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Why the brain matters: Public Engagement in The Gambia

Briony Fleming19 February 2019

This blog has been written by Laura Katus,  PhD Student  in Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuropsychiatry Section, based in UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.


For me as a neuroscientist, there’s hardly anything more exciting than the human brain. When embarking on a PhD in a community where neuroscience thus far hadn’t been a thing, I thought it would be great to be able to share some of our enthusiasm with our participants, who after all come into the lab month after month to have us track their babies’ brain development. Our project, the Brain Imaging for Global Health project (BRIGHT project) is aimed at understanding infant brain development from birth to 24 months of age, both in the UK and in The Gambia, West Africa. The Gambia has an excellent infrastructure for research, and families commonly participate in ongoing research. However, some of our methods are quite different from say, the ongoing nutritional or epidemiological research. When on a visit to The Gambia, I suggested to the local team we try and organise an event for our participants, at which we would get the chance to dedicate a whole day of discussions and workshops about the brain and why we were so interested in researching it. Everyone was very positive about the idea and so, together with the local research assistant and another PhD student, we started planning our BRIGHT project Open Day.

BRIGHT project participants during neuroimaging and behavioural assessment

BRIGHT project participants during neuro-imaging and behavioural assessment. Keneba, the Gambia

My own journey into public engagement began some time before that, when volunteering at an event co-organised by the London Brain Project. Inspired by the fantastic workshop and resources the London Brain Project developed over the years, I thought that these were an ideal medium for our planned project in The Gambia. It was also at this event that I was made aware of the possibility to apply for funding through the UCL Public Engagement Unit. A few months later, I went on the training associated with the Train & Engage grant scheme, which allows UCL students to apply for up to £1000 to fund public engagement events. The training was extremely useful in that it changed my perspective on public engagement from ‘wanting to get the message out there’ to a much more interactive and two-way process which in turn could influence our research. After the training, we put together the Train & Engage grant application, for which we received excellent support from the Public Engagement Unit. We were also in the lucky position of having a very supportive project lead, who was able to provide funding for flights to The Gambia, as overseas travel would have blown our budget. In April 2018 the day had finally arrived and mothers, fathers and babies were brought to our Gambian field station. After a short welcome ceremony we split into groups and began to workshop.

Participants at BRIGHT project opening ceremony

Participants at BRIGHT project opening ceremony

Luckily, we were able to incorporate two London Brain Project inspired activities; the first illustrated how different areas of the brain work together in everyday tasks, by colour coding the brain and making a necklace out of differently coloured beads.

Participants in the 'bead you brain ' workshop

Participants in the ‘bead you brain ‘ workshop

participants taking part in a 'bead your brain' workshop

Participants taking part in a ‘bead your brain’ workshop

Another was an arts and crafts activity illustrating how babies’ visual system develops over the first year of life. Some people in The Gambia hold the belief that babies cannot see or hear at birth so this activity in particular sparked some interesting discussions between participants.

participant from the visual development workshop holds up card with brightly coloured stickers

visual development workshop participant

women sit round table as part of a workshop on visual development

Participants taking part in a visual development workshop

At another station two team members explained some basic features of the brain during a little dissection of cow’s brain. They also played some games explaining how our neuroimaging equipment allows us to measure the brain. The last workshop focused on parental stress and mental health. Participants came up with experiences that can produce stress, especially for a new parent. Each of these stressors was represented by a block a volunteer had to carry illustrating the debilitating effect of stress on daily functioning. After that, participants were asked to think of ways to reduce stress, allowing the volunteer to reduce the burden of having to carry around the blocks.

After the workshop phase, the local drama group performed a play which discussed why in many studies biological samples are collected and that these are not used to make money, but are an important part of the ongoing research.

Two men take part in a play about the collection of biological samples

Two men take part in a play about the collection of biological samples

We were extremely pleased that the all the activities seemed to really resonate with attendees. From the feedback, it became apparent that they much enjoyed the event and learned many new things about the brain. Several attendees said that they had learned things they never knew before and that they would share what they learnt with others in their villages. Very positive feedback was given by several elders who hold and important status in their villages, we are confident that some of the topics will be discussed again in the wider community.

BRIGHT project participants discuss the project

BRIGHT project participants discuss the proje

Especially the mental health workshop elicited interesting reactions, with several participants saying that they had never spoken about this topic before and found it really interesting and important.

BRIGHT project participants

BRIGHT project participants group shot in The Gambia

In hindsight, it is hard to decide say though whether participants or staff enjoyed the event more. All workshops were led by our Gambian project staff who usually run the neuroimaging studies and neuropsychological assessments, and while experts on data collection are not trained neuroscientists. In the training we did not only cover how to run each workshop but also reviewed some evidence for how we can measure the brain’s structure and function. All staff said that they enjoyed the training and the event and we received feedback saying that this had made them realise how much they learned from running the study and that it made them proud to work on this project.

team leaders prepare brightly coloured paper for a visual development workshop

BRIGHT project team members prepare for the visual development workshop

Having had the opportunity to put together this project was definitely a highlight for the entire project team and for me as a PhD student. Obviously the team all had to dedicate time to the preparation, but for me personally this work provided just the right level of distraction to keep me sane during the final stages of my PhD research. With more and more of our data coming in, we are keen to hold a similar event towards the end of the study, possibly centred on the findings coming out of BRIGHT.

Group photograph in The Gambia of the BRIGHT project team

Group photograph of the BRIGHT project team, Keneba, The Gambia (2017)

Embedding citizen science at UCL: Interview with ‘Institutional Leader’ Muki Haklay

Briony Fleming29 January 2019

This is an interview with Muki Haklay, as part of our series focusing on the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, looking at previous winners and their experiences with Public Engagement. Muki won a Provost’s Award for Public Engagement in 2018 in the category ‘Institutional Leadership’


What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m a Professor of Geographic Information Science at the Department of Geography. A major part of my job is co-directing the Extreme Citizen Science (ExCiteS) group and to a smaller extent being a director of Mapping for Change, a social enterprise that specialises in participatory mapping and citizen science. Through both, I am working with a brilliant group of researchers on developing new approaches to engage people from all walks of life in scientific projects that produce results which are meaningful and useful to the participants. The ExCiteS group includes geographers, anthropologists, computer scientists, human-computer interaction experts, ecologists, designers, community engagers, and administrative experts – it’s very diverse.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I came to UCL at the end of 1997, to study for a PhD in Geography, and I’m still here. I started my academic career at the Department of Geomatic Engineering (now part of Civil, Environmental and Geomatic Engineering) and about two years ago moved to the Department of Geography.

You have previously won one of the Provost’s Award for Public Engagement here at UCL, what project was that for?
The Extreme Citizen Science group received an institutional leadership award in 2018 for the range of projects that we’re involved in – from working with forest communities in the Congo basin to record important local resources so they are protected from logging, to working across the street from UCL with the people and groups that are concerned with the impacts of air pollution and construction projects on their health.

Has winning the award changed things for you?
It was an honour and pleasure to be recognised by UCL, and it is something that is helpful to flag in different contexts (e.g. research applications), but it didn’t change things beyond that for now. Because public engagement is fundamental to the type of research that I and the group are doing, it is natural for us to continue and do the things that we do across the world.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list.
The top of my to-do list includes mostly research funding applications. The limited level of funding and the size of projects that support public engagement and citizen science are such that I need to be involved in many project applications to make ends meet. The result is a continuous effort to secure the necessary funding to keep all the talented people of ExCiteS together.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?
There are many, but if I think of those that I liked recently, then the album is Himmelmusik by L’Arpaggiata under the direction of Christina Pluhar; the film is Blade Runner 2049; and the novel is Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
I’ll share one that Alice Sheppard, ExCiteS community engagement officer, shared on our Slack group: I went to the library recently asking if they had the book about Pavlov’s dog and Schrödinger’s cat. The librarian said it rang a bell but she wasn’t sure if they had it or not.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?
George Frideric Handel, Senesino (a castrato that worked with him), Francesca Cuzzoni (a soprano that worked with him), and then I would sit back, watch the sparks, and listen to the gossip of the music scene in London at the time. Probably I wouldn’t understand a thing.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Always be nice to anyone who come and ask for help, regardless of whether they are undergraduates or professors. Some of the best collaborations and research opportunities evolved for me this way.

What would it surprise people to know about you?
I studied to play the piano for 9 years in my childhood and teenage years. I still hope to get back and learn to play the harpsichord one day.

What is your favourite place?
Jerusalem, where I was born. Like many ex-Jerusalemites, I love the city and find it upsetting at the same time. As the late Israeli author Amos Oz pointed, if you live there for 3 years, you get a degree in comparative fundamentalism.

 

You can read more about the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, including seeing previous winners, on our website. You can also read about fellow previous Provost’s Award winner, Sophie Scott in this Spotlight On… 

From Provost’s Award to brain imaging in rural Gambia: Interview with Clare Elwell

Briony Fleming21 January 2019

This is an interview with Claire Elwell, as part of our series focusing on the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, looking at previous winners and their experiences with Public Engagement. Claire won a Provost’s Award for Public Engagement in 2012 in the category ‘Established Career Academic/Research’


What is your role and what does it involve?
I’m a Professor of Medical Physics in the Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering. I lead a research group developing new methods for imaging the brain and I’m currently running the BRIGHT (Brain Imaging for Global Health) project in Africa to understand the impact of malnutrition on infant brain development

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?
I’ve been at UCL for 28 years! Prior to that I worked as a clinical physicist in the NHS.

You have previously won one of the Provost’s Award for Public Engagement here at UCL, what project was that for?
I won a Provost’s Award in 2012 for my work engaging a range of audiences with medical physics and bio-engineering. This included leading an exhibit at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition and doing stand-up comedy as part of the Bright Club, Science Show Off and Pint of Science.

Has winning the award changed things for you?
The award was a good opportunity to show how UCL values public engagement and it opened my eyes to the huge range of activities that are being undertaken by staff and students across the college. It’s also been great to encourage other members of my department to get involved. One of my colleagues, Ilias Tachtsidis has set up a brilliant initiative called Metabolight which is developing really innovative ways to show how light can be used to diagnose and monitor brain injury in newborn infants.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list
I’m really proud of my BRIGHT team who have set up an open day at the field station in rural Gambia where we are running our brain imaging studies. They worked with the African field staff to put together activities to engage families from the local community. They are now planning to roll these activities out at range of events and festivals in the next few months. Their work is a great example of cutting across cultural boundaries and thinking really carefully about how to engage with different audiences.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?
Depends on which day you’re asking. Today it would be Paloma Faith’s Fall from Grace, Little Miss Sunshine and Far From the Madding Crowd.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?
Schrödinger gets pulled over by the police for speeding. The officer looks over the car and asks if there’s anything in the boot. “A cat” replies Schrödinger. The officer opens the boot and says “This cat is dead”. Schrödinger sighs and says “It is now”.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?
My Irish grandmother – I miss her pearls of wisdom

What advice would you give your younger self?
Be bolder

What would it surprise people to know about you?
I’ve been on a fear of flying course

What is your favourite place?
Anywhere I can do some open water swimming

 

You can read more about the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement, including seeing previous winners, on our website. You can also read about fellow previous Provost’s Award winner, Sophie Scott in this week’s Spotlight On… 

Celebrating the best in Public Engagement at UCL

Lizzy Baddeley26 February 2018

There’s only one week left to nominate an individual/a team/a community partner for a UCL Provost’s Award for Public Engagement. The awards aim to celebrate the very best mutually beneficial engagement with external communities that has taken place at UCL over the last year.

At this auspicious time, we wanted to take a look back over some of our award winners of the past. We’ve had so many, this is really just a snapshot.

Hannah receiving her award from the then Provost Sir Malcolm Grant

Some of our previous winners have gone on to be well known in engagement and communication nationally, like Hannah Fry who won ‘Academic/Research grade 6/7’ in 2013. You can now see her fronting a variety of BBC programmes on maths and science, but in 2013 her work was on a slightly more local scale. Hannah had worked on a variety of engagement initiatives, but the stand out project was a film she made about the London riots.

Hannah had been analysing the mathematical patterns in the London 2011 riots and seen a connection between cuts to youth services and rioting. In making the film she heard from charities, youth workers, and young people to help inform the content. You can read more about the process here.

In the very first year of the awards, one of the winners was Caroline Bressey: Director of the Equiano Centre. She was recognised for her efforts to ensure community voices were heard in her research on the African diaspora in the UK and in resulting policy.  Caroline has done a great deal of work with ‘community scholars’ – a term she has coined to acknowledge work by researchers outside of academia with whom she collaborates on research and funding applications.  She has also co-curated exhibitions on slavery and abolition at the National Portrait Gallery and made important contributions to several other exhibitions, campaigns, and initiatives. Caroline and others in the Equiano Centre have continued to be shining examples of engaged researchers.

Caroline Bressey at the ceremony

In 2015, a new category was included in the awards to allow us to celebrate the work of partner organisations involved in public engagement. Almost all our previous winners have had strong connection to external groups, but never before had we awarded the initiative and commitment of those partners in creating and maintaining engagement with UCL.

The winner in 2015 was Kate Martin from Common Room, a ground breaking service user and young peoples’ engagement organisation which ensures the voice of disempowered groups informs research and supports appropriate dissemination. The work for which she was nominated was a collaboration between Kate and the Evidence Based Practice Unit at UCL and the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Familes. Kate and Common Room were able to bring  in the voices of children and young people with experience of mental health issues and of their family members, to share their views and experiences of mental health issues and of service use, normally a difficult thing for researchers to do.

Kate Martin with current Provost Michael Arthur and Rob Trimble from the Bromley-by-Bow Centre

There are many more winners, and indeed nominees, who could be highlighted, and there is a list of all previous winners on our website. Because so many good people, teams and partners are nominated, last year we decided to highlight a few on our site. You can find them here:

If you know someone, a group, or a community partner who deserves to be recognised for their work bringing gaps between UCL and external groups or individuals? If so, get your nominations in quickly!