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Construction starts on giant ‘nerve cell’ in London’s East End

Construction has begun on ‘Neuron Pod’ - a striking 23-metre long and 10-metre high free-standing structure which will be used as an informal science learning centre at Queen Mary University of London’s Whitechapel campus.

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Construction of Neuron Pod
Construction of Neuron Pod

The pod is a new addition to Centre of the Cell – an award-winning science education centre helping to inspire local school children to pursue careers in the sciences, and engaging the local community with medical research.

Neuron Pod will be constructed from 13 large steel sections, each arriving one by one through the Dartford Crossing. The biggest piece, the ‘axon’, is expected to arrive by police escort towards the end of April, and construction will be completed towards the end of the year.

Centre of the Cell’s Director, Professor Fran Balkwill said: “We are all very excited about Neuron Pod – this unique building will allow us to fulfil our potential and offer so much more to our visitors. What’s really important to us is that it increases our ability to interact with the local community. It will be exciting to see how this space evolves and we’re hoping it will become a space where people can let their imaginations run riot.”

Live science shows, workshops and debates

Artist's impression of Neuron Pod
Artist's impression of Neuron Pod

Since opening in September 2009, over 155,000 people have participated in Centre of the Cell activities. The current embryo-shaped science education centre was the first in the world to be located within working biomedical research laboratories, suspended above the laboratories at Queen Mary’s Blizard Institute.

Planned to address demand, Neuron Pod will help increase visitor numbers, and provide a multi-functional space for live science shows, hands-on workshops, experiments, debates, films and exhibitions.

The space will also assist in hosting new adult initiatives in the evenings and at weekends, provide activities for Key Stage 4 (age 14 - 16) and sixth form school visits, improve disabled access, and increase the Centre’s ability to develop programmes for young people with learning difficulties. There are also plans to lease the space for community and corporate events.

Neuron Pod is designed by leading architect Professor Will Alsop OBE RA, creator of the existing Pod and surrounding Blizard Institute, which has won numerous design awards. Its design is inspired by images of a nerve cell, following on from the four pods inside the building that were inspired by other cells or molecules.

Award-winning public engagement

Crane lifting of Neuron Pod's final leg
Crane lifting of Neuron Pod's final leg

Professor Peter McOwan, Queen Mary’s Vice-Principal (Public Engagement and Student Enterprise), said: “We’re incredibly proud of our award winning public engagement activity at Centre of the Cell, and are delighted that construction of a new space to grow our capacity has now begun.

“The Neuron Pod will allow us to run new research engagement initiatives aimed at adults, and grow our existing work, helping to create the next generation of scientists and healthcare professionals. Our additional plans to use the Pod for activities beyond bioscience and as a unique venue for public events will further strengthen our work with our local community.”

Architect Will Alsop of aLL Design said: “I feel proud to have the opportunity to contribute to this amazing institution. Their work in encouraging young people is extraordinary. I think the new pod will help give young people an even more positive experience.”

Funders of the project include the Wellcome Trust, Barts Charity, the Wolfson Foundation, Garfield Weston Foundation, Hobson Charity, Gosling Foundation and Queen Mary University of London.

Design and construction also involved Total Construction, Littlehampton Welding and AKT II.

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