Jennifer Greenhall is no stranger to science. The neuroscientist and Exchange consultant is the daughter of a NASA engineer and spent her childhood surround by astronauts, scientists, and engineers who helped build her love of science. Her interest in neuroscience began in high school and followed her to the University of California, San Diego, where she studied the aging brain. Recently, we caught up with Greenhall to ask her a few questions about her work for The Exchange, if science consulting matters, and what message she wants to share with future scientists and filmmakers.
Tell us about your background. What inspired you to become a neuroscientist?
When I was younger, my dad worked as an engineer for NASA. In fact, my siblings and I were born in the suburbs around three different NASA centers, but we largely grew up around the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Most of my friends’ parents were astronauts, scientists, or engineers. Needless to say, science was pervasive in our community, and as a child, it did not seem like a far-fetched idea to become an astronaut or build spaceships — it was just something you did when you grew up.
My interest in neuroscience specifically began in high school when I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Dr. Oliver Sacks and developed further when I did a science fair project on brain lateralization. After studying bioengineering in college and completing my honors thesis on EEG research, I worked in a neuropsychology laboratory at Harvard University where we investigated cognitive deficits in stroke patients. I think my grandmother dying of Alzheimer’s disease also pushed me in this direction, specifically to study the aging of the brain for my Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego.
What is your earliest memory of science? Do you think it had an impact on your interest in science?
I’m not sure what my earliest memory is, but earlier memories include mostly experiential science, like going to the planetarium with my family to look at Mars and Jupiter or participating in the science classes of our district’s gifted and talented program. Those classes were only once or twice a week, but I remember them more than anything else from elementary school. We had an earth science class where we visited mining sites and dug for various rocks, a marine biology class that took us to a university in Galveston where we searched for sea anemones in tide pools and looked at marsh water under the microscope, and an environmental science class at a nature center where we learned the ways of the local Native Americans and made arrowheads. It is a shame this was not part of the general curriculum because I think experiencing science is how children get excited about it. Science is about exploring and trying to understand the world around you. I definitely think these early experiences made an impact on my future interests.
How did you become involved with The Science & Entertainment Exchange?
I first heard about its existence at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2009. Another scientist at The Salk Institute was a consultant for the show Fringe. I chatted with him about it, and because it seemed like fun, I added my name to the list.
What have you enjoyed most in your role as a consultant?
I most enjoy just being involved in a creative collaboration. Bouncing ideas off other people is always fun. I have frequently been asked to project science forward into the future. Where will science be in 10 or 20 years? Where could it be now if someone was exceedingly clever? It is exciting to think about what might happen and what is possible.
Does science consulting make a difference (to the project, the viewer, the scientist, etc.)?
I think it does. I feel that shows with a scientific bent are better when they have a true scientific basis, even if it is a future projection. That link to reality or what could be draws viewers into the story. For the scientist, we get to have fun and be creative.
Were there any science-based TV shows or films that inspired you as a kid? What about as an adult?
As a kid, I would sometimes watch one of the Star Trek series with my brothers, but I did not really get into them until I met my husband. The Star Wars films certainly shaped the perceptions of every kid who grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Though nonfiction, watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Nova with my parents impacted me. As an adult, I have enjoyed The X-Files, the newer Star Trek series, various medical dramas, and Battlestar Galactica.
What is the common ground between entertainment and science?
Both fields are always pushing the envelope and trying to do something unprecedented. I believe both have a responsibility to educate, considering how much the average American watches television. Personally, I find most interesting the television shows and movies that make me think, though they need a good storyline and sympathetic characters as well.
Thinking of the next generation of filmmakers and scientists – what message would you like to share with them?
The biggest assets the United States has as a culture are its ingenuity, imagination, and creativity. We have fallen behind in math and science across the globe, and knowledge of these fields is of dire importance for our future innovations. Incorporating more science into films may inspire and even educate the populace. Entertainment and science should walk hand in hand. Science is a fertile place to begin any story.