S2 Ep10: Awareness and Activism
This month, we are exploring awareness and activism.
This month's episode is about awareness and the activism it can lead to. Join us as we talk to three members of the UCL community who are making meaningful change to combat the problems they have been confronted by.
Cassidy spoke with Hope Oloye, a PhD student whose programme Thinking Black is breaking down barriers to higher education, Virginie Le Masson, a geographer working with women across the world to understand the impacts of climate change through a feminist lens, and Emilia Molimpakis, a neuroscientist and entrepreneur who is revolutionising mental health care.
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Act 1 - Hope Oloye
Hope Oloye is the founder and director of Thinking Black, a social enterprise that runs interdisciplinary programmes for Black British students. She is also a PhD student at UCL studying Auditory Cognitive Neuroscience and a published essayist.
Act 2 - Dr Emilia Molimpakis
Dr Emilia Molimpakis is a neuroscientist with a PhD & post-doc from UCL in Linguistics, Neuroscience & Psychology. She is an expert in using language as a biomarker for cognition. Her startup, Thymia, is a platform that uses video games (based on neuropsychology) to help doctors assess and monitor mental health conditions such as depression. Emilia won the Young Innovator’s Award 2020/21 and was recently named one of the top scientists for mental health worldwide.
Act 3 - Dr Virginie Le Masson
Dr Virginie Le Masson is a Geographer by training, and one of the Co-Directors of the IRDR Centre for Gender and Disaster. Her research looks at gender inequalities and violence-related risks in places affected by environmental changes and disasters. Her ongoing collaborations with grassroot organisation Lead Tchad, Oxfam Intermon, and more recently with Plan International, aim to inform gender-responsive humanitarian and development programmes. She currently acts as the Global Monitoring & Evaluation Coordinator for GRRIPP, a project funded by UKRI to federate organisations and scholars working on gender equality and resilience in the development and humanitarian sectors. In 2017, she co-edited a book, published by Routledge with Prof. Susan Buckingham on the importance to address climate change with attention to gender relations and power relationships. Virginie is also a Research Associate with the think tank ODI.
impacts, people, gender, climate change, students, awareness, ucl, black, mental health, depression, research, women, spoke, experiences, inequalities, virginie, emilia, thinking, climate, realized
Student Three, Emilia Molimpakis, Student One, Theme music, Hope Oloye, Translator, Virginie Le Masson, Student Two, Cassidy
Hello, I'm Cassidy and welcome to the tenth episode of series two of #madeatUCL: the podcast. This podcast will explore the world of UCL through the groundbreaking research and vital community work conducted by our staff and students.
Before we start, I just wanted to note that I was out last month finishing my dissertation for my Master's and our producer, Cerys, very kindly took over for me, I highly recommend giving their episode a listen if you haven't had an opportunity yet.
Theme music 00:39
This month's episode, we've been thinking about awareness and activism. There seems to be a lot of things right now that might be better if we were more aware - if we were more aware of the problems that other people are facing, we might be more compassionate... If we were more aware of the solutions that exist, we might be able to help... If we were more aware of the way the system works, we might be able to inspire change. So I spoke to three people who are using their research and work to raise awareness on three significant social issues: systematic racism, gender inequality, and mental health access. Through their research, these academics were able to not only become more aware themselves, but come up with trailblazing solutions that are making the world a better place.
First, I spoke to a PhD student and social enterprise founder. We talked about the barriers of access that Black students face in higher education, and why she thinks building community and learning history can help overcome them.
Hope Oloye 01:52
It's a lot about promoting the awareness of topics that are under explored and people that are also under celebrated. And I think also just awareness of the fact that everything is subjective and that there's always bias in everything that would taught.
Then I spoke to a geographer about the impacts of climate change and how they can exacerbate gender discrimination. She told me about how and why she started using a feminist lens in our research and why it is so vital to understanding the impacts of climate change.
Virginie Le Masson 02:24
To me, awareness is really important in the way I think about research methods, thinking about who conducts research on what and for what purposes. And I think awareness in those categories really help interrogate research outcomes.
And finally, I spoke to a neuroscientist turned entrepreneur who, after seeing how easy it can be to fall through the cracks of our mental health care system, realized she had a unique set of skills that might help diagnose depression. And she explained to me how, first and foremost, we need to speak more openly about mental health.
Theme music 03:09
Awareness is the first step in the right direction, talking about it and getting the right treatment and monitoring it. Those are the next steps, essentially, but awareness is always the first step.
My first guest today is Hope Oloye, a PhD student at UCL studying auditory cognitive neuroscience.
Hope Oloye 03:30
Yeah, it's just looking at the impact that sounds have on the brain. So that's anything from sort of how people pick out the voice that they need to be listening to in a busy situation, or what makes like a car horn more attention grabbing than whatever else is happening on the street to like, why does music have such a profound effect on us?
Before Hope embarked on her PhD, she founded Thinking Black, a social enterprise that supports Black British students to develop key academic communication and leadership skills. I spoke to her about Thinking Black, how she got started, and why it's such an important project.
Theme music 04:08
So I wanted to start by discussing Thinking Black, can you tell us how the Thinking Black programs work?
Hope Oloye 04:20
We work with a group of students who are all Black students from all over the UK, and then they will attend lectures and seminars. And so these deal with topics that relate to race in society, but also different disciplines too. On our essay prize program, we have things like healthcare inequality, so students look at mental health in Black and Minority Ethnic communities and also climate justice and the intersection with racial justice and things like that. So we try and pull lots of different things together and make it personal and relevant. And then the students also attend some sort of skill session. So that would be either essay writing or creative writing, and then they have mentorship, and then they produce a response to the content that we've given them.
Hope is helping to empower thinking Black students in multiple forms here. She is educating them on the systematic injustices faced by Black and other Ethnic Minorities, she is helping them to build writing skills that are crucial for articulating their thoughts and feelings as well as achieving academic success, and finally, by giving them mentors, she's giving them someone to inspire them and turn to for help when they need it.
Theme music 05:28
[few beats of purposeful, hopeful music]
Where did the inspiration for this come from?
Hope Oloye 05:37
It's no secret that marginalized groups aren't represented in like mainstream curriculum. And I think that that's really disempowering - if you don't see yourself reflected anywhere in the curriculum. When I was doing my undergrad, I complained about the fact that they didn't have, like, focused access initiatives for black students and that was showing up in the lack of representation at my undergrad University and so it started off there as an essay prize. I spent a year in New York and in a lab, but went to lots of community education classes. And I think I drew a lot of inspiration from that too, in how to sort of engage contemporary issues in a like, academic way that's also like community minded and open and interesting and exciting. So yeah, those are the main inspirations for it.
So what is has been like your favorite aspect of working on the project so far?
Hope Oloye 06:33
Hmm, that's a nice question. I think my favorite aspects would be 1) we recruit young, black students and recent graduates to teach on our programs, which is amazing, because we get to pay Black academics to discuss things they care about. And so working with them has been really inspirational, because it's like, oh, my God! there's like 30 other people all over the UK who care about this kind of stuff as much as I do and are also doing really incredible things in different sectors and, like, learning from them has been really invigorating, especially in COVID, when it was so isolated. Yeah... And then I guess, also, of course, the students and seeing them engage with content and seeing them write essays that make me question things and I'm like damn! the 17 year old [laughs] is like shifting my worldview a bit and I think that's really great. And also seeing them sort of debate and pull things apart and get really passionate and fired up about something is so cool. Yeah, it's just like a really nice intergenerational community of like Black students who all are a bit nerdy.
Also, like, was there a particular moment in like working in the project where you felt really proud? Like, this is why I do what I do. Like,
Hope Oloye 07:40
honestly, after each session, I'm like, that was amazing. And I get a bit [breath] and I think, and it definitely the celebration days, and even just looking through the feedback forms, or some of the students were interviewed by the Guardian, and the journalist who wrote the article told me some of the things that they said, and that was like, whoa!
It's always nice to hear. Like, uh, you know, especially when you I'm sure, like, you put your heart and soul in to all of this and so like having that positive feedback, I'm sure feels really good.
Hope Oloye 08:09
Definitely. For sure. Yeah. Yeah. It's so sweet. One of the students said that, it made him proud to be Black. And I was like, oh, my god! So good! [laughter] And oh, my gosh, one amazing one was a boy like, uh, yeah, he said that he... So everybody does all of the introductory sessions, regardless of what they think that they're interested in. And so one of them is Black Feminism. And so he attended the Black Feminism module, introductory session, and was surprised by how much he enjoyed it, but then also like, applies that lens to everything he sees on media and stuff. And I was like that's... that's exactly what we want, like, not that you're just writing an essay, like you carry it and apply it to everything and engage with it constantly and...
That's awesome! That's yeah, I mean, that's, that's important, like, so also, just like on the other side of it. What have you found to be the most like difficult aspect of working on the project?
Hope Oloye 09:05
Many things, but I guess funding and sort of the ebbing and flowing of funder's interests, sort of aligns with political climate and trying to get things to happen, I think, and sort of, you know, because we need money to survive, but also I don't want to stagnate and not do anything, because you never know what's going to happen. And so that's been I think that's been difficult, just financial aspects. I wish we could just like freely provide everything but it's like, I want to pay all of the people who work for us and obviously, we don't want the students to pay so somebody who's gotta... money gotta come from somewhere... So that's been tough. But yeah, we've got some good funders now.
Theme music 09:32
Despite these difficulties, Hope has managed to build a community and is empowering young people to find their voice to really understand the impact of Hope's work and the power of Thinking Black, here are the thoughts of some of the students currently enrolled in the program.
Student One 10:06
I was... my mind, like I became aware of so much things that I previously wouldn't have known, probably wouldn't have known maybe if I didn't join this program...
Student Two 10:16
'Cuz I hadn't really had access to Black Literature or Black Writing before. And so having it all in one place, and being able to use it in my essay really helped me to engage with my subjects on a more personal level.
Student Three 10:27
I also really enjoyed engaging with so many Black students and Black academics from top universities.
To find out more about Thinking Black and get involved visit www.thinkingblack.co.uk.
Virginie Le Masson 10:50
So first of all, thank you so much for your time and for coming here. I feel very lucky to be able to speak with you.
[translation into Urdu]
Virginie Le Masson 11:03
Regardless of the program, what do you think are the most important challenges for girls and women in your community?
My second guest this month is Virginie Le Masson. She is a
Virginie Le Masson 11:15
research fellow and one of the co-directors of the Center for Gender and Disaster.
The IRDR Center for Gender and Disaster is a multidisciplinary research group that is developing awareness of and responsiveness to gender considerations and disaster risk reduction. I spoke to Virginie about the work she does there.
Theme music 11:36
How is gender tied to climate change?
Virginie Le Masson 11:45
So it's a very vast area of inquiry. It's been influenced by environmental feminist scholarship, but also disaster studies, as well as environmental studies. And I started to integrate attention to gender and gender equality during my PhD because I realized that the information that researchers collect will be heavily influenced by who they speak to. And I never really thought about this before and guided by a feminist environmentalist supervisor, a whole new world open to me when I realized that our gender influence heavily our experience to our environments. And that's why gender matters, we're looking at climate change.
Can you give us an example of how gender would be like related to environment for like a like how that would differ for a man and a woman?
Virginie Le Masson 12:41
So one example I could give is based on my doctoral research, which is now dating back 10 years ago, it's based on fieldwork, it's based on interviews with people about their experiences of environmental risks. And I realized when approaching different households, we followed a double track approach where I was always accompanied by a male counterpart. And I would interview women of the house, whereas he would interview the men and we would ask similar questions around climate risks or any environmental risks. And we realized after comparing our data that people have different perspectives on their environment, despite living in the same place, and that was heavily influenced by their roles, often traditional roles. So for example, women and girls are tasked with providing water to the house, often in particularly in low income settings where house-houses don't have running water. And so that's in itself was already a major difference, because it meant that women's awareness of water availability and scarcity was much more prominent than for their male counterparts.
You gave one one great example there, but like who, who I guess more generally is like most impacted by this issue, like is there a certain like subgroups that are usually most impacted or particular places.
Virginie Le Masson 14:04
So there is a mainstream narrative that say women are more impacted by climate change, and that I personally think has been a disservice to the overall research field on on gender and climate change, because it means people's focus is on finding differences of impacts. And it's true that in many different contexts, the impacts will be suffered differently by people based on their social identities. The whole point is to make any of these differences visible when they lead to inequalities but the flip side is that sometimes it's exacerbate discourse that tries to impose a binary - men versus women and yet there are many different genders. So what happened to gender minorities? What are their experiences? It also creates a binary between the vulnerability of women and the resilience of women that women do not live in isolation they are part of house-households and families and whatever impact them will also impact their husbands, their sons, their fathers, and vice versa. And so to answer your question, some of the impacts of climate change will affect women and men differently in certain settings but the point is to focus on the reasons why people suffer from environmental degradation, especially in settings when those who suffer had had the least to do with it, they have had the least responsibility and often do not have a say in decisions that have led to unsustainable development pathways.
Theme music 15:40
It's frustrating to think that those that have been most impacted by climate change are the least responsible for causing it. As I was interviewing Virginie, I could tell how much the issues she was discussing meant to her.
Why is the issue of gender inequality and climate change important to you?
Virginie Le Masson 16:03
I can't remember why I started like it's been part of my life to care about the environment - I grew up also in the Alps, maybe that's helps to care a lot. And something that is very visible in the Alps, is the receding of of glaciers. It's so obvious. And it's it's sobering to see the disappearance of these landmarks. And I can only wonder, trying to imagine what's going to be like in even 10 years time, like, if I ever have children, also, will they ever see the Alps with snow capped peaks? At first I studied geography, and environments, and I didn't really pay attention to inequalities also, because I come from France, and the de facto discourse is more about universalism. And closer attention to I'd say, social identities and differences between social identities is not very well studied, or even accepted. So it's only because I worked with a supervisor, who was an environmental feminist that I became aware of the social dimension of, of environmental issues and the gender dimensions only because I used a feminist methodology by talking to different people making sure that the voices of women were heard equally to that of men's, and making sure that I was exploring domains of life that touch upon women's roles and responsibility that I realized there were connections that I've never seen before. Connections around, who make decisions on how to spend money at the household level, but also at the municipality level, who gets to decide which sector is more important than another? Do we spend public resources on health, or on maternal health or on subsidies for fossil fuel energies, for example. And these connections are possible when using a gender lens, because we instantly ask who makes decision? And it's just also to say, it's not because of climate change that women, for example, struggle with access to basic services such as water, climate change will exacerbate access to water in areas where there's water scarcity. But often climate change is being blamed for issues in our society that are first and foremost caused by an unsustainable way of driving societies and by inequalities and by injustice. And unless and until we resolve this, we will not solve the climate change problem.
What are some things that we as a society can do to kind of address this problem?
Virginie Le Masson 18:58
So for those of us who do research, the first thing to do is to collect more gender disaggregated data in any sectors, but particularly in sectors that are impacted by climate change. So the health sector, for example, we are desperately needing more more data that reflects the diversity of of the population so that we understand that, that if there are differences of how climate change impact people, do this difference, lead to inequalities. And if they do, that's when it matters so much to have agenda perspective, it's because it's not right to maintain those inequalities. So that's the first thing to be doing, I guess, more broadly, any discussion about imagining a post carbon world or trying to imagine more sustainable development pathways it needs to resonate with the majority of the populations and it means it needs to resonate with the diversity of people's needs and experiences. And this is where the justice argument comes in - if we don't know or hear enough about the diversity of needs, experiences or priorities, then the climate politics will keep being biased and not necessarily adequate to representing those priorities. And that's an issue because it will not support sustainability. It means we will get - we will take more time to achieve policy that truly respond to people's aspirations.
Virginie will be talking about her research and the wider conversation about gender and climate change as part of the Lunch Hour Lectures on climate change.
Virginie Le Masson 20:45
This one specifically will talk about gender and climate change but also focusing on heat stress. Heat related risks is one of the many dimensions where climate change can have differentiated impacts on population depending where they live, but also depending who is exposed to to those heat stress. So I will be sharing some examples from the literature that explored those dimensions.
The Lunch Hour Lecture: Gender and Climate Change - Why are Women at Risk for Global Heating? presented by both Virginie and Priti Parikh will take place at 1pm on Tuesday, December 7th. It's part of UCLA wider Climate Change Campaign Generation One which is working to turn science and research into climate action. You can book a place for the lunch hour lecture, see our other events and find out how you can pledge to take action at www.ucl.ac.uk/climate-change.
Theme music 21:49
For our final segment this month, I spoke to Emilia Molampakis. Emilia is a UCL alum.
Emilia Molimpakis 22:19
I did a PhD and a postdoc at UCL, which I finished about a year and a half ago now. And there my specialty was cognitive neuroscience and linguistics and I am now the CEO of Thymia.
Emilia left her postdoc to set up Thymia, a tech company that is innovating the world of mental health assessment. Thymia uses video games to help evaluate mental health conditions like depression, I chatted to Emilia about this incredible work and how she got started.
Emilia Molimpakis 22:50
When I started academia, like I really did think I was going to go on and be an academic, be a professor, etc. So what happened actually was, I know like a lot of academics, you realize quite early on that there is a gap between what you find out in research and what is being utilized in the industry. But what really pushed me to leave academia to try and close that gap was a very close friend of mine, while I was doing my PhD at UCL, also an academic at the time, she developed depression and she tried to go through the UK mental health care system. So she saw the GP she ended up seeing psychologist eventually. Then she saw a psychiatrist, but like a lot of people, she actually fell through the cracks in the system, which was, as a very close friend, it was very hard for me to witness but what I just couldn't grasp was I as a friend, could see there was something wrong. I just couldn't see how wrong it, like what how bad it was. What I couldn't grasp was why a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist, why they couldn't actually see how bad the situation was. Surely they could. And that's what prompted me to start to look into the healthcare system more in terms of mental health assessments and monitoring and I realized just how subjective and problematic and fragmented the tools that clinicians had were.
Theme music 24:14
So, so you co-created Thymia, this mental health assessment tool. Before we get into how it works, I wanted to start by asking how is mental health normally assessed?
Emilia Molimpakis 24:29
So essentially, the way mental health assessed is typically you need to already have been experiencing some issues. So let's say with depression, you may be feeling low, the way your GP would know this is only if you tell them. Then once you tell them typically you go through a set of questions or questionnaires that are actually unfortunately incredibly subjective in nature, and they tend to have a lot of biases in them. So for instance, you go to your GP, you express that you're feeling low and they'll say, they'll typically ask you "okay, on a scale of zero to four in the past few weeks, how sad have you felt? How tired Have you felt?" So as you can tell, just by those two questions, these are incredibly leading as questions and it's been shown again and again, that actually the way you feel on this particular day will colour your view of the previous two weeks. So you're not actually even getting an accurate representation, even if it is subjective. So the other big thing to bear in mind is these questions haven't actually changed in decades, they've been the same since the 60s, some of them have been used since World War One, which is quite shocking. And so that's where Thymia essentially comes in to address this issue.
Awesome. And how is Thymia different? Like, how is it addressing some of these issues?
Emilia Molimpakis 25:39
So Thymia uses a variety of physiological biomarkers. So we have three main streams of data that we gather. So we assess people's voice, specifically, we look at speech patterns. So both the acoustic properties of how somebody speaks, but also the actual content of what they're saying. The second data stream we use is video. So we assess people's facial expressions, but also their eye gaze. And then lastly, we look at their behavior patterns, which we assess through carefully designed video games. So we're looking at reaction times, error rates, etc. So when you put all of this together, you have a very nice comprehensive overview, an objective overview of how this particular person is doing. And essentially, what we can do is we can say, detect whether or not somebody has major depression or not, and then also the level of depression they may have, so high versus medium versus low. And we also quantify the core symptoms of depression. So the five core symptoms are typically fatigue, working memory impairment, changes in your psychomotor function, so like your speed in doing things, and also attention shifts, and mood swings. So we provide an overview of all of those things, we also offer monitoring of the patient's mental health throughout, you know, throughout their life, essentially, and in between the appointments, as well. So we - the clinician always has an overview of everything that's happening, essentially.
It's amazing to think that this one gaming application is able to collect data on all these different areas at once.
Where did that - where did this like inspiration for this come from?
Emilia Molimpakis 27:15
While this was happening with my friend, I also happen to be working on the side with the gaming company, a small one, you know, none of the big ones [laughing] but I was helping them build a game, which was very interesting, because the levels got progressively harder based on neuroscience. So I realized actually if we tweaked to these games, we could use them to help target specific patterns of behavior that I know from my research are associated with depression. So that's where the video games as a concept comes from. And then when you pair it with video, which we know is really strong indicator of depression, you get this really nice, overall comprehensive overview of the disorder.
Despite Emilia's unique experience in this field and her passion for the project, getting Thymia off the ground hasn't been simple or easy.
Emilia Molimpakis 28:02
Typically, investors are quite opinionated. And you very, very often hear no, and you may have spent 10 hours talking to these people. And then after 10 grueling hours of conversations, and countless hours of extra q&a's via email, they turn around, say, hey, actually, we don't believe in you. Or actually, you're too early for us... actually, we don't think you're going to do it. It's particularly bad if you're a woman, which is not something everybody understands or notices. Investment is still an area where there's a lot of bias against women, and of course, minorities and everything. But as a female CEO, particularly in a tech company and having just come from academia, the amount of bias that I faced was quite surprising. I mean maybe I was naive coming from academia, but I didn't expect it to be that bad. So certainly, hearing no again and again and again, is very disheartening.
But Thymia is going from strength to strength.
Emilia Molimpakis 29:00
I was showing this to a psychiatrist in one of the NHS Trusts that we work with. And he basically, I think he was like head of the psychiatry department or something... he was quite high up. And he'd been doing this job for a very long time. He said, "I never expected to see something so sophisticated and advanced being used in my lifetime. For a psychiatry, it's absolutely amazing." And that for me was like, okay, if a clinician thinks this, and, you know, wants to use it, and this, this was like the really early versions as well. I thought, Yes, we're onto a winner here. This is going to be used by everyone.
And Emilia has big plans for the future.
Emilia Molimpakis 29:37
Thymia, essentially, the way we view the platform, the way we view the future of the company is our aim is to become the gold standard of cognitive assessments, not just for depression, but for every other cognitive disorder within the next 10 years. We've already started expanding to other disorders, so we're looking at Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Lewy body dementia, ADHD. But I think the most important thing we're trying to achieve is we have this core belief that mental health should be spoken about as openly and should be as objectively measurable as physical health. And ultimately, you know, as a founder, that is what I would like to achieve, so everybody can feel that they can talk about their mental health and they can also receive the treatment they need.
Theme music 30:21
If you would like to learn more about Thymia visit their website at Thymia, that's T-H-Y-M-I-A.com.
In this month's episode, we explored awareness and activism. We first heard from a PhD student who is pushing for awareness and greater opportunity for Black school students. Then we learned how people's experience of climate change differs and how important it is to collect demographically diverse data. And finally, we found out that there will soon be a new and improved mental health assessment tool that will lead to faster, more accurate diagnoses.
Although sometimes it may be uncomfortable to point out differences and disparities experienced by marginalized groups, it is nonetheless imperative that we do so otherwise we risk missing out, not only on the whole story, but individual potential, whether that's academic achievement, a person's safety, or their physical and mental well being. I hope our guest this month have inspired you to bring awareness to an issue you care about and take action.
Thank you for listening to me at UCL, the podcast.
To listen to previous episodes or find out more about life at UCL visit www.ucl.ac.uk/made-at-UCL, or subscribe wherever you listen to this podcast.
This episode was presented by me, Cassidy Martin and produced by Cerys Bradley. It featured music from the Blue Dot Sessions with additional sound supplied by our guests.
Special thanks to Hope, Virginie and Emilia for sharing their time and expertise.
This podcast is brought to you by UCL Minds, bringing together UCL knowledge, insight and expertise through events, digital content, and activities that are open to everyone.
I hope you enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed interviewing our guests this month. Thanks again for stopping by. Take care of yourself and each other.