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Developmental Neurobiology Academy: exploring Neuroscience, creating opportunities and forging networks

Dr Leigh Wilson

Public Engagement Manager & Programme Lead for Developmental Neurobiology Academy, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience

23 November 2022

A key goal at King’s College London is enabling social mobility and widening access to university for students from disadvantaged educational backgrounds. We are proud to claim considerable success in this field, coming second only to Queen Mary amongst Russell Group universities, and fifth overall in the UK in the HEPI social mobility index.

However, even with an impressive 78% of King’s home undergraduates coming from state schools, enrolling students from disadvantaged areas remains a considerable challenge. Only 16% of our enrolled English students are from Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) quintile 1 (the bottom 10% of the deprivation index) and only 25% of UK entrants come from ACORN 4-5 postcode areas, the lowest socio-economic neighbourhoods.

Thus, initiatives that target schools with low progression to higher education are vital to enable us to reach the full pool of talented potential future neuroscientists.

The Developmental Neurobiology Academy (DNA) is one such initiative. Hosted by the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology and the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), it is the flagship widening participation-focused Summer School programme designed for Year 12 (first year A-Level) students.

Reaching Out

DNA was founded in 2017 but has undergone significant re-design and expansion in the last two years. It now hosts a larger number of participants and strives to engage A-Level students with the world of cutting-edge neuroscience research, as well as offering a welcoming window into the university experience.

Dev Neuro Academy Students 2022
Developmental Neurobiology Academy 2022 students

The key aim of the programme is to reach out to students from non-selective state schools who are widely under-represented at top universities. While 48% of privately educated children go on to study at a Russell Group university, only 18% of state school children in the South East, and a staggering 2.4% of children eligible for free school meals, gain a place. In fact, 2022 saw our largest cohort to date with 52 students from 26 schools across 13 London boroughs being hosted.

Dev Neuro Academy Map

Map showing the positions of Developmental Neurobiology Academy schools.

A Week of Exploration

The DNA week is a finely tuned combination of hands-on experience in research labs, interactive research-based seminars, debates on neuroethics, creative sci-art workshops, group projects, as well as sessions on neuroanatomy and medicine. The week also includes an exciting trip to the Dissecting Room at Guy’s Campus.

A vital theme that runs throughout the week is equality, diversity and inclusion in science. This year saw co-facilitation from Dr Asma Bashir, the producer of the highly successful podcast, Her Royal Science. Dr Bashir chaired an interactive discussion and panel session with Dr Yasmin Ahmadzadeh, Toluwalase Fayese and Dr Marina Yasvoina, exploring the challenges and opportunities faced by minoritized groups in science.

My favourite part of DNA was being able to meet scientists/PhD students in the field. It was interesting to see how everyone had a different path to neuroscience; the path wasn’t linear. I also loved the diversity in neuroscience section of DNA. Since DNA, I have been focused on this idea - what can I do to make an impact on the diversity in science? Now that I have finished my A-Levels and am attending university, I hope to create a project that encourages more girls to take STEM based subjects.– Cate, DNA student 2021
Dev Neuro Academy Science as an act of care
Science as an act of care with Mel Frances & Yinka Danmole

DNA provides a diverse understanding of neuroscience, exploring how the field interacts with society from a historical perspective, delving into ethical considerations and revealing the benefits of an interdisciplinary approach to science. Last year, students took part in an amazing workshop from artist Izzy Parker which explored the psychosis research of Dr Gemma Modinos through the sculpture of emotions. This year, a workshop from artist/mathematician Melanie Frances and cultural producer Yinka Danmole, in collaboration with Professor Richard Wingate, science philosopher Dr Stephen Webster and myself, explored ‘Science as an Act of Care’ through the paradigms of gaming and escape room design.

Dev Neuro Academy group projects and graduation
Group projects and graduation

Throughout the week, students work with tutors (undergraduates, post-docs, PhD students and principal investigators) on group projects to explore and present a piece of science communication based on a neuro-topic. This year, the final Friday group presentations saw wonderfully creative responses, including a news report video about epilepsy, 3D sculptures illustrating the developmental stages of growing brain organoids, a court room role play drama debating the uses of artificial intelligence, a TikTok about Alzheimer’s Disease and a fantastic board game exploring autism. This fun end to the week is a great way for students to work as a team, grow in confidence and develop creative approaches to sharing and understanding scientific information, allowing them to apply their newfound knowledge of neuroscience research.

DNA has been amazing, and I’ll definitely miss it. It has been a phenomenal week of getting to meet new people, learn more about neuroscience and getting creative. I’ve been able to make new connections and work with so many talented people. It has also allowed me to be creative and put an amazing project together with my group.– Isabelle, DNA student 2022

Collective Endeavour

Dev Neuro Academy THE LAB
Developmental Neurobiology Academy in the labs

The involvement of such a large number of King’s staff and students as tutors, lab hosts, speakers, facilitators, as well as our external guests, generates a wonderful sense of community and positivity that radiates through the Academy. It encourages and cultivates channels of communication and brings equity to research staff and the community. It connects our next generation of neuroscientists with the most up-to-date research and, as one post-doc commented, “every time I host a DNA student in the lab, I learn something new about my research and look at my questions from a slightly different angle”. 

From this perspective, DNA represents a unique opportunity for meaningful connection and collaboration across departments and between faculties within King’s. Being involved in DNA and becoming part of the extended DNA family creates a network that brings people together for work and shared purpose. 

Real Impact

The recently established Widening Participation Champion initiative, set-up to allow all King’s staff to help lead on social mobility educational equality, has guided and supported DNA to become a recognised King’s College London widening participation programme. This means that students completing the DNA programme can add a special code (Tag) to their UCAS application which can accompany applications to any King’s course and gain additional (or contextual) consideration for entry.

Being eligible for additional consideration at King’s is a major benefit for students participating in DNA. It can be applied to applications from students who have experienced barriers to academic progress and who have borderline predicted grades or are making applications to particularly competitive courses. The outcome of this process may be an offer of a place on the course applied for, or an offer of a place on an alternative programme. Contextual offers may also be made that are up to two A-Level grades (or equivalent) lower than the standard advertised entry requirements.

Using a widening participation UCAS Tag for DNA means that participation in the programme can increase the likelihood of students with challenging circumstances gaining entrance to study at King’s.

Community Bridge

From a larger perspective, the DNA programme represents important pledges of the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology and King’s wider strategic commitment to connect, engage and have a positive impact on local communities. This year, DNA worked closely with Team London Bridge, The Old Operating Theatre and Southwark College to develop activities and touch base with our local communities and organisations. It is important to embed DNA within the culturally rich and diverse environment we find ourselves.


DNA summer school students also get the opportunity to enrol in the Year 13 DNA Champions programme. This year, 36 out of 52 summer school students have signed up to DNA Champions. This ongoing connection provides students with opportunities, activities and events linked with the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology, the MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders and King’s, as well as providing support for personal statements for UCAS applications.

Dev Neuro Academy Champions 2022-2023
DNA Champions 2022

Most importantly, the Champions programme creates a space for peer-to-peer support and connection during the final year of A-Levels. Champions also co-create and help facilitate the next DNA summer school. After this, they stay connected with their own cohort, but also become part of the DNA alumni network, a group that keeps in contact through newsletters and email. This is an intentional effort to create an expanding community of student alumni that can support one another and share experiences of university, other future adventures and career trajectories.

Completing both the DNA Academy summer school and the Champions programme changed my perception of what I wanted to do at university. To put it simply, it was a huge turning point in my life. Having the choice to be included in these fantastic opportunities has made me understand myself a lot better and made me realise what path I want to be on from this point onward.– Rafe, DNA Champion 2021

As Public Engagement Manager and Programme Lead for the DNA, I find the Academy a hugely rewarding endeavour. The energy, enthusiasm and engagement of the students is infectious and it is a real honour to share the week with them and observe the growth in confidence and the positive and supportive community that they create, both during the week and as DNA Champions and alumni. Through DNA we hope to create an inclusive and welcoming space in which students can access neuroscience and university as well as build and thrive in a way that resonates best with them.

The Developmental Neurobiology Academy is a fantastic opportunity to create a meaningful connection between our research and the young people in our London communities. The strength and foundation of DNA is drawn from the contribution of multiple research centres and partnerships across the IoPPN as well as other faculties and disciplines. – Professor Oscar Marín, Director of Centre for Developmental Neurobiology & MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders

Professor Marín continued: "DNA represents a truly exciting and unique opportunity for students to engage in both research and the university environment. It is also an extremely valuable opportunity for a large team of dedicated research staff and students, from group leaders and post-docs to undergraduate interns, to engage with the next generation of scientists and STEM contributors.

"Working together with King’s Widening Participation ensures a powerful and innovative approach that helps catalyse and grow interest, talent and engagement with our local communities.”


Images by Nafisa Islam (Neuroscience Research Improving Racial Diversity 2022 Fellow).

Video by Laia Mallafre I Martin (Kings Undergraduate Research Fellowship student) and Dr Leigh Wilson.

With thanks to the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology and MRC Centre for Neurodevelopmental Disorders, the Developmental Neurobiology Academy Team and the King’s Widening Participation team.

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Leigh Wilson

Leigh Wilson

Public Engagement Manager

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