I am honoured to be awarded this small but significant medal (the Napier Shaw Bronze medal) for the best paper published in the CIBSE’s Building Services Engineering Research and Technology journal (BSERT). However, I would rather not focus on the technical aspects of the paper as I'm not at all convinced that my report on why we should not use panels of trained sniffers to assess air quality in offices is of wide appeal.
I would rather focus on how I came to write a paper at all. And I'm hoping my story will inspire you all to try something new, to achieve a distant dream and to unlock your hidden potential.
At school, I was okay at “rithmetic” but didn’t enjoy reading (especially all that Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy) and I was just incapable of writing. I left school with a grade 2 CSE in English, which is a fail at O-Level. I recall one of my teachers, Cochran, saying "well Oseland, failing English has certainly screwed up your change of work". My teachers were not known for their positive feedback.
I believe it was rubbish at English due to three factors:
- I was born and bred I the Black Country (definitely not Birmingham). The locals, the most geographically immobile people in the UK, have a thick accent rich with colloquialisms.
- I was taught to spell using ITA – the initial teaching alphabet. It was a phonetic language with 44 letters. Not great when you have a thick accent.
- My family and my childhood friends are working class. Nothing wrong with that but their strong work ethic meant their focus was on getting a local job at 16 rather than continuing education.
After my mediocre exam results I was told to attend a careers fare and begrudgingly went along. The NHS had a big colourful stand with lots of scientific gadgets which I was attracted to like a moth to a lamp. They told me that I had the qualifications to become a physiological measurement technician – I didn't know what it was but it sounded interesting, and they said they would pay me.
Over a period of two years I spend time at college and worked in numerous departments in numerous hospitals across the West Midlands. I did well and landed a job at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. My parents and friends questioned me, why move to London, its expensive there, you'll have no friends, they aren't like us. But at the age of 18, I packed my bags and off I went.
I worked in Neurology, I worked in theatre, I had my own laboratory, I got another college qualification, I was content. I worked with PhD students, doctors and psychologists supporting their research, doing their analysis and eventually writing their papers. And only then did I realise "I could do that ... I could do my own research ... I could even go to university". So I packed my bags and off I went.
After university, I became a government researcher and a significant part of the job was writing-up my experiments. In my 10 years as a researcher I published over 100 papers. So, it seems I did have a talent for, and interest in, writing despite my Grade 2 CSE English. In hindsight, I was lucky. That careers fare was the start of a chain of small incremental events. It led me to new places, where I met new people and learned new skills.
Taking a new direction isn’t like being out at sea and just changing course and travelling in a straight line. It’s like navigating your way through the dodgy housing estate I lived on. There are lots of small streets and many turnings for you to choose, there are even cul-de-sacs and U-turns. But eventually you do find your way through, and feel much better for it.
Neuroscientists have found that if we follow the same routine each day we get what they call "functional fixedness"; our neural pathways become stagnant. They found that we need new experiences to unlock new pathways and new ways of thinking. These experiences can be little things, like taking an alternative route to work, eating something different (not necessarily insects), cooking something different, meeting new people, or joining a club. or class
If you ever feel that this is it or you are in a rut, please don't rely on luck to snap you out of it. It’s down to you to instigate change, and it just needs a very small initial step, a baby step, but a step in a different direction. You never know where that step will lead you but I guarantee that you will learn and develop as a direct result of it. And eventually those baby steps will help you unlock your hidden potential.