November 2, 2021

Not all who wander are lost

Today’s ‘The Life Scientific’ focused on Sharon Peacock, a consultant in microbiology and Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge; a pioneer and advocate for the application of pathogen genome sequencing in the National Health Service to tackle antibiotic resistance, and most recently, founding director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium. A network of 600 scientists constantly tracking the appearance and spread of new COVID-19 variants.

Impressive eh?

But she almost didn’t make it.

Sharon left school at 16, worked in a corner shop, then as a dental nurse (3 doors down), before deciding to train as a nurse.  She had trouble getting in, because she didn’t have the science qualifications needed, and not long into her training, decided that what she really wanted to be was a doctor.   She finished her nursing training, taking evening classes to get her ‘O’ levels in maths physics and chemistry.  Next, she combined a job in end-of-life care with more studying – this time for the science ‘A’ levels.   Finally she could apply to medical schools.

Every one of them all rejected her application without an interview.   The same thing happened over the next application cycle.

Fortunately, Sharon didn’t give up.  She called one of the universities and asked them to at least see her.   Within a month she was at medical school.  And the rest is, as they say, history.  An interest in care, sparked by being a lowly dental nurse, has ended up as care on a global scale.

We almost wasted this talent, as I’m sure we waste other talents, simply because we mistake wandering for being lost.   Sharon’s route to professorship was somewhat circuitous, but it wasn’t accidental,  and certainly not a sleepwalk.  Her intention was very clear – although possibly hard to spot on standardised application forms.

Which means we have to think carefully about how we design our recruitment processes, including questions that help us to tell the difference between wandering, drift, and sleepwalking.

Because wanderers (and drifters) bring much more to the table than mere qualifications.