Neuroscientist Dr Hannah Critchlow is heading back to Hay Festival to take part in the Cambridge Series after being named one of the stars of the Festival last year. 

Hannah Critchlow is one of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever heard. She can completely captivate and transform an audience of 1,500 people.

Peter Florence

Dr Hannah Critchlow was named one of the “unofficial stars” of last year’s Hay Festival last year by no less than the New York Times. Peter Florence, the director of the Hay Festival, said:  “Hannah Critchlow is one of the most gifted communicators I’ve ever heard. She can completely captivate and transform an audience of 1,500 people.” That’s quite an achievement for a young neuroscientist given that Hay is one of the world’s most prestigious literary festivals, attracting best-selling authors and politicians from around the world.

Yet Hannah admits to having been quite nervous about her talk on myths about the brain despite her years of experience doing public engagement work about neuroscience. “It was the most daunting talk I have ever given,” says Hannah, who will be taking part in the Cambridge Series at the Festival again this year.

Her science communications work was honed when she took part in one of the first Rising Stars programmes run by the University of Cambridge’s Public Engagement team in 2011. It offers training in public engagement and educational outreach for postgraduates, post-docs and early career academics at the University of Cambridge. As part of the programme Hannah had to produce a science communications project. She teamed up with the cosmologist Andrew Pontzen. Together they approached the online science radio show The Naked Scientists and produced some Naked Shorts on their research. The idea turned into a series which they also helped to produce. Hannah then went on to secure  a Wellcome Trust Society Award which allowed her to develop a series of talks to take round schools and public festivals, including the Science Festival and the Festival of Ideas, as well as to produce and present a series of neuroscience podcasts.

The Hay Festival was a different audience entirely, though. Hannah normally spoke to people with a special interest in science. She viewed the Hay audience as being arts and culture focused. “I had a preconception that I would be viewed as an arts illiterate, low brow ignoramus trying to get them to see how interesting science is and how relevant it is to their lives,” she says. "Fortunately, the audience were interested in what I had to say and I wish I'd left more time for discussions with them at the end!"

Her talk was about busting brain myths. She says: “So many headlines are related to neuroscience. A lot of the research is misrepresented by the press or over-egged.” Her session examined 10 different myths and who was involved in making them. The causes of the myth-making were various, including pressures on scientists to show the impact of their research, on university press officers to get their stories into the press and on journalists to sell a story which interests their readers. Hannah sees her public engagement work as a way of speaking directly to the public, getting them to understand research methods and enthusing them in science.  That work has been recognised through being named a Top 100 UK scientist by the Science Council. In 2013 she was named as one of Cambridge Universities ‘inspirational and successful women in science’.

Hannah’s Hay Festival talk was so popular that she ended up being moved to another tent. She says: “There is a general global realisation of the impact that science has and will have in the future. People want to be able to discuss these issues.”

Hannah also took part in another session at the Hay Festival with the historian Bettany Hughes which explored how the ideas behind certain ancient Greek words such as peace and liberty have changed over time and what impact they have had on history and the human experience. Ironically, a comment made by Hannah during this session about whether it might ever be possible to download the human brain was misquoted by a journalist [she said it might theoretically be possible at some point to take a snapshot of the human brain and upload that image to a computer. The story was headlined “Humans could download brains on to a computer and live forever”]. The story was reported around the world.

Following her talks, Hannah was introduced to some publishers who had been in the audience at Hay. She now has a literary agent and is trying to find a publisher.  She is working on three book ideas, including one about the brain and individuality and another which aims to help children - and adults - to understand how their brain is developing. TV producers have also been in touch and she is giving a Royal Institution talk this summer, all the result of her Festival appearance.

It has been quite a year for Hannah personally too - soon after the Festival she moved to New Zealand with her partner and had a baby. She is now on maternity leave and will bring baby Max with her to Hay Festival when she returns in May. Her talk this time round is aimed at a younger audience, although it is open to all ages.  “It will be an exploration of the brain, including the latest technology such as machines that read your brainwaves and lie detector kits,” she says. “People tend to be fascinated by neuroscience as there is so much that is unknown about the brain. The science of the brain is one of the world’s biggest mysteries.”  Hannah’s work aims to probe that mystery - both to reveal what is known about how it operates and to excite people to want to find out more.

Full details of the Cambridge Series at the Hay Festival can be found here.

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