Alex Hopkins – Rising Star in Public Engagement 2020

The Rising Star Award recognised Alex Hopkins who made crucial contributions to the Dear World Project, collaborating on two artworks which were part of the final exhibition in February 2020.

Alex is a PhD student who is researching how uncertainty affects learning and decision-making in anxiety. Her research interests include developing computational models to investigate the impact of expectations of the future on decision-making. This led to her teaming up with artist Harley Kuyck-Cohen as part of the Dear World Project  to create an interactive sculpture, Shaping Uncertainty , that visualised the process of how anxieties around uncertainty shape the future. The Dear World Project was an art-science collaboration which explored mental health, its diagnoses and the labels often used to describe thoughts and feelings.

The aim of Alex and Harley’s artwork was for community members to understand and express how uncertainty related to their feelings and thoughts. Alongside Harley, Alex led workshops inviting members of the public to add a plasticine sculpture to their artwork which showed their uncertainties or anxieties. This led to the artwork growing and changing throughout the exhibition leading to many important conversations.

Alex has been a part of the Dear World Project since its inception and was part of the original pop-up project touring festivals and events including Latitude. The pop-ups ran in the format of an installation featuring a post box where members of the public could anonymously send postcards about their own mental well-being. They could then be part of the ‘sorting office’, where they were asked to organise and categorise the messages from others. Through this process, researchers, collaborators and members of the public discussed how symptoms are categorised, how diagnostic labels are used in research and how this relates to a lived experience of mental health.

Alongside her collaboration with Harley, Alex also worked with fellow neuroscientist Rachel Bedder and artist Alban Low (who designed the original postcards) to create another of the Dear World Project artworks. This piece, Sort Circuit, was based on an analysis of the labels and themes from the postcards by using machine learning. Alex led this analysis process, and the final artwork became the centrepiece of the exhibition, with huge amounts of positive feedback.

One visitor said:

“The categorising of data was fascinating …. and also how you could take the temperature of a community (without using an online survey)…. I thought it was the viewer’s ability to read and interact with the cards which would be valuable for others if we are to build empathy and awareness around mental illness or just states of minds on certain days or after unforeseen experiences”

Alex’s supervisor commented that she ‘brought the public in’ to the core theme of her PhD research and that this reflects her commitment to producing ‘neuroscience that really matters to people’.

Upon winning Alex said:

“I feel incredibly lucky that our centre has such an incredible PE team, it has made such a huge difference to me and my research and I’m looking forward to making PE a core part of my work in future”

Congratulations to Alex on her fantastic contribution to Public Engagement this year.

Awarded May 2020