“This is Victoria”, the now familiar recorded message says as I step off the train at my namesake station. “Yes. Yes, it is”, I think to myself.
I am one of 28 students starting PhD research at Imperial College’s new Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet (SSCP) Doctoral Training Programme. This is hosted by the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, although most of my research is at the Natural History Museum, one of the SSCP partner institutions, where I was based for my MSc last year. I will be modelling human impacts on soil biodiversity, combining two of the things I love most: playing with computers and digging for earthworms!
It’s been six months since I was offered a scholarship on the training programme and during that time I have often felt like I am a) dreaming or b) having a huge practical joke played on me. Now I have arrived back in London, reality is setting in and my emotions are careering between the excitement of adding to the pool of human knowledge of my topic; and trepidation, both academic (am I ever going to fully understand statistics?) and mundane (how do I look after myself now I do not live at home?).
I’m sure such feelings are normal at the start of university, but perhaps are more acute for me, since I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome – a ‘higher functioning’ form of autism. This affects how a person makes sense of the world, processes information and relates to other people; in particular I find social situations, and noisy crowds very difficult to cope with (yes, London is strange choice of city to study in!).
But I’m not on my own; Imperial College has an excellent Disability Advisory Service with their own Autism and Asperger Syndrome Support Facilitator. Together with support from Disabled Student Allowance and my supervisors, these are difficulties I can learn to overcome in the same way I can learn statistics or computer coding.
For me disclosure is the key to success, and I would advise any prospective students ‘on the spectrum’ or for that matter with other conditions, to consider doing so. Just knowing that I have the option to take a break from activities and hide in the toilet if I need to boosts my confidence, and if I’d realised this earlier my undergraduate studies may have been less traumatic.
Given my difficulties, you would not have found me checking out the Fresher’s Fair and bars during my first few weeks but that’s not to say I wasn’t busy getting back into student life at Imperial. At the Grantham Institute I was treated to lunch (free lunches are one of the best parts of being a student) and met the rest of the SSCP students to begin our first joint activity. One of the strengths of the training programme is that it brings together students from diverse disciplines – my group also comprises engineers and earth scientists – and, although I may feel a little out of my comfort zone the expansion of my world view is sure to be a positive thing.
I felt more at home at my induction at the Natural History Museum, especially when given a tour of the ‘tank room’ where the largest fluid preserved specimens are stored. Feeling quite like ‘a fish out of water’ myself over the last few days, I felt an odd sympathy with them.