UCL Campaign


Building relationships and funding major advances

UCL is known for pushing the boundaries of what’s possible. We’re making huge leaps in our understanding of how the universe works, how the world works and now, how our brains work too.


20 December 2018

Leading the way in this field is Professor Michael Häusser, a neuroscientist who’s been with UCL for over 20 years. 

Through their ground-breaking research, Professor Häusser and his team have developed a completely new approach for interacting with neural circuits in the brain – ultimately giving us an understanding of how the brain processes information. This may pave the way for an optical brain machine interface that uses light to read out and control the activity of neurons in the brain. 

But this level of pioneering discovery requires confidence, a sense of adventure and most importantly, a donor who understand its importance. The OVPA team have worked closely with Professor Häusser to identify a donor who has a genuine passion for neuroscience, creating a seamless giving experience for both the department and the donor. Here’s how…  

Building on years of experience 

Professor Häusser has dedicated years of his professional career to expanding UCL’s work in the field of neuroscience. 

From his lab based in the Cruciform Building, the Neural Computation Lab has developed a new approach called all optical interrogation – a completely new way to interact with neural circuits in the brain. This involves using light to both readout activity and to manipulate activity from the same neurons in the brain, allowing us to track the activity of specific neurons during a behaviour and take control of the activity of the same neurons. 

This now makes it possible to ‘play in’ particular patterns of activity in identified neurons in order to figure out what the neural code is. Once we know what the neural code is, then we can understand how the brain is doing computation and processing information. 

This breakthrough was published in a paper in Nature Methods in 2015 and followed up in another Nature Methods paper in 2018. Hopefully this strategy will eventually provide the basis of an optical brain machine interface at some point in the future. 

Neural Networks

Where the magic happens 

For Professor Häusser, relationships are one of the most valuable factors that allow his work to grow. He says: “The OVPA team have been instrumental in managing our relationships with the philanthropists.

The donors are really interested in many different scientific fields but don’t know where to start, who to talk to or what the most exciting things are. And so it’s this matching process, done by the office, that’s so crucial.” 

By pairing the passions of potential donors with work that UCL scientists are is undertaking, this matching process really drives giving campaigns forward. This has been reflected in a recent partnership between the IoN, a donor and OVPA. 

Originally identified by the OVPA team from a giving campaign, the donor had expressed an interest in neuroscience, and after a little more information gathering, it turned out the donor was also an alumnus. With key information like this, the OVPA team can create a spark to light a fire. 

Working closely with Professor Häusser, the team managed an initial conversation between the potential donor and the department to reveal the depth of their work. Professor Häusser says: “Together with guidance from OVPA, we put together a pitch for the potential donor that outlined what we had in mind. It capitalised on this really exciting paper that I mentioned on all optical interrogation. 

We got some great guidance from the OVPA office on what to ask for and how to frame it so it would be the most appealing strategy for the donor. It was remarkably smooth and quick.” 

He adds: “The key thing was matching what we’re good at with what the donor was interested in. It’s really about developing a relationship between the office, the academics and the donors in a triangle. And everyone needs to be on the same page with a good working relationship and a good understanding of each other’s needs and interests.” 

The real impact of philanthropy 

For Professor Häusser, neuroscience is a field that requires speed and flexibility. He says:

Our experiments and the equipment we use are very expensive and specialised. It’s often difficult to get this type of equipment from traditional funding sources. And because it’s such a fast-moving field we need to be able to capitalise on new opportunities as they emerge, which means that established funding cycles, which can often take over a year, are too slow for us to take advantage of them.  “
Philanthropy is so much more responsive to our needs. It also allows us to fund talent.  There aren’t enough PhD programmes and PhD places that are fully funded at UCL. And you’re also constrained by the academic cycle, so if a good student comes to you and wants to start straight away, they have to go through an application process which only happens once a year. 
As time is so crucial, philanthropy has allowed us to actually recruit some really top students.”

The OVPA team act as both matchmakers and overseers of this process – finding and nurturing opportunities which are appropriate for all involved. Professor Häusser believes that it’s the matching process, done by the office, which is so crucial to success. He says:

OVPA has an overview of what’s going on, a clear understanding of what donors are looking for and they have the people skills and the experience to guide the relationship in the best way.  “Working with the OVPA team gives you a great opportunity to build relationships with donors that could be very beneficial for your work and provide long-lasting funding for future development.”