by Syjil Laryea, Year 12 Generating Genius Student

A little bit about myself:

I am Syjil and I’m currently in year 12 studying: Maths, Physics and Product Design. I am planning to complete an engineering degree at university, then progressing on towards a master’s degree in engineering. The universities that I will potentially apply for are Imperial College, Oxford University and Perdue University in Indiana. However, I am keeping my options open by continuing to expand my research into universities. I am hoping to one day become a mechanical engineer and work in a high-ranking company to gain experience, which will eventually build up to me starting my own business. All through my career, I hope to use my expertise to inspire younger students not only here, but in Africa too, to drive development and create future STEM leaders. In today’s world, opportunities are tougher than ever to obtain, and to get noticed you must stand out. That’s where Generating Genius’ project Uni Genius comes in.

My introduction to Generating Genius:

Beginning year 12 was an experience like no other; I remember being overwhelmed with a barrage of new timetables, social distancing measures and extra-curricular programs. It was at this time in late September, I was introduced to Uni Genius, a 2-year program that endeavours to increase the number of BAME students that are accepted by prestigious universities, by exposing them to exclusive work experience opportunities, and building up networks through collaboration with senior experts in the STEM field from various backgrounds.

This immediately got my attention because it was the most intriguing opportunity out of the 6 or so I was being offered. I quickly filled out the application form and was invited for a short 20-minute telephone interview. I was informed of my acceptance just a few days later and was asked to join a virtual launch event with the other successful applicants.

Since then, there has been a myriad of opportunities that have been offered to our Generating Genius cohort. Each programme is geared towards the student’s career aspirations and the subjects that they are potentially interested in studying at university.

Due to my interest in engineering, I have had two exclusive work experience opportunities which were only available to Uni Genius members, as well as a recommendation to attend the PWC Insight Week. The first challenge that I attended was a two-day event with National Grid (NG) and the second being a challenge day with the Ashton Fire consultancy. As well as being an invaluable experience, there were also prizes to be won!

Challenge 1: The National Grid

Being my first ever challenge, I wasn’t sure what to expect; I felt a mixture of excitement, curiosity, apprehension and the desire to impress. In the days leading up to the event, we were given the challenge, along with several information sources to help guide us along the way. The challenge itself was to work as a team to create a plan for the National Grid to help the UK achieve its 2050 Net Zero target. We learnt that Net-Zero is a government scheme to get carbon emitted by the UK to equal the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, meaning the UK has no contribution to global emissions. We were informed that there are two ways to go about doing this: one way is for carbon to be removed from the atmosphere, while the other is to use clean fuels like hydrogen that don’t release greenhouse gases. I was eager for the event to begin so that I could put all this information to good use.

On Day 1, we were introduced to several guest speakers. It consisted of National Grid Employees at different stages of their careers and a former BBC presenter! Speaking to the National Grid personnel and being able to ask them questions gave me a deep insight into how the different parts of the NG interact while providing an overview of current experimental technologies that the NG is testing and evaluating which gave me potential ideas to share with my team.

We then got a rare opportunity to speak to Juliet Alexander, a former BBC presenter who in her words “has trained virtually every black MP” that is currently seen on the political stage in public speaking. She offered valuable advice on how to pitch our proposal to the panel and got us to participate in a humorous exercise to get comfortable with speaking in front of an audience.

Following the confidence boost exercise, we were introduced to the five judges in the panel, who informed us about their career backgrounds which spanned from a gas operations director to marketing director.

Towards the end of Day 1, we were put into our allocated groups to become acquainted with one another and begin working on our solutions to the challenge. My three team members and I divided the research into manageable segments earlier on in the challenge so we could begin working on the presentation.

On Day 2, we had a tight deadline of 4 hours to complete our proposal and be ready for the pitch. Luckily though, each team had a member of the judging panel periodically check up on progress and answer questions. As a team, we decided to explore 3 Net-Zero solutions: carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), biomethane and hydrogen technology.

Over both days, we were unable to see or speak to one of our team members due to technical difficulties, so we had to find a solution to this problem. Overcoming this was all part of the challenge and tested all our problem-solving skills.

By the time the presentation deadline arrived, we had managed to finalise our proposal and although nervous, we all managed to deliver a strong and well-structured pitch, despite all the adversity we had to overcome.

All the teams did exceptionally well and managed to convey their ideas in a clear & logical way, but there could only be one winner. Scoring was out of 20, and despite my team receiving the highest score, we were beaten by another team of skilled individuals who went the extra mile and impressed the judges with their research into the use of artificial intelligence to predict energy trends. All teams and judges congratulated the winning team on a well-deserved win, which earned them a £50 amazon voucher each!

However, prizes didn’t stop there, there was also a £20 award for the most engaged individual, and another £20 awarded to the individual who “asked the most insightful” questions, which I managed to win.

The most difficult part of the pitch was the questions following the presentation. Being grilled by a panel of experts is an experience I will never forget, however, my team and I rose to the challenge and managed to provide the answers the judges were looking for. In future, I will feel much more comfortable facing scrutiny as this exercise gave the precious practice needed for interviews and potential board room meetings we may face as adults.

Challenge 2: Ashton Fire

I was also blessed with the opportunity to work with the Ashton Fire consultancy firm just a day after working with the National Grid. However, this virtual event was incredibly competitive, with only 16 places available. Just like the National Grid challenge, we received some preliminary information to examine before the day of the meeting. Our brief was to identify problems with an architectural proposal to build a 2-story hotel for athletes in time for the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

Before my work experience, I had a very myopic view of what is meant to be an Engineer. I’d always imagined men and women in hard hats working in building sites and garages or stress testing structures using FEA computer software. The field of fire safety engineering hadn’t even crossed my mind. In hindsight, I now understand the intricate relationship between former firefighters, fire resistance engineers and the government.

On the day of the challenge, we got a chance to engage in a quick Q&A session with the expert Ashton fire judges, one of whom, joined the call from his home city Madrid! We were given an insight into the type of work and projects they are typically faced with and the challenges involved with them. One member even spoke about his involvement in producing a fire safety plan for the London 2012 Olympics.

Once all the judges had shared their skillsets, it was time to begin research and work on the challenge, which would eventually come down to four teams of four going head-to-head for the winning spot. Long story short: our team won! Winning was important, but it’s how we won that makes me proud of my team and how we performed.

Learning from experience was the first part of the puzzle. Out of the four of us in our team, two of us had attended and completed presentations at the National Grid event the previous day. We shared what we learnt from Juliet Alexander about presentations and public speaking.

The next piece of advice I had for my team came directly from the National Grid judges’ feedback the day before: keep the information on each slide to a minimum.

Dividing up roles and setting time goals was an essential part of meeting the deadline, especially as we were only given a single day to meet the challenge. Also, this helped us make short work of the simplified government guidelines, which were written in legal jargon and required attention to detail.

But what won us the challenge was asking the right questions, our pragmatic ‘slide by slide’ approach and, above all, teamwork. Asking the judges the right questions when they visited our group earned us valuable information which the other groups didn’t have access to. We also laid out our presentation in a way that allowed us to go through the brief “with a fine-tooth comb”, as the judges put it.

I couldn’t be prouder of my teammates: George, Anjola and Rufael; it was teamwork that earned us the top spot and even though we were connected virtually, I have made some fantastic new friends!

What I will take away from these opportunities:

These opportunities have taught me 5 valuable lessons:

  • The importance of asking questions
  • Teamwork
  • How to answer questions under pressure
  • Time management
  • Confidence with public speaking

Not only are these fantastic experiences to mention in interviews and put on my personal statement, but they inspired me to work towards standing out from the crowd and rising to every challenge I’m faced with. I also know that these are expertise I can share with my family both here and in my home country Ghana.

Participating in these events also gained me recognition from the Generating Genius team, and I have recently been shortlisted as one of the ‘Top 100 Future STEM Leaders’ as a result, providing me access to leadership academies and even more exclusive events that will help me build my network.

I am extremely grateful to Generating Genius for all the doors that they have opened for me, and for all the help we are being provided by the Uni Genius team. I would like to thank Emily Emiru, Sharan Matharu and Alexander Tansell for supporting me every step of the way.

If you are considering applying for the Uni Genius program, I hope I have convinced you that it is worth it, and if that doesn’t get your attention, maybe the total of £70 I have won from just 2 challenges might just do it!