Otherwise you can get too bogged down in the details.

This year, I became director of the Royal Institution. It’s a private institution so I can implement my own vision. We have a huge range of activities here in Mayfair for the public. I would love people to come in and see and hear and argue. Ten chemical elements were discovered here, and Faraday worked here. But it’s not a science museum – we have one of those already.

People think science is very po-faced and serious, but my tutor at Oxford, Jane Mellanby, was iconoclastic and irreverent. She had that spirit that’s been great for the country – like designing Spitfires on the back of an envelope. She always thought everything was fun. After my degree, she told me to be a scientist, and sent me to see the Professor of Pharmacology. He took a risk on me, a great gamble. I’d never been in a lab, I wasn’t house-trained. And there-was opposition – from an Australian who said I was a round peg in a square hole. When I got the scholarship, the sheer pleasure I got from telling this guy by far outweighed all the nobler feelings.

A senior scholarship gives you a lot of money, but also you’re allowed to dine at High Table – hallowed terrain! I went out to celebrate with an expensive bottle of Moselle – three to four pounds a bottle was a lot then. Soon afterwards, I transferred to physiology, the mechanics of the body. Pharmacology is about the body’s chemical reactions, but they overlap, it wasn’t like I was going into astrophysics. If you cross disciplines you’re not scared to ask questions, but the downside is that you won’t know the details unless you work hard. I have a close friend who is a brain surgeon but did PPE at Oxford, and a lecturer in anatomy who read music. In physiology I was recording electrical signals from cells, brain cells doing things in thousandths of a second. I also discovered a non-classical phenomenon, a chemical we already knew about but which could do other things too, related to the area of the brain that is lost in Parkinson’s disease.

A man in Paris had a technique that was not then available in England, so I went to Paris for a year. When I came back I got my own lab, and a lectureship was coming up, attached to a fellowship at Lincoln College. That’s where I met my husband.

I feel grateful to the fates for putting me into all sorts of different cultures. In the lab, in Oxford, I have a large group, technicians, graduate students and post-docs. And I have a thing in the City of London with venture capitalists, a company in which Dr David Vaux, a pathologist at Lincoln College, is my partner. We came up with an idea to develop a different type of medication for Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and we had to raise venture capital.

At school, science was boring – a lot of facts like Trivial Pursuit. Who cares how tall a mountain is? So an amoeba splits into two, who cares? I did Classics, ancient Greek and maths at A level. I was interested in the mind, doing philosophy at Oxford. But that was all about linguistics. I was reading whole articles about the definite article. Luckily I also had to do something else as well. I did psychology, including brain dissection, and that’s when I realised science was interesting. There was this thing that wasn’t properly understood, and here it was – in my hands.