Nature to Neuroscience: Green Man Festival 2022
By Phoebe Reynolds-Whitehead
Green Man is a family-friendly music, science and arts festival held every August under the sweeping backdrop of the mountainous Brecon Beacons, Wales. This year the festival celebrated its 20th anniversary with an eclectic mix of events, including workshops and a performance hosted by PhD students from the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology (CDN) within the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at KCL.
Hosted in the aptly named “Einstein’s Garden”, PhD students from the CDN have been involved in creating fun and engaging science events for festivalgoers since 2018, and this year they returned bigger and better than ever.
To share their research with the public, the PhD team ran interactive workshops titled “Nature to Neuroscience”, which encouraged festivalgoers to explore how the world around us is used in neuroscience research, as well as the effect of the environment on brain development. The workshop was split into three segments. Firstly, looking at how tools from nature are used in technologies to advance new neuroscience discoveries. Festivalgoers created their own glow in the dark petri dish designs which they could then see using UV light. This was incredibly popular with children, who exclaimed in awe when their previously invisible design suddenly shone bright, and the PhD team explained how glowing green fluorescent proteins (GFP) from jellyfish can be used to see neurons under the microscope and look at brain activity as it happens.
In addition, the team also looked at how antibodies, nature’s immune response, are used to stain brain samples for imaging, and participants eagerly solved foam jigsaws of differently shaped building blocks to fit together the antibodies onto their science sample. The PhD students also looked at optogenetics. Optogenetics is how coloured light flashes are used to activate or inactivate specific neurons. For this, robots were built which either followed the flashlight from a phone or stopped moving when a light was shone onto them. Everyone couldn’t wait to try and had great fun getting the robots to follow the track laid out!
The second part of the workshop looked at how the brain is shaped by the environment we grow up in. To explore this, festivalgoers had their minds warped with optical illusions, and keenly listened to different music to explore how culture can shape our emotions towards sound. Finally, the workshop also had a ‘build-a-brain’ creative station, where children (and adults!) explored neuroscience through art. Everyone had great fun creating models of their brain with plasticine and building brain hats to wear around the festival to show the functions of different areas of the brain.
The greatest benefit of running the workshop was the dialogue it opened between the public and scientists on their research. The PhD team were able to hear views on the future direction of research in neuroscience, as well as stories from the public on their experiences with science. This included a woman who had stumbled across a lecture on the history of GFP weeks previously, only to then chat with the team and learn about how it can be practically used within research. After talking about the team’s research, another adult said he wished he had studied neuroscience. The team even had festivalgoers who had joined the workshop in previous years and loved it so much, they returned this year for more scientific fun!
The PhD team also put on a science themed pantomime called “The Brave Little Neuron”. The play was designed, scripted and performed by the PhD team to explore the research themes of their department, which focuses on Developmental Neurobiology. The Narrator helped the audience follow the immature little neuron, Peter, as he went on a huge journey through the brain in search of his best friend, Polly, and his perfect synaptic partner. The team explored how Peter the neuron interacted in the brain with both friends and enemies, such as the Big Bad Microglia who was trying to eat him!
The crowded audience was filled with families who cheered, booed and wiggled their arms (axons) to help Peter along his journey. They played quizzes to help him climb through the brain, and members of the audience even took part in a scientific dating show to help Peter the neuron find the perfect synaptic partner to join with. The PhD team found the pantomime to be a distinctive and innovative approach to public engagement which was hugely successful in encouraging creativity and enthusiasm for science. The audience also loved watching the show, with one festivalgoer telling the team “We came to see your show, and we were tired beforehand, but by the end, we were energised! We really enjoyed it!”. The enthusiasm from the families was infectious, with children saying they learnt about science in a fun way and some even telling the team they now wanted to be scientists when they grew up.
The PhD team found that the festival provided them with a unique setting for public engagement, and the opportunity to engage with a wider audience that is usually trickier to reach. The festival (and its enthusiastic crowd) was the perfect occasion to debut the pantomime and successfully diversify the department’s medium for public engagement. Several students on the PhD team had also never been involved with public engagement before, and they found it to be a fun and eye-opening experience to share their research, as well as improve their communication skills in discussing their research with the general public of all ages. Most importantly, the whole team was able to increase interaction with research to individuals, especially young people, and showcase their neuroscience research to inspire new champions for the future of STEM. The PhD team was a diverse community of scientists, and a number of festivalgoers commented on how great it was to see the representation within STEM.
Green man was a vibrant and exciting opportunity to share the CDN’s research with the general public and engage in a way that helped us question our own work and look from a different perspective, and the CDN Green Man team can’t wait for next year!
The CDN Green Man team wish to acknowledge and thank the KCL Small Public Engagement Grant Scheme supported by the Wellcome Trust, and the CDN for funding support.
Participants: Phoebe Reynolds, Sara Ratti, Sally Horton, Jucha Willers Moore, Dylan Myers-Joseph, Filipe Ferreira.