interview with 2E professor
I recently met Professor Sara Rankin and have been very inspired by her. As a fellow dyslexic and dyspraxic, Professor Rankin Rankin has taught me that having a learning difference does not have to limit your ambition or hamper your goals.
Professor Sara Rankin is a professor at Imperial College. She is a professor of leukocyte and stem cell biology at the National Heart and Lung Institute (NHLI). Her current research is in the new field of regenerative pharmacology, investigating how we can use drugs to stimulate bone marrow stem cells to repair the body.
Professor Rankin is very committed to public engagement and outreach activities. She is especially committed to inclusive education and supporting neurodiversity in education and the workplace. She recently created the 2eMPower project to support and mentor bright young people with learning disabilities and other disabilities, such as autism (2E students). Her aim is to help 2E students overcome their challenges and harness their strengths so that they can succeed in STEM careers. Professor Rankin believes that with the right support and mentoring 2E students can make significant contributions and innovations in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine.
What were you like as a primary and secondary school student?
In primary school I was labelled as a slow reader. I was sent round to a friend’s house to have remedial reading sessions, which I found really humiliating.My art teacher loved me because I was super creative. There was a cartoon book about blood that I loved - learning about how scars formed was my first introduction to science.
What was your university experience like?
I loved university! I found that the more complex things got, the better I understood them. A lot of things you are taught in secondary school don't make sense, because they are oversimplified. My talents were recognised in university. I came joint top in the year in my finals.
What techniques did you use to succeed academically despite being dyslexic and dyspraxic?
At school, I learnt that the best way for me to revise was to create something that was visually memorable. For example, summarising all the key points on an A4 sheet, using colour and drawings / cartoons. I'm creative and a visual learner so that worked for me.
How did you overcome any negative comments or experiences you had at school because of your dyslexia and/or dyspraxia?
In my work, I play to my strengths. As a scientist, being a great problem solver, being creative, innovative and having an ability to see the big picture, in addition to seeing links and having insight. You are never taught or assessed on these skills in school, but they are key to my success as a scientist. I only recently found out that these strengths were due to my learning 'disability,' that's why now I say I have a learning ‘difference,’ not a disability.
What inspired you to become a professor of leukocyte and stem cell biology?
I visited a lab when I was 15. They were growing HeLa cells (a cervical cancer cell line) to try and discover drugs that would stop the cancer cells from growing. I thought this was amazing, because of the impact it could have on mankind. I decided I wanted to be a pharmacologist - to invent new medicines.
Who most influenced your education and career?
No one specifically. I was, and still am, very self-driven. I had a fantastic experience studying Pharmacology at Kings College London. The teaching was amazing! I was offered a PhD position, which is not something I had ever thought I would do.
Have you had any mentors and if so, what role did they play in your career?
Professor Enrique Rozengurt, Cancer Research UK, taught me how to write scientifically. Professor Tim Williams FRS, Imperial College, taught me how to turn my scientific discoveries and ideas into compelling stories.
What do you like most about being a professor at Imperial College?
Being my own boss. Working on any research projects I choose. Collaborating with other amazing scientists, particularly those in other disciplines. I am currently collaborating with Professors in the Physics Department, Engineering Department and the Materials Department, which is great fun. I am continually learning new things, which is exciting and inspiring. I also enjoy having time to do run workshops for schools and developing public engagement activities with artists.
What are the most memorable research projects you have worked on?
Inventing drugs that activate adult bone marrow stem cells by releasing them from the bone marrow into the blood and boosting their numbers in the blood. Once in the blood, these cells home to sites of tissue injury (for example, the heart following a heart attack or to a broken bone) and enhance the rate of repair/ regeneration.
What does your role as Year 4 senior tutor involve?
My role involves helping students get the right support when they need help. For example, due to financial problems, illness, family problems or mental health issues. Ensuring that students with disabilities get the right support.
What do you enjoy most about being a Year 4 senior tutor?
Helping students is very rewarding. They have worked so hard to get to Imperial, I want to ensure they succeed and enjoy their time here. When things go wrong, it is important for them to know that we are here to help them and will do all that we can to support them.
How do you support medical students that are feeling stressed, overwhelmed or having mental health issues?
I reassure them that they are not alone, that many students have similar problems. I also direct them to professional support – to student counselling services and the many workshops we run (for example, coping with stress in lead up to exams or mindfulness). I also contact and meet them regularly to check they are alright. I offer practical advice and support to help with any underlying problems.
How do you do to relieve stress?
I say ‘no’ to things. I try and keep my workload manageable. I talk to family, friends and colleagues to get advice. My children and grandchildren, take up most of my free time and are fun and a real distraction. I also enjoy music, theatre, reading and watching thrillers and box sets (current favourites are The Bridge and The Crown). I ensure I have down time.
What projects are you most proud of having worked on in your role as NHLI lead of outreach and public engagement?
I am particularly proud of my palaces project - - an art project on which I collaborated with artist Gina Czarnecki to promote discussion about organ donation and stem cell banks.
I am also proud of the Heart and Lung pop up science shop () and my2eMPower project which provides bespoke STEM workshops for high-ability students with learning differences ( dyslexia, dyspraxia, AD(H)D or Aspergers) ().
How did being dyslexic play a role in your success?
As I mentioned above, I used all my strengths, such as being a good problem solver, being creative, innovative and having an ability to see the big picture, in addition to seeing links and having insight. I am a good verbal communicator, which is also very important in terms of presenting your results at scientific conferences or raising funds from charities for your research.
What do you consider to be a major issue in public education today?
Lack of training for STEM teachers with respect to how to identify and teach SEN pupils in school.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced and how did you overcome this difficulty?
Speaking in front of an audience. I used to feel physically sick at the thought. I did all the training workshops I could on presentation skills. I've got used to it over the years, so basically just lots of practice. Now, I actually enjoy it. Due to my dyslexia, I was always worried about word retrieval mid-sentence, so I used to have a card with words that I commonly forgot written on it so that I could refer to it in a talk, if necessary. I also found that yoga-style breathing to calm my nerves a few minutes before a talk also works. I learnt that it was okay to take pauses (actually people like it) and to have your own style. What people appreciate, is that you have taken time to put a talk together that is relevant for them and that you have lots of enthusiasm for your subject.
What is the 2eMPower Project and what inspired you to create the 2eMPower Project?
The 2eMPower project provides bespoke STEM workshops for high-ability students with learning differences (dyslexia, dyspraxia, AD(H)D or Asperger’s). I wanted to create workshops that would have inspired and helped me when I was in school. Many young people with learning differences are underachieving in schools and many lack self-confidence, because at some point they have been told they are slow or stupid. For example, because they can't spell. I want to take away the stigma of having a learning disability and to focus on the strengths associated with having a learning difference. I want to teach young people strategies and introduce them to the latest learning technologies to overcome their weaknesses.
What advice do you have for autistic 2E students thinking about studying medicine?
Think carefully about whether a career in medicine is right for you. It is a very stressful job. You need a lot of emotional resilience. Could you cope? There is a lot of face-to-face interaction with people, patients and health professionals. Are you confident you have the interpersonal skills? Most importantly, do you think you would actually enjoy the job? If you answer is ‘yes’ to these questions, then go for it. You will not be the first autistic doctor. If your answer is ‘no’, then think about other fields, such as biomedical sciences, biomedical engineering, tissue engineering - you can have an impact to health as a scientist- if you discover a cure for cancer, you will impact millions of people's lives.
If you could pass on any wisdom to 2E students, what would you share?
Don't let anyone tell you can't do it. I know you can. Just go for it!