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The Brave Little Neuron

Phoebe Reynolds and Jucha Willers Moore

PhD Candidates at the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology

02 November 2023

Public engagement is crucial in preventing misinformation and breaking down barriers between scientists and the general public. This is the motivation behind The Brave Little Neuron, a public engagement group of PhD students and ECRs at the IoPPN. Our group works to create an open dialogue and promote scientific understanding in a fun, non-traditional way.

Who is The Brave Little Neuron?

We started in 2022 with PhD students Phoebe Reynolds, Sara Ratti, Filipe Ferreira, Sally Horton, Jucha Willers Moore and Dylan Myers Joseph from the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology. However, we have since opened our group to others in the IoPPN and have expanded to a total of 15 members.

The group is formed and run by PhD students, allowing us to adapt the shape, format and language scientists have traditionally used to share research with the public. We also think our positions as early career researchers help us communicate with the public directly at multiple levels. 

We are a diverse group of scientists from a range of backgrounds, including international students, minoritised ethnic groups, LGBTQ+ and first-generation university students. Representation is crucial to challenge the traditional perception of what scientists are like. We want people to be able to see themselves represented in us. This will open up communication with the public and inspire children and young people to pursue science.

What kind of public engagements does The Brave Little Neuron do?

We have run our performance and workshops at schools across London, UK music festivals (Green Man Festival, Wales and Gone Wild Festival, Exeter) and given a talk at New Scientist Live. 

We perform an educational but entertaining pantomime about how your brain forms networks during development. It is aimed at all ages, with different levels of science and jokes included to ensure that everyone can be interested but understand the story line. The play aims to take the audience on an exciting journey through the brain and explore how it develops all of the amazing functions we know it to have. It includes different characters of cell types that are found throughout the brain. We created and co-wrote the script, and followed the school curriculum to ensure that it covers topics which children will learn about in school, as well as including real world implications of the impact our research has.

We have also run workshops which comprise different educational activities and games based around different research interests within the group to explain the research we do into neurodevelopmental biology. We have created robots that teach individuals about how optogenetics work, puzzles to show how antibodies work, arts and crafts to demonstrate the structures and functions of the brain, and some optical illusions demonstration to explain the visual system.


The group during the performance of The Brave Little Neuron at New Scientist Live 2023 (CW from top left: The Amazing Astrocyte (Emily Read), The Big Bad Microglia (Sally Horton), Peter The Brave Neuron (Filipe Ferriera), The Old Wise Neuron (Marco Massimo), Peter and his best friend Polly the Pyramidal Neuron (Preslava Todorova), The Perfect Partner (Alice Thomson) and Narrator (Phoebe Reynolds). Photo Credits: Ana Margarida Lourenco

What have been the best experiences?

We especially love the audience participation and the opportunity to talk to the public and answer questions. It is so rewarding to see how our work is genuinely appreciated by adults and children. People tell us they walk away from our sessions having learned something new or come away with a deeper understanding of neuroscience. We also find that understanding public interest and questions helped us understand what the public perceives as important research questions, inspiring us to see our work in new and different ways.


The Brave Little Neuron team at Green Man Festival 2023, running an interactive workshop with games centred around their Neuroscience research. (CW from top Left: Jucha Willers Moore, Emily Winson-Bushby, Filipe Ferreira, Alice Thomson). Photo Credits: Dan Gowland.

What has been the biggest challenge?

One of the biggest challenges is translating what we do into creating something that is engaging and relevant to the whole audience. We want everyone to feel like our neuroscience research is relevant or interesting to them in some way, no matter their previous background or scientific knowledge. It is also challenging to balance our busy PhD research with coordinating schedules to rehearse and plan the public engagement work we do. We wish we could do more than we’re doing right now.

Why do you think public engagement is important to do as PhD students?

Public engagement is a great opportunity to connect with audiences, break stereotypes of what a scientist is, and develop our own skills. We have built an enthusiastic and growing community of PhD students and ECRs who are passionate about public engagement and keen to try new experiences.

We believe it is a strong skill to be able to explain our scientific research to a general audience successfully, and this opportunity has developed our own public speaking and communication skills dramatically, as well as increased our confidence. Importantly, we have built a network where members support and nurture each other through the winding road of a PhD!


Performers in the group answering questions from the general public after the performance at Gone Wild Festival 2023. (L-R: Ana Dorrego-Rivas, Olivia Simmonds, Noor Al-Hajri, Marco Massimo, Sara Ratti). Photo Credits: Jade Lau

What happens when a member completes their PhD? Can others join?

Just because people finish their PhD, it doesn’t mean that it is the end! We are always looking for new recruits for our team, or to have a go taking the script and performing it themselves. We think it is really important for researchers to engage with the wider community, so we are keen to support new PhD students and introduce them to the exciting experiences we have had!

For more information check out the previous KERN blog here and our Tik Tok.

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