Developmental Neurobiology Academy (DNA) is a week-long summer programme hosted by the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology (CDN) and the Medical Research Council Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders (MRC CNDD) at King’s College London. for DNA week, which ran from the 4th to the 8th of July, Year 12 students with a passion for medicine, neuroscience, psychology and adjacent fields were invited to dive into the fast-paced world of science and research in the university setting. A total of 52 students from 26 non-selective state schools in London and Essex visited King’s to learn about a range of neuroscience topics, including developmental neuroscience, mechanosensation, learning and memory, and neuroimaging from renowned researchers and lecturers. DNA students also had the opportunity of experiencing the wet-lab environment first-hand, visit the King’s Brain Bank, and witness a live EEG recording. Vitally, students worked collaboratively to explore the world of care in research through interactive games and puzzles, also working on a week-long group project that honed in on a neuro-topic.
Dev Neuro Academy is built on the tenets of creating equitable opportunities for A-level students from historically disenfranchised backgrounds, providing contextual offers at King’s College London for students who successfully complete the DNA program. Further, DNA staff and interns provide mentorship throughout the UCAS application process, as students are encouraged to send their personal statements to DNA tutors for editorial feedback, to further bolster their applications.
At the start of the week, students gathered in the Hodgkin General Classroom and were met with a warm welcome from DNA lead Dr Leigh Wilson and her mighty team of undergraduate students: Nafisa Islam, Laia Mallafré i Martín, and Marta Tseneva. Then followed an encouraging message from the Director of the CDN and the MRC CNDD, Professor Oscar Marín: ‘I also went to state schools for my primary and secondary education,’ he stated, ‘and yet I still ended up here, at King’s College London, as a professor. if I can get here, so can you.’
In the afternoon, students met with their tutors for the first time to chat about their science communication projects for the week; groups were randomly assigned a neuroscience topic and were tasked with communicating about said topic, choosing between digital, physical, and written formats to disseminate the most important information. Topics ranged from Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia to consciousness and artificial intelligence. Students immediately began working creatively and collaboratively on their 5-minute presentations, at points wondering if and how they would successfully complete their SciComm projects in only one week.
as students walked into the Hodgkin Classroom on Day 2, they immediately noticed the presence of covered plastic trays and the faint smell of formaldehyde in the air. Many were surprised to learn that beneath the covers were specimens of whole brains and spinal cords. The room was abuzz with excitement as students donned their gloves and the trays were uncovered. ‘Wait, are they actual human brains?’ a few students asked, bewildered. ‘Yes,’ Dr Marina Yasvoina responded as she held the specimen carefully in her hands. ‘Think about that: this brain held someone’s thoughts and feelings for many years, and they donated their brain so that we could learn from it. Think about how beautiful that is.’
Eyes widened with wonder as each student held the specimens. ‘The brain is heavier than I expected!’ DNA student Amina excitedly noted.
During the last session of Day 2, Dr Tom Arichi presented on neuroimaging, engaging students in an interactive talk interspersed with clinical images. The students used clues from Dr Arichi’s slides to help them determine the age of the patient whose scan was presented on the screen. ‘What’s different about this image compared to the last one I showed?’ asked Dr Arichi. ‘The grooves in the brain, maybe?’ one student suggested. ‘Yes! The sulci are deeper. do you think that means this patient is older or younger?’ as students submitted their astute guesses via an online poll, the DNA tutors found themselves impressed by the future neuroscientists, medical doctors, and pathologists in their midst.
DNA students and tutors travelled to South East London to visit the Denmark Hill campus on Day 3. There, students visited the London Neurodegenerative Diseases Brain Bank and shadowed Prof Cathy Fernandes as she discussed the discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid, not Dev Neuro Academy!), and the interplay of genes and behaviour. Concurrently, students learnt about human electrophysiology through EEG and about projects that centre diverse perspectives in STEM fields. A lively panel discussion about the nuance of being "minoritised" in science began shortly thereafter, covering the challenges of ascending the academic ladder as a woman, and the systems of oppression that impede minoritised academic hopefuls while in pursuit of their professional goals.
The last session of the week explored science as an act of care, during which mathematician-artist Mel Frances and cultural producer Yinka Danmole tasked students with solving a multi-step puzzle. Students scurried around the classroom searching for clues, decoding and translating a hidden message, and opening a locked box. A thought-provoking discussion ensued, with Mel, Yinka, Dr Wilson, and King’s Centre for Education Director Prof Richard Wingate asking students about what it means to do science with care. Students thought back to the tasks they accomplished whilst solving the puzzle, and remembered that it was important to accurately translate a key message before beginning the next stage of care. DNA student Sabar then reflected, ‘Translation is an important part of caring. Only when you understand something is when you can act upon it.’
Surprise! An impromptu session made its way into the schedule: a quick tour of the medical dissection rooms. Upon the students’ return, many of them said the tour was the highlight of their week. Plamena marvelled, ‘I never thought in a million years that I would be able to see actual bodies and observe how all the structures of the body look!’ as many DNA students aspire to become medical doctors, the dissection room tour was the best possible welcome to the practical components of their future degrees.
The week culminated in the group projects that DNA students had begun on the 4th, for which students filmed engaging TikTok videos, hosted a mock news program, and created an interactive board game. Afterwards, awards were distributed for the best group projects (Well done, Good Morning KCL, The Forgetful Five, and Cyber Life!), as well as individual awards for ‘Most likely to be a future neuroscientist’ (Congratulations, Lydia, Mario, and Nitheeshan!), and commendations for embodying the ‘Spirit of DNA’ during the week (Yay, Ashis and Afusat!). Students Isabelle and Psalm were recognised for their significant contributions to their respective group projects, and in memory of the late Elaine Snell—a beacon of light in the neuroscience and SciComm communities—Abigail was awarded the inaugural ‘Elaine Snell DNA Prize for Science Communication’.
DNA week ended with hugs and warm goodbyes; many students expressed their desire for an even longer programme, with Lydia mentioning, ‘Instead of one week, maybe do two weeks of the summer school! I enjoyed it so much, and I’ve made so many life-long friends.’
On a personal note, it was remarkable to witness the students’ growth from the beginning of the week to the very end; despite the long days and packed schedules, their level of engagement was impressive and inspiring. The students were active in creating a vibrant and inclusive learning space where they tried new things, shared ideas, and broadened their scope of neuroscience. Their futures are blindingly bright; I know I speak for Dr Wilson, Prof Wingate, Prof Fernandes, Dr Yasvoina, Laia, Marta, Nafisa, and the entire DNA team when I say it was a profound honour to bear witness to greatness in the making.
Dev Neuro Academy is made possible thanks to funding support from the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology and the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at King’s College London.
About the Author: Dr Asma Bashir was a tutor and presenter for this year’s Dev Neuro Academy. She is the host of Her Royal Science, a STEM podcast co-founded during her doctoral studies in Neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. On HRS, Dr Bashir speaks to talented and innovative STEM researchers from historically marginalised and excluded groups. Check it out here: https://www.herroyalscience.com/podcast
Acknowledgements: Special thanks are owed to the entire DNA team; to Professors Richard Wingate, Oscar Marín, Jon Clarke, Uwe Drescher, Cathy Fernandes, Anthony Graham, Corinne Houart, Eugene Makayev, and Beatriz Rico; to Drs Leigh Wilson, Marina Yasvoina, Yasmin Ahmadzadeh, Tom Arichi, Sam Cooke, Rachel Jackson, Clemens Kiecker, Sydney Leaman, Vincenzo Mastrolia, Rachel Moore, Guilherme Neves, David Parry, Subathra Poopalasundaram, Nick Puts, Connor Sproston, Danielle Whittaker, Darren Williams, and Frederike Winkel; to Dotun Adeyinka, Oli Austen, Mark Bradshaw, Hannah Bruce, Yinka Danmole, Toluwalase Fayese, Mel Frances, Julia Kosowska, Khushika Magnani, Kirsty Massetti, Frank Matarrelli, Sara Ratti, Aniqa Rob, Olivia Simmonds, and Alice Thomson; and to DNA Interns Nafisa Islam, Laia Mallafré i Martín, and Marta Tseneva. Sincere gratitude is also owed to Emma Hartill for her constant and unwavering administrative support. Acknowledgement and thanks to the London Neurodegenerative Diseases Brain Bank team.