Enthusiastic colleagues inspire engagement activities
“You are not going to salvage a mediocre research project grant application with a great Pathways to Impact section.” – Prof Frank Sengpiel, Cardiff University
Prof Frank Sengpiel is enthusiastic about his work and believes it is important to share this enthusiasm with a wider audience. He himself was inspired by his PhD supervisor, Colin Blakemore, a renowned neuroscientist with a talent for communicating with the public. “Working with Prof Blakemore has inspired me to get out there and tell people about neuroscience,” said Sengpiel.
Sengpiel is now the academic lead for public engagement at Cardiff University’s new Neuroscience and Mental Health Research Institute (NMHRI) and organises events such as public lectures and a Neuroscience and Philosophy Café in a local community centre.
He instigated the participation of Cardiff University in the annual Brain Awareness Week (BAW) and organises many activities during this week every year. This includes a presence at Cardiff’s local science discovery centre, Techniquest, where some of his students use props and experiments to engage with families and explain neuroscience concepts. “I am fortunate that there is a lot of enthusiasm amongst some of our postgraduate students for this kind of work,” says Sengpiel. “They recognise that giving up their weekend for this kind of activity not only looks good on their CV but is also a good learning experience for them.”
Sengpiel is grateful to have such enthusiastic students and also to have the support of the management and administrative staff at the NMHRI. “Without this support we would not be able to carry out all the engagement and PR activities that we have planned,” says Sengpiel.
While his previous work, mainly on developmental disorders of vision, has lent itself to these kinds of engagement activities, his current work has seen him take a step back from end users and look more into the biological mechanisms that cause vision disorders. “My current project is, in the first instance, basic research into biological mechanisms, and communicating this to a wider audience will be more of a challenge than previous work as it is less applied,” says Sengpiel. Defects and malfunctions at the cellular and synaptic level that disrupt the development of the visual cortex are increasingly being identified as the causes of neurodevelopmental and neuropsychiatric diseases such as autism or schizophrenia. Sengpiel hopes that explaining this in a clear way will help the general public, and other potential end users such as the research and clinical communities, understand the relevance of his work.
“Of course I would love to make that one big discovery that has a huge impact on society’s health and wealth, because this would also impact on my own health and wealth!” admits Sengpiel. “But sometimes this basic, blue-skies research is also necessary in order to enable these other breakthroughs.”
While he enjoys engagement work, he is careful for it not to take up too much of his time so that he gets time to do the science. “After all, it is the science that is important and the quality of the science decides if a proposal gets funded,” says Sengpiel. “You are not going to salvage a mediocre research project grant application with a great Pathways to Impact section.”