Overcoming challenges

19 Dec 2018

Overcoming challenges

As term nears an end, I’m surrounded by young people stressed with assignment deadlines. This is a reminder of the challenges that assignments pose. For me, the biggest challenge to my studies was writing.


In primary 2, my teacher told my parents I was too stupid to succeed. I was moved out of mainstream education for a remedial class until we came to Northern Ireland. Why? I’m dyslexic. This label ensured people knew I was different. But did that stop me?


No. Hopefully, those who read my blogs will agree. Not only can I add words onto a page, but I can also create a story. This must mean that at the very least, I have partly overcome this challenge.


Often, we are the last to see our own progress. Although I enjoy writing blogs, I still want to flee from the room anytime someone speaks to me about one.


How can I get over this hurdle? Last month, I decided to go face to face with my communication fears.


Facing your fears


The first challenge was to contact my favourite factual (and witty) author, Dr Helen Pilcher. Her book Bring Back the King: The New Science of De-extinction inspired me to learn genetic techniques. She was a key influence in my Dinosaurs vs. Microbes blog. Afterall, we share a common desire – to have a bone crushing dinosaur as a pet.


After weeks pondering an email to Helen, with some encouragement of my friend Jennie French, I managed to click ‘send’. I explained how she was one of my heroes and that her work inspired me to write.


The email (bravely) included a link to my Dinosaurs vs. Microbes blog. My inspiration might read some of my work! I took the opportunity to ask her some questions. A few days later, she replied! How would she respond to my questions? 


She loved my blog! But best of all, she planned to print out my email for her notice board, as it made her smile! My blog has become a part of my hero’s day-to-day life!


It was hard to believe the experience was possible, especially after my experiences at school.


Helen kindly answered all my questions. Perhaps the most pertinent was, “Do you have any advice for a young writer just starting their journey?”


Tips and wisdom


I’ve selected just two of her nuggets of wisdom because I feel they relate to students everywhere, regardless of topic and career plan. Her advice was this:


“Be curious. Don’t be afraid to contact people and ask them if you can chat about their work. Most scientists are only too pleased to find someone that is interested.”


She also told me to “Develop a thick skin and don’t be precious about your writing. When you write for other people, your text will get edited. Although it may sting at the time, in my experience, the piece will become better for it and you will learn something and improve.”


I selected these quotes because chatting and asking questions has served me well, it meant I knew who could help me when I was struggling with a task. I also wish I had developed a “thick skin” when I was getting feedback on my assignments.


As soon as anyone criticised my writing, I was ready to scrap the whole piece and tried to change my style. But that just made my writing worse. I agree with my former supervisor Prof James Dooley when he said, “your writing style is unique” and thanks to him and a number of other people, I now have the confidence to contact one of my heroes with something I had written. I have learnt to own my ‘unique’ writing style.


Last month I pushed my written communication skills and with great rewards. Writing has always been a big challenge for me and I hope in sharing my experiences, many of you will either appreciate your own skills or find it comforting that you’re not alone


If I can overcome challenges, perhaps you can. With that I wish you all a Merry Christmas and ask that in the New Year, you try to have some faith in yourself. Just remember it may take some time, you just need to be patient. Afterall, it has taken me 21 years to enjoy writing.



Further reading


Helen Pilcher’s personal website 


Pilcher H. (2016) Bring back the King, the new science of de-extinction. Bloomsbury Sigma, London.