Vic Chiang (MRes Brain Sciences 2016) shares his thoughts on celebrating Pride, and explains how he stays in touch with UCL as an alum.
Tell us a little about yourself, what you studied at UCL and what you do now
At UCL, I studied the Master of Research in Brain Sciences programme. I especially enjoyed the programme given its research focus on neuroscience, allowing me to conduct a neuro-oncology study mentored by Dr Shin-ichi Ohnuma on the molecular mechanisms of ependymoma and choroid plexus tumours. I am especially grateful to the programme director, Dr Jacqui van der Spuy, for her support and guidance during my studies. We are still in contact, and it is always a pleasure to hear about new cohorts of students and how the programme is flourishing.
Another significant component I enjoyed about the programme were the sessions on “Contemporary Topics in Brain Science Research” where our cohort, ~10 of us, were able to have face-to-face discussions with leading researchers at one of the most highly regarded centres of excellence in brain science in the world. I recall the close interactions of our cohort with researchers from a breadth of neuroscience areas, for instance, Dr Selina Wray on induced pluripotent stem cells, Dr Kate Jeffery on place cells, Dr Peter Dayan on decision-making neurocircuits etc. This in fact inspired me to start the Boston Neuroscience Network, which hosts monthly meeting with guest speakers from the Greater Boston Area, with recently published studies ranging across the neuroscience field. For instance, we had Dr Lena van Giesen on octopus neurons, Dr Aaron Burberry on gut-brain-microbiota axis, Dr Chun-Cheih Chao on astrocyte metabolism, and more. One of the key diagrams I use for this event is from Matteo Carandini, a neuroscientist I really like from UCL, on charting the structure of neuroscience.
In terms of what I do now, as a generalist I wear many hats. One of the hats that I wear, which UCL directly inspired, was my co-founding Savyn - a digital mental health startup based in Toronto, Canada, along with two other co-founders: Sakeena Mihar, CEO and Yang Wang, CMO. Savyn is an award-winning social impact venture that provides inclusive and accessible digital PTSD-therapies in multiple languages, working towards the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for good health and well-being (SDG3) and reducing inequalities (SDG10). In particular with Sakeena’s personal story, full-time dedication, and her rapport with others in conjunction with Yang’s talent and her experiencing mental health challenges after migrating to Canada, Savyn is blessed to be incubating at Social Venture Zone and Biomedical Zone from Ryerson University, with funding from the Government of Canada to support clinical validation. To conduct such, we are using magnetoencephalography neuroimaging in collaboration with Dr Ben Dunkley from the University of Toronto. I also benefited as a UCL alumna to recruit a number of UCL students as research interns using UCL Bentham Connect; this intern is in fact a neuroscience student from UCL.
At UCL I was inspired by my interactions with the university’s network of respected researchers, and the diverse range of events and commitments I attended, including: MEDucate; three minute thesis; “How will society survive to the 22nd century?”, and more. This drove me to start Open Mind events to debate controversial topics, and two major themes anchored deeply within me: climate change and minorities. As I prepared for these events, reading widely across Aeon, Lapham’s quarterly, the Point etc., I saw a 2016 interview with the bioethicist Peter Singer in The Conversation, who stated that over 750 million refugees will emerge as climate change renders their countries inhospitable. This shaped my drive to fight for minorities and against climate change, including my efforts at Savyn and now in Boston doing neuroscience research on sexual diversity.
Can you describe how and why you came to be involved with the UCL Boston Alumni group?
I was new to the US in September 2019, and came across an event in March 2020 held by the UCL Boston Alumni group. I didn’t know many people in Boston, so I was hoping to find a sense of community in my new city. Due to the pandemic, the group was going through changes and the opportunity came about for new people to step up to help organise the group. I was motivated to do so to find some familiarity in this foreign land and possibly to create a community that aligns with my causes of climate change and minorities, where I hope to host more events that support in giving back such as through fundraising and volunteering, as well as lifelong learning on the relevant issues.
Pride is celebrated all around the world; what does Pride mean to you?
To me Pride demonstrates the enormous number of barriers LGBTQ2S+ have had to and continue to overcome. It similarly demonstrates the privilege those being able to celebrate Pride have. It is a reminder to me to look beyond the “WEIRD” population (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) and heteronormativity, which clearly do not represent the entire world.
As an illustration, the neuroscientist Josh McDermott learned from the Amazonian Tsimane tribe that various aspects of music we take for granted as being pleasant in the West are products of culture and not innate. In addition to that, anthropologists found that for the Chuukese and Ilongot people, family is not defined by blood, which contrasts with the nuclear family paradigm in America.
The privilege to being able to celebrate pride reminds me of my privilege and encourages me to do more for climate change and minorities. To do more for climate change to me means addressing carbon footprint in all my pursuits and to advocate for renewable energy, veganism, and less air travel.
Pride being an occasion for LGBTQ2S+ highlights how prioritising pecuniary benefits has disproportionally and adversely affected marginalized communities. This bears a cautionary tale to me of the circular argument of indefinite human desires requiring economic growth, including this prevalent theft of common heritage, and in general seeing people solely as producers and consumers, related to the mimetic theory and scapegoat mechanism postulated by one of my favourite philosophers, Rene Girard.
LGBTQ2S+ individuals are at greater risk of mental health problems such as PTSD. Pride is reminder of the immense barriers present for our community and part of these mental health problems could also be pathologizing normal reactions to true atrocities in this world, such as in the US, where I am currently based: the long labour hours, low wages, high unemployment, people of colour being killed and climate change causing eco-anxiety. It is my hope that through Pride we can recognise that these are not solely mental health issues, but political issues that needs to be changed, such as through prohibiting tax evasion, wage caps, democratising workplaces, and removing at-will employment.
In particular, Pride reminds me that transgender people are still prevalently and heavily discriminated against, as passive aggressively exhibited through the recent gender reveal hype, and on the basis of logical fallacies that they increase sexual crimes, that children transitioning may regret their choice, or not having enough experience or interests to become a certain gender.