College lit the flame of my chemical romance

The 2014 young adult learner of the year reveals how her tutors' unwavering faith allowed her love affair with science to blossom

Amy King is used to being told she's too glamorous to be a scientist. After all, not many chemists wear heels, full make-up and earrings in the lab. But although such comments might be intended as compliments, they are part of a much wider misconception about women in science that the 23-year-old Londoner is working hard to change.

As well as studying for a master's degree in chemistry, King runs her own charity encouraging girls to take up science. She also volunteers with children who have learning difficulties. It's no surprise, then, that she was recently named Young Adult Learner of the Year by education body Niace.

For King, science has been a lifelong passion, but one that she has had to fight hard to pursue. She had been left with the impression that she would never amount to anything and that science wasn't for girls. If it wasn't for the faith put in her by staff at an FE college, her achievements - which are all the more remarkable considering she missed years of schooling through illness - would not have been possible, she says.

Given her desire to bring a touch of glamour to science, the origins of her love affair with the subject will come as little surprise. "My mum was a hairdresser," King says. "Being around chemicals and hair dyes was what sparked my interest in chemistry; I was absolutely besotted with it. My mum bought me a chemistry set when I was 6. I was too young to use it but she used to do it for me."

King has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a rare hypermobility condition that has a range of symptoms but primarily affects the joints. Chronic pain and frequent trips to hospital meant that she missed large chunks of her education, including one year of primary and two years of secondary school.

"It started when I was 9; I had my first dislocation and I was always very tired and in pain," she says. "Because of my illness and having to go in to hospital so often, I wasn't really attending school, and the school wasn't giving me much encouragement or work.

"My mum was going down every week trying to get work for me. If you fall out of the system, you fall behind. It got to the point where several teachers had totally given up on me. My maths teacher even said I would never achieve anything."

King was tutored at home and had to prepare for her GCSEs while undergoing intensive and painful surgery for her condition. She was predicted low GCSE grades but surprised everyone when her hard work landed her a string of As and Bs. She began A-levels but her perception that others lacked faith in her abilities led her to leave school to study independently. After gaining an A grade in maths, she went on to study science A-levels at Bromley College.

King says the difference between school and college was "incredible". "The college was willing to take a punt on me and they were absolutely fantastic, really understanding about my condition," she recalls. "There are huge cultural differences between school and college. The college is more of a nurturing environment and the staff bent over backwards to help me.

"It really built my confidence up. I didn't think I would be able to do anything other than be on disability [benefit], living at home and bed-bound. College changed all that."

Elements for success

King threw herself into student life and used her passion for science to support and inspire others, setting up a blog and joining the Royal Society of Chemistry at the suggestion of her teachers. Her tutor Ian Davies says her work was always of the highest quality and she often stretched her knowledge beyond the syllabus.

"She was a source of support for other students in her class, and her infectious passion for science, and chemistry in particular, inspired other students to excel," he says.

Because of the support she received from college staff, King decided to return the favour, becoming a student ambassador for Bromley and showing prospective students around the college, promoting science in particular.

She was named Bromley College's student of the year for 2012-13 for her work both in and out of the classroom.

After gaining two As and a B in her A-levels, King decided she wanted to help more young people, especially girls, get into science, so started her own charity GlamSci. She now visits schools and hosts science demonstrations to try to change perceptions and overcome prejudices.

"Both my primary and secondary schools told me pure science wasn't for girls," she says. "There must be hundreds of young women who have had the same experiences. I want to help give them the advice and direction they need.

"I still get people coming up to me and saying, `You're too glamorous for science.' "

She adds: "It shouldn't be about how you look; you don't have to be a stuffy middle-aged man to do science. It's not for a certain type of person, it's for everyone. That's the message I want to get across."

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