Disabled in STEMM

Interview with Dr Sara Rankin

Neurodiversity and learning difference

Dr Rankin : “Neurodiversity,” it’s a bit of a controversial word actually in the UK and often there’s arguments on Twitter and social media about the use of the word “neurodiversity.” The reason that it has been taken up and is used is because the alternatives do not sit well with people that are neurodiverse and can be seen as, in some way, sort of derogatory or putting people down. And I think it’s a wider conversation about disability and how people like to see themselves. So, the other word people use and people think is sort of the correct terminology is “neurodivergence.” But again, that suggests you are divergent from the norm, and we would argue that we are normal. We’re just, you know, if you are on a curve, we are sort of at different ends of the spectrum, but we are within norm, so to call us abnormal or neurodivergent is a bit offensive. There is a new term which I really like, but it doesn’t seem to been taken up much, which is “neurominorities,” which might be a less of offensive word.

There’s a big movement, particularly with autistic people, there’s a feeling of people want to cure you. Actually, they don't want to be cured. They’re happy with the way they are. So, it’s this sort of stigmas and people’s perceptions.

I think that [note: referring to the fact that Dr Rankin uses the term “learning difference” rather than “disability”] is the most important thing that I want to say when I’m talking about my, you know, “disability.” I don’t see it as a disability, I see it as a difference. I have a learning difference. It took me a long time because I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my late 40s. I knew that I would seem to think in different ways to other people or see things in a different way and quite often do things. A very obvious thing was revision. Revision at school, most people do that by writing and they just sort of copy out text and they sort of learn things rote. I could never do that. I could never sort of learn little bits of information. I needed to see how everything fit together. What I would do was to put it on plain paper and I would draw things out. So it was a much more sort of creative process and I’d want to see how things linked. Even if it’s science, I want to see how things linked together, because if you’re learning about how the body works, obviously the heart doesn’t work in isolation of everything else. It’s thinking about how things link up. So, you think about the big picture and then you sort of dive down into the more specific details. But also, I would do a lot of color coding. For example, if I was learning about the autonomic nervous system versus the sympathetic nervous system, I’d do one in red, then one in blue, and that would really enhance my ability to retain that information. And very often I would create little cartoons and characters and things. I’m what people used to refer to—and I don't know if they still use that term or whether it’s gone out of fashion now, but—a visual learner and somebody that really takes information in maybe in a different way and it’s not with words. And I think that’s just something that I learnt myself. I was never told this is the way, you know, “You’re different and you need to learn in this different way.” So, as I say, that’s where I see these learning differences rather than disability. It’s a different way of doing things. Fundamentally, you process information in different ways. And because of that, you tend to come up with different solutions. If you have, say, 80% of the population doing things in one way and you’re one of the people that does something differently, you then become more creative, more innovative, and people with these learning disabilities, especially things like dyslexia, dyspraxia, are very well known to be very creative. As a scientist, we innovate, and for me, that is really what underlies my success as a scientist. So, that’s why I have a very strong idea that they’re not disabilities.

If you think historically of scientists that are neurodiverse, you’ve got people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. They’ve got a vision and that’s another really important thing. Having a vision, being able to connect disparate ideas, these are things that we don’t assess in young people.

Was it easy for you get pass the entrance exam?

Dr Rankin : No, and I actually failed it. But I had an interview and on the basis of my interview, I was given a place. And that’s very interesting. Actually, I came first in my year at the end of my studies. I was lucky that the admissions tutor was somebody that was very experienced and could ask me questions and I was overseen. And actually, he came when I got my professorship and you have to give a lecture. He came to that and he was saying to my mother, “I always knew from when I interviewed her the first time.” So, if you have somebody that is very experienced, you can identify the potential at somebody. And I think this is the problem at the moment. It’s there’s a big mismatch with how young people are assessed. When they’re at school, a lot of that is focused just on the ability to recall facts. So, it’s about your ability to remember things and recall facts. That isn’t my biggest strength, but my strength is what you do with that information, how do you apply it creatively. When you get into your career as a scientist, that’s what you do. It’s not about remembering things. And we all have our ways of remembering [note: Dr Rankin showing her smartphone]. If we need to find something, now we can find it very quickly, so we don’t even need to have everything in our heads anymore.

Neurodiversity among entrepreneurs and scientists

Dr Rankin : With ADHD, a lot of CEOs are ADHD because they have this incredible energy and drive and focus and, yeah, the hyperfocus if you’re ADHD, and they can be quite charismatic individuals. So, they’re very good leaders. I have seen that a lot. I think leadership qualities, the ability to be visionary, as I say, there are leadership qualities in people that are neurodiverse. In academia and in businesses, it’s more difficult in big businesses because to get to a leadership position, you first need to be a manager. Management is all about form-filling and admin and things that neurodiverse people hate and so we avoid management. For me, for example, I would never want to be a head of department, and because I won’t be a head of department, I can never get to a more senior role. That is problematic and that is why people become entrepreneurs because they can just be the top person.

But my point is there aren’t any scientists. If we look in academia in the UK, and the Royal Society recently published a report and they looked for academics that are in science, technology, engineering, medicine, mathematics. When they surveyed all of those in the UK, only 0.9% had a learning difference. And that’s compared with the general public, where people now estimate it could be, if you put all those learning differences together, it’s at least 15 to 20% of people. So that means either people are not disclosing, which is for sure, or people don’t know and they don’t want to know. Even though there are a lot of campaigns and a lot of push by different groups that are really just trying to shift the narrative and shift the focus away from it being a negative, and certainly, while that has, I think, happened in terms of entrepreneurs and the creative industry, it’s not the case in terms of science. And for me, that’s problematic because it means that you’ve got young people at school not seeing this as a career for them if they are neurodiverse. So we’re going to lose these incredible people that could be highly creative and innovative. For example, with the universities, we have so many people applying to us at Imperial that for a lot of our degrees, we can’t interview, and so it is just based on assessments. So, I wouldn’t get in today, I probably would find it very hard to get into a university, or a really good university.

Career building

Dr Rankin : You were sort of saying I’m successful, but I’m moderately successful. I have, I think, published probably about a third of my research. There is two thirds where I just never get around to it. People leave, I get bored. I get bored and I move on to the next thing. I will submit something and it will come back and they will want more and more and more and I will just think, “Oh, I’ve moved on. I’m more interested in ...” So, I have so much that I haven’t published and I think that is my biggest sort of regret, especially now when I look back at some of the things and think how significant they were at the time. A lot of my work sort of goes against the dogma and that’s why it’s hard to get it published because people sort of don’t really think it. I mean, one of the things that I’m most well known about, I published in 2003, and it wasn’t until 2012 that suddenly the rest of the world sort of started working on it and then I was getting invited to all these conferences suddenly for something that I’d done nine years before. And exactly now, what I’m working on, it’s so difficult to get it published because again it’s against the way people think. There’s a very, very few people who sort of agree. So I find that really hard, I find it really hard and it’s hard to move on with your career there.

Businesses recruiting neurodiverse persons

Dr Rankin : I am giving talks in lots of different institutes and industry to try and get people to think in different ways on how you think about how you manage people and how you really support these people to get their best potential. You mention about admin and supporting that. When I was younger, I just never claimed my expenses. It’s not I really could do with the money, but just another form to fill out that somebody wasn’t going to hassle me to do. I just ended up half the time not doing it, which sounds really pathetic, but that’s what it’s like. Businesses like Microsoft, Google, IBM, they are all actively recruiting people that are neurodiverse. So, they are asking us at Imperial, “Can we have your top students that are neurodiverse?” because they have identified that if they give those people the right environment, these people can be really valuable, they can be a real asset to their companies. And they’re particularly interested because they think that artificial intelligence is what will replace what they call “straight-line thinking,” which is the sort of very obvious sort of sequential thinking. They are interested in people that are what they call “nonlinear thinkers,” and these are the sort of people that are neurodiverse because they bring in that sort of element of creativity and innovation to their teams. And they support them in terms of the admin and other things. They have, I would say, the businesses. Because they are businesses and they work like a business and they’re looking at productivity and these are the sort of endpoints they’re interested in, they’re quite happy to provide admin support for somebody that is going to come up with the most amazing ideas. And that I think is exciting.

What is 2eMPower?

Dr Rankin : I’m just setting 2eMPower up as a charity at the moment and it will have charitable status next year. And what it is, it’s a project that I started essentially because one of the problems with young people in schools is that they get very put off academia and put off science, because it’s too hard and they don’t feel like it's for them because of the way they are assessed. So, what I do is run workshops for teenagers, usually 14-to-17-year-old, and bring them in. Either we run them for students that are autistic, it will be one workshop, and another workshop will be students that are ADHD, dyslexia and dyspraxia. What we do is, we design the workshops to deliver the science in a way and in an environment that they would enjoy. For example, with the autistic students, it’s very small numbers, it’s in a very sort of calm, quiet environment. And with the autistic students, we will, for example, bring in the professors so that they can really stretch them, because quite often intelligent autistic students are not really being challenged in the normal education system. And they get quite bored, they can be bullied. They need a way of getting interested and boosting their confidence and being able to show them that actually, while school might not be going to be the best time in their life, but actually, university and beyond—so, it’s sort of trying to encourage them to just stay with it, stay with your sort of studies even though you might not enjoy them, because once you are a scientist, you will love it. And so what we want to give them is an idea of what it’s really like being a scientist and show them that actually they do have skills that would make them good scientists.

Interviewer: What about the workshop for ADHD and dyslexic people?

Dr Rankin : Those ones we do, they’re just much more fun. I mean, they’re more creative, very active. There’s no writing involved. It’s all about doing things and presenting things and talking about stuff. We have challenges that combine science with entrepreneurship, which is very interesting, and so we can see the students that have those skills as well because entrepreneurship now is a big thing in science. We have, at Imperial, there’s a huge emphasis on enterprise and entrepreneurship and innovation. These are all skills that we are trying to sort of hone in our students and we have a lot of students that will go on and set up their own businesses, having got their degrees or their masters or their PhDs. We will really encourage them and we provide a lot of opportunities and a lot of training in that area. So, if we give these young students a taster of that as well, it can sort of spark that excitement. What we’re trying to do is just to reignite something that they’ve got in them, because probably they did like science once, but they are sort of starting to lose their confidence about being scientists because maybe they’re not getting A stars, because people aren’t testing these sorts of skill sets. There are actually really important skill sets for being a scientist.

Message to students with disability

Dr Rankin : They just need to remain passionate about the science. They need to enjoy it and they need to not worry about, “Am I going to get the top grades? Am I going to be the best?” because you cannot be the best person at school and you might be ending up as the professor in whatever prestigious Japanese university and because when you actually become the real working scientist, that’s when all your strengths, you’ll be able to apply those to your science. So, I think it’s just knowing. I always knew that I wasn’t stupid, even though teachers would try and say those sorts of comments. I always knew I wasn’t stupid. I always knew that I understood stuff. I always found, when I was listening, when people were telling me about science, it always made sense. It was never difficult. And I think if that’s the way you feel, then don’t worry about whether or not you can remember it all. It’s just, do you understand it? That’s the main thing. Does it make sense? And if it makes sense and you enjoy it, then that’s why you should study it.