Professor Susan Greenfield Neuroscientist

Professor Susan Greenfield  Research Neuroscientist

Woman of Science

“A woman takes on a job to get something done,

a man takes on a job to be someone.” 

Mike Rann Premier of South Australia


I was in for a science  prize in the states. When I  came second, a male colleague rang.  He  said, well you are foreign and you are a woman.  It was said in all kindness, that will explain everything.  A foreigner and a woman.

Achievements in Australia

The umbrella achievement, was when I was Thinker in Residence in Adelaide for summer of 2004, 2005.   Reporting to the Premier Mike Rann (2002 –2011), how to bring in new initiatives and new ideas.  South Australia felt it was missing out.    I was told how sleepy things were, but I didn’t want to go into  a place were everything was  wonderful.   There’s no room  for me to do anything.

It was very exciting.  It was so much easier working in Australia.   People were far less judgmental, more working in a team, and I felt confident to do things  I wouldn’t do here.

The Premier said something I remember:

“A woman takes on a job to get something done, a man takes on a job to be someone.”  Mike Rann Premier of South Australia (2002-2011)

Baroness Greenfield, former director of the Royal Instituion

Professor Greenfield. Research scientist into the brain

I would define myself as a research scientist. That is always at the centre and all the others are like the spokes of a wheel.    That is the cohesive element to all I do. The research on the brain which then can find expression in other ways.


Current role models

Rita Levi-Montalcini.   A Jew in Fascist Italy.   An Italian, born in the early part of 20th century.  She qualified, but because she was Jewish was unable to practice.  She set up a laboratory in her own home, and eventually won the Nobel prize

Winning the Nobel, having the gall to set up in your own home.   To do so in a fascist country when you’re Jewish.  Later she was in the upper house in the senate in Italy.    She was so elegant, even into her 90s.   She’s my role model for obvious reasons.   Someone should make a bio pic, with Angelina Jolie.

Difference between working in France, Australia and UK

Very different from each other.   In Australia, people are very much oriented into team working,  more collegiate, team work and even to socialize after work. Someone will open a tab, a concept I fatally learnt in Australia and then you’ll be there until 11pm.

In France in the lab is very much  50/50 men and women.   In France  you’re invited back to someone’s house, to be introduced to their family.   It’s difficult to compare with England.  People are much more self conscious, less team work, more competitive, much more nastiness.   I’m thinking of  thinking of the press.  I’ve got the T shirt on that.   I was on the Andrew Denton show in Australia.   Bracing myself for a very in depth interview, for a side swipe.  Not at all.   We just stayed on the science.   Just the facts and the science, none of the gossip.  Greater maturity there.   But if you have a hierarchy,  as we do here, people will be more  competitive.

As a child I wanted to own a pony and to be a horse riding instructor.   My mother had been a dancer, She started me dancing,when I was about 2 and while I enjoyed dancing, I was no Darcy Bussell.  Instead of trying to make me fulfill her ambitions she very sensibly let me drop it, and learn horse riding.   Like a lot of young girls,  I was mad about horses, but sadly could not have a pony because we were poor and lived in London.


On my father’s side I inherited the Jewish culture, cultural  rather than religious as he was an atheist.   His  family was  was Orthodox Jewish but he married out with my mother.   The sort of values I inherited were rather similar to Asian values I see in some of my students .   Very strong sense of family.    A very, very great respect for older people.   A respect for education, value of extended family.   Work ethic not expecting anything for nothing, everyone pulling their weight.

Importance of family

Its central.  Father died 2 years ago, at 95.   He was pretty good up until the last.   Mum is coming up for 87, she still goes dancing and wears glittery  clothes.   Although a small family we are very close one.  We spent every Xmas together.


Forget about running for a bus, when its difficult to smile at people.  Difficult to get the dosage right, the  side effects of madopa and the shaking. The knock on effect and effects on the family as well  the psychologic effect.  How terrible it is for families.

Parkinson’s obstacles

Resources, are one obstacle.   Many people don’t realize how expensive research is, not just the salaries of the people in your teams, it’s the consumables, and  the premises.   There are  really 2 obstacles.  Money, and linked to that is dogma.  People are very reluctant to embrace new ideas, they’d rather stick with traditional or accepted approach

Also if everything is decided by a committee, you want to look sensible and sound in front of your colleagues.   Whilst  on the one hand, you can bat away looney ideas,  sadly some of the more unconventional or different ideas also get jettisoned.

Now that I’ve started my own company, it is much happier way of funding things.   With committees and panels every where in the world risk aversions  can creep in.  As for Parkinson’s, I certainly wouldn’t want to say we’re on the way to solving it.    I’d much rather say there are grounds for hope and we’re on the case.

Baroness Greenfield introduces her mother to the Queen

As Director of the royal Institution, Baroness Greenfield introduces her mother to the Queen


Most memorable moment was introducing the Queen to my mum and my dad.   it was when I was director of the Royal Institution and the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh came to open the RI.   As Director, it was my call to show them around  the opening of the refurbished Royal Institution. This is a  pure chance snap shot, which for me is very special.

I was an only child to 13, so  I wasn’t aware that women had different treatment.  It never crossed my mind.   I went to a very good girls’ school    Godolphin & Latymer. You could do anything if you worked hard.   Because I was quite tall I was Oberon in a Mid Summer’s Night’s Dream, and in ball room dancing I had to be the man.   

Much later I was in for a science  prize in the states. When I  came second, a male colleague rang.  He  said, well you are foreign and you are a woman.  It was said in all kindness, that will explain everything.  A foreigner and a woman.

Women and Science

If you take up research, it’s a big problem, having a baby.

The career structure is very vague, and you are on soft contract which means your on soft money.   After graduation, as a research scientist, unless you are privately funded, tenure is important. You are building your career, until your thirties and taking time out for a baby, is difficult. Then heading up 40s and establishing yourself  with time out means that you will fall behind.

Men don’t have to make those choices.    Women are put off, perhaps becoming a GP, or join a private company.   Until money is ring-fenced into supporting women having career breaks, it will remain difficult.

Most Learning

When I first came to Oxford everything was possible, anything.   I wasn’t living at home any more and I wasn’t traveling anymore

Everything was going on  lots of other intelligent people.  Exciting times.

Ever since I feel monumentally privileged. Ever since I’ve just been able to be myself.   I don’t really don’t see it as work, it’s me expressing myself.  I know I’m just very lucky.

It would be nice to craft a society where everybody had that.

Core values

Honesty, above anything else.   Be straight with people.   Be Kind to people, put yourself in other people’s shoes.   A sense of humour, we will all die sometime.   We will all be food for worms at some stage.


Not just young scientists, nor women only, but for anyone.

My mother said be yourself.  If you try to be someone else you’ll always be second rate.   If you are yourself you are magnificent.   Mark Twain said   every other role  has been taken.   Be yourself even though it may seem unfashionable,  even if you haven’t 500 followers on Facebook.   Keep yourself open for when things come along.   The obvious example of Flemingwith penicillin, came through the window.


Most things seem to happen by serendipity.    Actually, I know this is not a scientific thing to say, but I often think that things happen for a reason which often pays out. Odd ideas come from no where

Or you’ll meet someone who,  just at this time, has just the skills you need

At a beech party in Geelong, outside Melbourne, a colleague had brought along some young women scientists  who had won awards.

One of whom was a single parent, and had just finished a PHD on video games.   I asked her to contribute, to read and see that I was across the literature,  who became a collaborator on the book.worked really well.

She raised the game of the book, which, as she said, got bigger than Ben Hur

I Met her at the right place, right time, she had the right skills, even if I’d advertised for someone, I wouldn’t have found anyone as perfect as Olivia Metcalf, alumnus of ANU.




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  1. […] Professor Susan Greenfield Neuroscientist […]

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