Dr Hannah Critchlow is a neuroscientist with a background in neuropsychiatry. She currently strips down the brain with the BBC broadcast Naked Scientists. Using radio, on-line channels and live events she designs, produces and presents a neuroscience-focused, interactive multimedia experience for the public.
In 2014 Hannah was named as a ‘Top 100 UK scientist’ by the Science Council for her work in science communication. In 2013 she was named as one of Cambridge University’s most ‘inspirational and successful women in science’. During her PhD she was awarded a Magdalene College, Cambridge University Fellowship, and as an undergraduate received three University prizes as Best Biologist. She previously worked as Strategic Manager for Cambridge Neuroscience and on secondment with the British Neuroscience Association.
Hannah’s choice of career stemmed from working as a nursing assistant at St Andrews Psychiatric Hospital. When not being enthused by all things brainy, Hannah spends her time splashing about by the river and living the houseboat dream.
For neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow, the last 12 months have been pretty special. If being named one of Cambridge University’s most ‘inspirational and successful women in science’ late in 2013 wasn’t surprise enough, what was to follow was in her words, even more “gobsmacking.” Just days later, while in New Zealand for Christmas, Dr Critchlow was recognised by the Science Council as one of the top 100 UK scientists for her work in science communication.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked when I heard the news. To be included on a list of simply amazing and incredible people like Lord Rees and Dame Athene Donald was such a surprise and an honour – and it was great to see so many diverse scientific strands recognised,” Dr Critchlow says. The recognition certainly tops off a fruitful few years educating people across the globe on the values of neuroscience and stripping down the brain with the BBC broadcast Naked Scientists.
Back in 2011 when Dr Critchlow approached Dr Chris Smith, founder of the hugely popular Cambridge University and BBC radio show Naked Scientists, to collaborate on a project, she had no idea the mission she was about to embark on. From being whipped by birch leaves in a sauna, to demonstrate how the brain regulates temperature, to teaching sheep how to play football to test cognitive skills – it has been an eventful two and a half years, to say the least.
The original idea Dr Critchlow and Dr Smith pitched to the Wellcome Trust as successful finalists for the prestigious Society Award, was imaginative and highly interactive. They were to create a touring science stage show demonstrating through a mix of experiments how the brain and nervous system work. Alongside this, Dr Critchlow would produce a monthly neuroscience podcast for the Naked Scientists featuring research-active scientists called Naked Neuroscience.
“I saw the award, which is one of the biggest public engagement awards in the UK, and thought it was too good an opportunity to pass by,” says an enthused Dr Critchlow. “I approached Chris having experienced the wonderful work the Naked Scientists do as a PHD student at Cambridge University, and we went from there, with the main goal of spreading neuroscience and the general awareness of what it is – to a global public audience.”
Being part of the Naked Scientists broadcasting team alone was exciting enough for Dr Critchlow. The team, made up of practising scientists turned broadcasters, has been a remarkable success story in its own right since launching in 2001. Initially on commercial radio – before the BBC started broadcasting the hour-long weekly shows in 2003 – the project began as a small-scale, bedroom-based hobby by PhD student Dr Smith. However it was the idea to create the shows as downloadable podcasts via the show’s website, which lead to the fervent global following they have today.
“Initially it was planned as a public outreach project that would run for a couple of years,” says Dr Smith. “But as it gathered momentum and the audience grew, we established partnerships with mainstream broadcasters including the ABC in Australia and the BBC.” Dr Smith now presides over a catalogue containing hundreds of hours of free-to-download popular science programming, which is syndicated on national radio in a number of countries, has nearly 40 million podcast downloads under its belt, and a string of awards in the trophy cabinet.
With the successful award entry behind her, Dr Critchlow went about devising the stage show and getting to grips with the technical equipment in the studio. “I quickly realised I didn’t know anything about public engagement on radio and if someone shoved a microphone under my nose live on air, I’d swiftly fall apart,” Dr Critchlow says frankly. It was the studio quirks rather than the interactive public stage shows that offered the biggest challenges. “There were a few embarrassing experiences and I had to become much more confident on air, learning to present with real conviction.”
On the Road
Recording the podcast and touring schools and public arenas with fun interactive demonstrations fit hand in hand with their content and inspiration. The shows would often start with a visual illusion with audiences encouraged to stare at an inward rotating spiral for a minute before the image pulsates out towards them and then their vision returns to normal. “It was a good attention grabber that would intrigue and by the end of the session would make perfect sense,” explains Dr Critchlow. “It shows motion processing and adaption at the back of the brain and visual cortex that gives them that illusion and changes their perceptions and their realities.”
Participants would discuss a range of subjects, including how the nervous system uses electricity in order to give us our perception of the world through the communication of these nerve cells. “Invariably students’ experiments would involve electrocuting teachers’ arms, which would often cause hilarity,” chuckles Dr Critchlow. “We would then measure the speed electricity is flowing through the nervous system, as well as weaving in clinical relevance, such as how fat is important for insulating that electrical signal.”
What did shock Dr Critchlow throughout her visits to schools across the UK and further afield, was the lack of knowledge on the brain and how it works. She partly blames the curriculum for this and also the way some subjects are taught to learn facts and regurgitate this information for exams, but are not necessarily challenging pupils to see the wider picture.
“A lot of subjects can be taught in a dry, non-inspiring way where students learn the necessities to simply pass an exam. However if you make them think, for example, on the social implications of taking smart drugs and the scientific impact on wider society – you get some very interesting results,” notes Dr Critchlow. Many of the stage shows involved theatre and discussion around hard hitting subjects that would often stimulate experiments and hypothesises. “They would question consciousness or look at why people may be schizophrenic. And wider debate helps lift the stigmas around say mental health, which can often be misunderstood in society.”
Inspired through her work as a nursing assistant at St Andrews Psychiatric Hospital, she went onto work in communication and policy fields as Strategic Manager for Cambridge Neuroscience. On secondment she helped steer and coordinate the re-launch of the British Neuroscience Association between 2010 and 2011. Dr Critchlow credits her eye-opening experiences on the ward with leading her to pursue a career in neuroscience and educate the public. “I got quite attached to some of the patients there and could see the medication and therapies for schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were not really working – yet I could see glimpses of their personality and character,” says Dr Critchlow. “It made me realise there were maybe other ways we could help in treating them and that got me interested in neuroscience.”
Teaching Sheep Football
The Naked Neuroscience tour and podcast saw her complete a month tour of Scottish schools, travel across UK public arenas and colleges, report from Lake Baikal in southern Siberia, and have the aforementioned experience of teaching sheep football in New Zealand. “There are some really amazing neuroscientists in Auckland working in collaboration with Cambridge University training sheep to play football. This may at first glance seem a strange thing for scientists to spend their time doing, but it can teach us about how the brain controls and coordinates movement and how it picks up new skills. Plus the sheep’s brain is surprisingly similar to ours, in size and structure so can help us understand neurodegenerative diseases like Huntingdon’s, which include problems with learning, movement and motivation.”
Shown to over 15,000 people, in around 150 shows, and downloaded more than 300,000 times, Naked Neuroscience has been a big success in spreading awareness on neuroscience. “The success of the shows has been down to the audiences’ interactions, their enthusiasm to engage with the subject matter and their many questions afterwards. It has been a truly memorable experience.”