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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Train and Engage: bringing poetry, neuroscience and older adults together

By ucwetca, on 20 April 2018

Flavia Schechtman Belham is a PhD student in the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, and a fantastic project leader from our Train and Engage program. In this blog entry, Flavia discusses her project working with older communities and poetry, to discuss neuroscience. 

At the 3rd year (of 4) of my PhD in Cognitive Neuroscience, I had tested dozens of older adults in the lab and asked them to do all sorts of memory tasks while keeping their head still so I could get good brain signal. At the end of the experimental session, most of them would ask me how my research would benefit the older population. My answer was something like “first we need to understand how the brain works so we can come up with practical applications”, or “maybe a psychologist or physician will use my results to create clinical interventions”. Although true, these answers were too abstract to please my participants and, after a while, myself.

That’s when I applied for the Train and Engage grant. My idea was to run workshops and discuss neuroscience with older adults – previous participants or not. I wanted to share my own findings and also the most recent theories and discoveries in the field of cognitive ageing. More than that, I wanted to hear feedback from the older adults and what they thought my next research should focus on. To make the workshops more attractive, I collaborated with a Poetry teacher so that the attendees could express their ideas in a more free and creative way.

I think the workshops were successful and most older adults reported to have enjoyed the sessions and learned from them. However, some surprising things also happened. A couple of attendees bluntly stated that they hated poetry and didn`t want to take part in this part of the workshop. One lady said she wasn`t convinced by anything I said because she didn`t believe in science. On the day I booked a large venue, half of the older adults did not show up. On the day I booked a smaller venue, everybody brought along their partners and siblings without telling me first and we had more people than chairs in the room.

In hindsight, I`m happy these things happened because they made me (and the Poetry teacher) think fast and adapt to an unpredicted situation. They made me realise that no matter how carefully you prepare a workshop, sometimes it will not run smoothly. It was also interesting to see how even fun and interesting activities will never appeal to everybody.

For these reasons, I highly recommend everyone to apply for their own public engagement project with Train and Engage. It develops skills that a regular laboratory-based routine won`t and makes you think about your research from a completely different point of view. And adding “project leader” and “grant awarded” to your CV makes a big difference! But I would also recommend future applicants to keep in mind that this is a long project and your other activities may change after a few months (including thesis writing and job hunting), so plan the project`s timeframe with as many details as possible.

This project is another shining example of how funding and support can help you to do something new in your PhD. Train and Engage funding is now open for applications!


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