Learning how to learn
Sara Rankin found school a challenge. Struggling with reading and writing, she was made to feel slow and lazy. It was humiliating and frustrating.
But what she lacked in literacy skills, Sara more than made up for with her determination to succeed.
“I knew I wasn’t stupid, I understood everything. It was just a matter of finding out for myself how I could learn and memorise. I have good problem-solving skills and I applied that to my own learning; using a lot of mnemonics and visual stuff.”
Armed with these personal strategies, Sara thrived. Decades later, she discovered why she needs them, and why reading and writing are so challenging.
Sparked by science
While studying for her GCSEs, it was science – biology in particular – that fired Sara’s imagination. This didn’t go unnoticed, and her teachers began encouraging her towards medicine. Hating the sight of blood, she knew that wasn’t the career for her, but had no idea what else you could do with the subject.
Then, through a charity for which her Mum volunteered, Sara visited a cancer research lab.
“They were testing drugs on cells in a dish. It just clicked. I knew from that moment, aged 15, that medical research was what I wanted to do.”
With her destination clear and GCSEs in the bag, Sara set off on her academic journey through a BSc and PhD in Pharmacology at King’s College, London. Always studying with her own tried and tested methods.
“I would revise by drawing things, and used lots of colour. I had to make it into something visually interesting. My professors at university were really interested in it, and would ask to use my visuals in their lectures.”
Postdoctoral positions in California and London followed, with Sara eventually joining the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI), Imperial College London, as a research fellow in 1995. She has remained at NHLI ever since, rising to her current position of Professor in Leukocyte and Stem Cell Biology in 2010.
The penny drops
While the qualifications and job titles suggest a familiar trajectory, dig deeper into Sara’s CV and you uncover a varied working life, enriched by a busy timetable of outreach activities.
“Most researchers get into a field and stay there for their entire career. I get bored very easily and I think that’s why I do so many different things and work with all sorts of different people and across disciplines. I haven’t stuck to one area. I’ve worked in atherosclerosis, cancer, inflammation, blast injuries and tissue regeneration – it’s quite unusual.”
After two decades in research, Sara was well aware of the fact that her changing and collaborative working life, and her learning style, were different to most of her peers. But in 2011, aged 47, she suddenly came to understand why.
Her son was having difficulties at school, and was assessed by an Educational Psychologist. As they described her son’s challenges to Sara, she found they were also describing her at his age. Her son was diagnosed with dyslexia, and Sara decided to find out more. At a course about neurodiversity accredited by the British Dyslexia Association, she identified with the characteristics of people with both dyslexia and dyspraxia, which is a disorder that affects physical co-ordination.
“The descriptions rang true with me. I had thought it was all about spelling and slow reading, and that I was just clumsy. Actually, there are processing differences in the brain, and that fascinated me. As a scientist, I have obviously researched the subject myself. It’s clearly genetic and I discovered I have other dyslexic and dyspraxic relatives.”
This realisation helped Sara understand her challenges in time management, organisation of thought, grant and paper writing, and reading long texts. Importantly, it also helped her identify her skills in creative thinking, innovation, big picture thinking and having the ability to link disparate ideas.
“There are such negative connotations associated with having dyslexia, I hadn’t realised there were pluses.”
Adapting to neurodiversity
Having lived, unknowingly, with neurodiversity most of her life, Sara has developed everyday strategies and work-arounds, and uses assistive technologies.
“My electronic diary is absolutely crucial and I use mind-mapping software to organise my thoughts if I have to write a report. To stay up-to-date in my field I attend conferences, because I prefer to receive my information visually, and discuss new ideas face-to-face. When I do read papers, I skip straight to the figures and make my own judgement – I’ll only read the other sections if I have to.”
Playing to your strengths
Sara passionately believes that her learning differences have benefited her career in science, which is an increasingly multidisciplinary endeavour.
“I’m able to link disparate ideas, so it makes sense to me to work across disciplines in the sciences as well as the arts.”
In fact, her non-linear thinking put her ahead of the pack when it came to applying for the Wellcome Trust’s coveted Investigator Awards, when they launched in 2011.
“Unlike traditional highly-detailed grant applications, Wellcome wanted applicants to communicate the big picture, their vision and their approach in broad terms. That was really challenging for a lot of people, but it was the easiest grant I’ve ever written. I was one of the youngest women to be awarded in the inaugural round. It was very satisfying, particularly as I had been advised by more senior men not to bother applying.”
In 2017 Sara launched 2eMpowerUK, a project running STEM workshops for neurodiverse teenagers, to give them the confidence to embrace and capitalise on their learning differences.
“I feel that if young people identify as having these differences, they can start making career choices based on their strengths. Good scientists are innovative and creative, and that’s how people would describe me, and I believe that that is down to my neurodiversity. I definitely see it as a strength and not a disability.”