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We talk to Professor Chris Kennard, Head of the Medical Sciences Division, about his involvement in the upcoming Brain Diaries exhibition, which opens at the Museum of Natural History on Friday 10 March. Developed in partnership with Oxford Neuroscience, the exhibition charts the changes and development of the brain as we grow, while a series of events aimed at all ages will help visitors explore the wonders of neuroscience. To find out more visit the Brain Diaries website.

How did Brain Diaries come about?
Every March many in the Oxford Neuroscience community get involved in public engagement activities as part of Brain Awareness Week. During this week, events take place around the world to increase public understanding about the brain in health and disease.  We have previously held exhibitions at the Museum for the History of Science, and in 2015 I heard that the Museum of Natural History were trying to raise funds to follow-up on their Biosense exhibition that year. After contacting Paul Smith, the museum's Director, we successfully applied to the Institutional Strategic Support Fund to put on an exhibition about the brain in 2017.

What does the exhibition aim to achieve?  
Brain Diaries tries to unlock the mysteries of the brain’s development at each stage of life, from before birth until old age. It will give visitors an insight into aspects of our current understanding of the rapidly developing field of neuroscience, and feature specimens from the museum’s collections, digital interactives, and video contributions from Oxford neuroscientists. 

Which events associated with the exhibition are you particularly excited about?
I am excited about Super Science Saturday (11 March) and other drop in events at the Museum, where many of my neuroscience colleagues will be taking part in demos and activities to show the public what is going on in the brain.  It is always rewarding to see a vast mass of visitors of all ages, particularly children, enjoying themselves as they learn a little about how the brain works.

What is your favourite exhibit in The Brain Diaries?
There is so much of interest in the exhibition, but I think my favourite are the five 3D printed brains of Holly Bridge’s (one of our visual neuroscientists) family, derived from MRI scans of their brains. They show the changes in the brain from childhood through to older age.

Why do you think that it is so important to engage the public with this research?
It is vital to engage with the public to explain what we as researchers are doing. In Oxford they peer into colleges and look at buildings in South Parks Road, seeing students and staff roaming around, but have little or no idea what goes on inside.  We need to inform and discuss with them what we do so that they can enjoy with us our fascination with the workings of the brain.  Since funding from the public purse and charities supports much of our research, the public need to see what they are contributing to in tangible terms. Finally, many neuroscientists are engaged in research relating to specific brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease to name but a few.  With increasing longevity these diseases will become more common, so there is growing interest in the progress we are making in understanding what causes these diseases and how we treat them.

Has working with the Museum of Natural History been enjoyable?
It has been a pleasure working with the highly professional team at the Museum.  Over fifty members of Oxford Neuroscience have contributed to the exhibition and events planned in the Museum. Many have enjoyed the opportunity of seeking specimens in the museum’s archives, to provide a comparative look at brain structure and evolution. I think we all look forward to the opportunity to engage with the public through the museums. It is particularly useful for younger researchers to have to develop ways of conveying complex information in a simplified form and I know they always find it very rewarding.

Whilst the University’s Public Engagement with Research Strategy cites making more use of the University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums for engagement activities as a strategic priority, there are lots of ways of engaging the public with your research. If you would like to know more about how you can bring your own research to the public, please contact the Divisional Public Engagement Coordinator, Naomi Gibson

 

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