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By Kirsten Strachan on

Breaking through barriers

In this blog post SMG Conservator Kirsten Strachan reflects on the theme for Dyslexia Week 2022 and her own personal experiences.

Dyslexia is defined by The British Dyslexia Association as ‘a learning difficulty that primarily affects the skills involved in accurate and fluent word reading and spelling.’

It is also a different way of processing information so, while there are challenges with dyslexia, there are also many positives.

Dyslexic thinking is considered as an approach to problem solving, assessing information and learning which involves pattern recognition, special reasoning, lateral thinking and interpersonal communication.

Dyslexic people tend to see the big picture easily and see across lots of information. They often think multi-sensorially and will use different methods to solve a problem like sensing how people are feeling or looking for different ways to approach the issue. It is a more creative, holistic approach rather than linear – we are outside-the-box thinkers.

Since the 1930’s, when dyslexia was recognised, there has been a stigma attached. Dyslexic people often feel shame and fear of failure and inadequacy in the education system and workplace.

Visual Tracking Magnifier (VTM); optical device used to help dyslexia sufferers by blocking textual 'pattern glare'
Visual Tracking Magnifier (VTM); optical device used to help people with dyslexia by blocking textual ‘pattern glare’.

However, dyslexia is now being redefined and dyslexic thinking is being used and valued as a positive skill for the future.

Some of the greatest inventors have been dyslexic, including the Wright brothers who developed the first successful motor-operated airplane, Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison! And who would’ve thought that Albert Einstein had difficulty with reading aloud and word retrieval?

This inspired me to look at some contemporary scientists who are applying dyslexic thinking and breaking down barriers in their research and work.

Carol W. Greider is a molecular biologist. She received the Noble Prize in 2009, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack W. Szostak for discovering how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

Greider said that her early school days were really difficult. She performed poorly in standardized tests and was put in remedial spelling classes. It wasn’t until later in life that she realised she was dyslexic and that her trouble with spelling and sounding out words did not mean she was stupid.

Jacques Dubochet is a biophysicist. He won the Nobel Prize in 2017 along with Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson for their contribution in developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution.

And then there is… me!

I’m Kirsten Strachan, a conservator at the Science Museum Group. I started as an art student and always knew I wanted to work in the arts. It took more than 7 years training in Higher Education to become a museum conservator.

Conservator Kirsten Strachan working on a large tiled floor from the waiting room at Grantham Railway Station.
Conservator Kirsten Strachan working on a large tiled floor from the waiting room at Grantham Railway Station.

I struggled and there were lots of challenges along the way. In over 20 years as a conservator, many spent working for the Science Museum Group, I have realised how valuable dyslexic thinking skills are. They may not be traditional, but they have proven to be valuable and valued.

I have supported many conservation projects and exhibitions at the Science Museum working on some of the most innovative items from the most brilliant dyslexic minds of the scientific world. From Steven Hawking to Alexander Graham Bell and Michael Faraday to name just a few.

I hid my dyslexia for years as I felt inferior and some of those challenges took some time to combat, but only by discussing differences do we understand the value and learn.

Now technology is moving on so rapidly. Those areas which were seen as weaknesses are being backed up by technology allowing me to bring different skills which are adaptable in a different way.

Those barriers which I felt existed are not barriers at all.