Does academic success at school define your future?

We work with so many inspiring people who are conducting interesting research projects and making exciting new discoveries. It is easy to assume that these respected professors must have done well at school and that they have always been academically successful, but this is not always the case.

Many of them didn’t enjoy their time at school. “I wasn’t passionate about education and I didn’t do well in school,” says Dr Lesley Dornan. But she did have a curiosity about the world around her, which has led her to improve health outcomes for mothers in Myanmar.

Some of the best researchers struggled academically at school and university. Some were told they would fail by teachers. Others left school with no qualifications or dropped out of college, and some were even kicked out! But none of them let these challenges stop them from achieving success.

So remember – it doesn’t matter what situation you find yourself in at school, you can still achieve great things!

Have you ever struggled academically?

“When it comes to learning, everyone is different,” says Associate Professor Alastair Stark. “I hated the rigid nature of school and being told what to learn and how to learn it. I therefore failed as a school student.” Al grew up in a context of social exclusion. He had a variety of problematic behaviours and he left school with no qualifications.

He then got a job through a government programme that was designed to give young people with no qualifications the chance to gain work experience and a college certificate. “This public policy changed my life,” he says. Through this programme, Al worked in his local government while attending college one day a week, which then enabled him to go to university to study politics and public administration. “I came alive as a learner [at university] because I was given the independence to learn in ways that worked for me,” he explains. “Learning about policy was like opening a door – I could now explain all the things that surrounded me: the problems I personally faced, the larger societal issues that created my environment, and how government policies tried to fix them.”

After this, Al never looked back. He worked in government then switched to a career researching government. Now, he leads an international, interdisciplinary team that is uncovering how and why governments forget knowledge of the past and how this impacts their policymaking processes.

Do you feel you have no role models you can identify with?

“Growing up, I couldn’t name a disabled scientist, even though there are many,” says Dr Amanda Quirk. “That always made me feel isolated.” It can be hard to navigate life without role models to look up to – people you can identify with. So why don’t you be the role model for the next generation? Amanda is determined to prevent aspiring scientists with disabilities from feeling the same isolation she experienced when growing up with her dreams of being an astronomer. While she was a student, Amanda advocated for STEM programmes to be more accessible and created a Graduate Disability Community Group at her university. “I want STEM to be a truly inclusive space,” she says. “Anyone who wants to pursue STEM should be able to.”

Do you ever feel like you don’t fit in?

“I didn’t enjoy my time at high school,” says Erika Halse. “I was an autistic, queer kid in Texas and I didn’t fit in.” Although Erika was academically competent, they gave the minimum amount of effort in their classes. After graduating from high school, they immediately left town to go to college as far away as possible. After gaining a degree in conservation, Erika worked on a project investigating migrating antelope in Wyoming, where they discovered that their childhood experiences were actually beneficial for building trust and connections with local people. “I was surprised the landowners, who were cattle ranchers, wanted to talk to me because I had grown up with cattle in Texas,” Erika recalls. “It was powerful to learn that what I had been running away from was actually an asset to me. Remember, there is always value in your personal background.”

Have you ever felt you are missing out on opportunities because you haven’t achieved as well as you had hoped?

“I wanted to study computer science, but, in South Africa, your grades determine which course you can take, and my grades weren’t good enough,” says Tshepiso Malema. After failing to get into university to study computer science, Tshepiso investigated to see what other options were available. He discovered a degree in information systems that combined IT with entrepreneurship, meaning he could study two of his passions. “Here I am, studying information systems and really enjoying it,” he says. “Not having the grades I thought I needed was a blessing in disguise.”

Have you ever been accused of quitting?

“Every step of my educational journey has been about not quitting,” says Dr Cheryl Talley. She left college in her third year when she had a baby and was often tempted to give up on her education after that. She kept telling herself that next year she would return. Eventually, ten years later, she did. Cheryl now leads a project that uses the power of mentoring to teach students the skills they need to achieve academic success.

Has anyone ever made a comment that left you feeling you weren’t good enough?

“My fifth-grade teacher told me I would need to find other areas to focus on, because mathematics was not for me,” recalls Dr Anuscheh Nawaz. After this demotivating comment, Anuscheh’s parents reminded her that teachers have but one view into your capabilities and life. Although it can be hard to shake off negative comments from other people, especially teachers, remember that their opinions are not what define you. “I didn’t let me teacher’s comments discourage me,” says Anuscheh, who is now an ocean engineer who uses her mathematical skills to design and build carbon nanotube sensors to measure gases dissolved in the ocean.

Do you ever get told that causing trouble in school will limit your chances later in life?

The actions you take and the choices you make as a teenager don’t have to define you for the rest of your life. “I went to college when I was 18 years old but was kicked out,” says Professor Laura Serpa. But, ten years later, she decided to return to college for another attempt. Second time round, she loved the experience: “I was having so much fun,” she recalls. Laura ended up studying geology and then completing a PhD in geophysics. She is now developing new teaching methods to ensure geology fieldwork is accessible to everyone, regardless of mobility challenges or financial difficulties.

So, as these successful researchers prove, it’s not the end of the world if you struggle at school. Your school days don’t have to define your future.

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