Camilla Pang on how science guides her life
Read the full transcript of our Science Focus Podcast interview with Camilla Pang about how her neurodiversity has affected the way she works - listen to the full episode at the bottom of the page.
Amy Barrett, Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus: So, Explaining Humans is out 12th March, published by Viking, and if you could just start by telling you a little bit about yourself. What do our listeners need to know about Dr. Camilla Pang?
Camilla Pang: The first one is open ended questions aren’t her forte, but I do think that’s quite important to know, because this whole book highlights why open-ended questions are hard, because I am on the autistic spectrum; I also have ADHD, but those don’t define me.
I don’t fall victim to my neurodiversities. They empower me and they, I wouldn’t have been able to do my PhD and written this book, Explaining Humans, without them. So, that’s kind of me in summary.
AB: Fab. And can you give us a brief description of what your book, Explaining Humans, is about.
CP: So, it’s my attempt to write a manual for myself from the pieces of information I’ve assembled together as a child. I didn’t know I was writing it. It was more of a note I collected, a bit like bobbles on a jumper; you’re a little bit embarrassed by them, but they are, nevertheless, inevitable.
And so, one of the main reasons why I wrote it is because I couldn’t not write it. I had to write to survive, and I like assembling notes together and piecing information together that for me, enabled me to decode and connect with humans.
It’s also an attempt to make science visible for people as it actually made people visible to me. So, yeah, I can be myself with science. It’s my language, and it’s something that I want to share with people because it’s how I understand them.
AB: And so, who is it for? As a reader, who do you see this book for?
CP: Originally, when I gathered my notes and I wrote it, which I didn’t realise I wrote the book about a month ago because it’s just one of those processes, I wrote it for myself.
But to be honest, I think, thinking about it, I’ve had visions of me wanting to give it to my mother when I was little. I wanted to write it so I could one day be like, “Here mum, this is what’s happened. This is why, this has been what’s been happening when I couldn’t communicate, and now I can,” I want to write it for her.
AB: And so, you sort of said just then why you wanted to write it, but why now? Why did you decide to write this book? Is there anything that happened to make you want to write?
CP: It was quite an impulsive thing, as the best things in life are. And it wasn’t as constructive; it was more reflexive and something that I realised, because I wrote this book all before the age of 20, and I didn’t notice that my notes were very much different to the ones before I was 20, until I was 25.
And I thought, “Mm, in five years, they’re a little bit different. They’re a bit more nuanced. They use lots of different types of science and some art.” And then I realised that in order to move on from the notes I’m writing today, I need to somehow gather the ones I’d written as a teenager and put them somewhere. And I didn’t realise they were useful until other people had the same struggles as me, and I thought, “Maybe this can help people.”
AB: And out of all of the things, what do you think is the biggest thing that science has taught you?
CP: Science is still teaching me. It’s not something, this is one of the reasons why I’m in love with it, because it’s not a concrete thing. It’s something that is ever evolving, and so are people.
And to be honest, it’s a vehicle for my understanding and helps me make connections. It was my crutch and how I decoded and communicated with my species. That’s always nice, isn’t it?
So yeah, it’s very fluid, science, and that’s one of the lessons it has taught me. Because, like I said, it’s evolving, there are some things that are, you know, very much established, but I like to be on the cutting edge of it, and I think that inadvertently makes me more fluid as a person. And less rigid, which I crave. I crave to be able to know my place and to be able to have science hold my hand while I navigate people is great.
AB: So, is there really any science behind my failed relationships?
CP: I don’t like the word, ‘failed’. I think it’s a very binary way of thinking, because, I even mention this in chapter one where there’s this box thinking; it’s either one or the other. You fail or you succeed, but evolutions a bit more flexible than that, so a failure in one context is often a treasure in the next. That’s actually kind of nice, because it gives us that wiggle-room we need and that open-mindedness to be, you know what? Let’s cut ourselves some slack. If it’s not working, it’s not working. And we are all evolving, and to be able to evolve together is great, but to evolve separately and through different means is also great; it’s what we, it’s our energetic potential as people. And that’s, so, the science behind a failed relationship is merely a matter of divergent evolution.
AB: Divergent evolution?
CP: So, in science, so you’ve [unclear] evolution and you evolve together from different places, and you come together holding hands and that’s called convergent evolution. And with divergent evolution it was, like me and my sister; we’ve come from the same place, but we evolve down different paths. So, this is something that I use, I think I mentioned it. I think I might have mentioned it in chapter eight, but yeah, it’s how I see things. You can’t help the inevitable. You have to just be yourself and, you know, hope for the best.
AB: Thank you. And you know, personally, but I think for everyone, human connection is something that we all struggle with. What can science teach us in that respect?
AB: It’s all going to be OK, basically. It’s all going to be OK, because you are you, and as long as you make yourself whole, then you are an evolutionary module that is capable of interacting with lots of different partners, lots of different people and situations, and I think that’s one of the parallels I make in the second chapter. About how to embrace your ‘weird’. That not only is weird wonderful; it’s also subjective, and it’s also about being able to make yourself whole, and I guess protein, you know, it’s soluble, to move about life as an independent movement. [My memos] refer to that movement as being cooked. Like you’re cooked. You’re ready to go.
AB: Ready to be served.
CP: Ready to be served, yes.
AB: So, is there a time when we can use science to help us make decisions? You mentioned machine-learning principles then.
CP: Yes, so, the whole book is about being able to make decisions and elucidating some kind of psychology. Each chapter offers information on that, but specifically, so the first chapter mentions about different ways of visualising what your situation is, so clustering and classification. But the ones which resonate with me most today were, I think it’s in chapter seven, I’m not sure I remember. Anyway; we’ll see. It’s called, ‘How to find your goals,’ and I talk about a gradient/percentile algorithm, and how, and what that basically means is to acknowledge the situation and future projections of it via landscape. And the ability to simulate which solutions are best for that, and which ones seem the best for that short-term or long-term can differ. And there’s lots of different machine-learning algorithms that kind of iterate, you know, they kind of walk along the landscape to find solutions, so I do explain that in the book, and it will become clearer, because I don’t want to ending up reading the whole chapter to you, but in essence, yes, machine-learning is inherently based on psychology. It’s what we’re trying to do. It’s the point of it. It’s trying to mimic the human brain and then scale it up to lots of data so we can gather some kind of insight and intuition, much like a human. Because humans are great at these complex, convoluted algorithms that enable us to have a 4D experience of the world. Machines are a little bit, they’re a little bit thick, and that’s why they frustrate us so much. But they’re fast, and they can deal with lots of different data. They’re so effective because they can learn fast. With humans, they take a little bit longer, but we’re more accurate in how we come up with decisions. But yes, I do mention that extensively in different chapters.
AB: And you’ve mentioned the term ‘box thinking’. What does that mean?
CP: Box thinking is just binary thinking. It’s either that or this. You, I call them ‘isms’ thinking. “Oh yeah, you’re this.” It’s very much, it’s very categorical and you classify people according to these box categories, and you’re like, how do they link up to each other, but they don’t. And I think to have a bit more of an open mind, you know, be open to the different ways in which things can be related is more of a tree-based approach where you know everything’s at some point interconnected. You’ve just got to find your way through. So, box thinking is great in making a decision there and then. Brilliant. Because you don’t want to end up going, “Ah, yes, it could be this.” You could do that all day every day, but you do need box thinking which are basically the fruits of your intellectual labour. That’s what I like to think.
AB: I just want to say, because in the book, there’s a couple of times when you get us to think about ourselves in different almost categories, so we’ve got different proteins in the body that you find in the body with different roles proteins have, but also the different, for example, bonds that you find. Kind of categories that are defined in the book, but psychology has a lot of models of putting people into boxes and categories, thinking of things like Meyers Briggs. Do you have one that you subscribe to? Are they useful?
CP: To be honest, I think the, the inherent adaptability we have as people, to describe a single person within like a four letter metric is reductionist to say the least, and I think to know the limitation of each psychological model and their uses and limitations, you know, for different environments, is very, it’s good, but I wouldn’t try and encompass my personality into that kind of singularity. Because that only would be limiting not only me as a person, but it’s also affecting my native behaviour. So, Meyers Briggs is all right, but it’s very general. It doesn’t take into account context. And I mention that in the book, and I think it’s widely used, and it’s something that is, you know, it’s easily [unclear] online, and it’s free. But it describes general tendencies. I’m not a psychologist. There are probably loads of different ones. There are [Human] brain model, there’s, you know, you can Google it, but at the end of the day, what they all have in common is you’ve got, they describe different sides of people and it’s just knowing how you are, but they don’t account for evolvability. You have to keep taking them. But then again, will your answers to the next round of questions be affected by what you did before? So, this is why, I think this is good if you want to know how you will respond in a specific situation, and not encompass you as a person.
AB: And you refer in the book to neurotypical and neurodiverse. Can you just explain what those terms mean?
CP: So, everyone is neurodiverse. Honestly, even though you try to be square, you’re not square. I’m very sorry to tell you. It doesn’t exist. Because you are literally a species on this planet, subject to evolution, and you’re going to evolve. And to admit to that, and to behave as your natural self is sometimes quite hard in these kind of social constraints. So, everyone is neurodiverse. In terms of neurotypical, I think what people will more commonly refer it to is something that is, you’re not yet diagnosed with a mental health variance. I don’t call it disorder, because I don’t believe in this whole mental disorder when it is clearly imposed by environment. So, neurodiversity is something we’re all faced with, some of us just know how to hide it better, because they either feel it less, or they’re more scared. So, to be neurodiverse and to show that is actually very brave, and it takes a lot of guts.
AB: And it’s a term that is quite closely related to autism and Asperger’s.
CP: Yes, it is, ADHD, bipolar, schizophrenia; all that sort of different types of psychological impositions that can affect you, and what you’d find with these mental health disorders or variances, sorry, is that a lot of the struggles that they have are mainly due to the intolerances of their environment. If left alone, I’m normal. I’m fine. Happy as Larry. But if I have to sit at my desk, you know, in a certain way all day, I’d go absolutely nuts. I actually sit under my desk, and I’ve got a standing desk, and I read under there. And the people at my work are very accepting of that. So, what I’d want neurotypicals about neurodiversity, is to just accept and embrace it. They’re probably jealous. They probably want to sit under my desk.
AB: That’s one way you’ve said about neurodiverse changing the way that you work. Are there any other ways that it impacts your career or your life?
CP: Right. I’m speaking from my personal experience, and everyone who has, well, everyone basically, or those that have a diagnosed mental health variance, will have their own experience. But personally, I find logistics really hard. I get really bad anxiety. But I’ve got that under control. I mean, all these things that I have, I’ve made into something positive, because they’re a force to be reckoned with. It’s an untapped resource. You just have to know how to train it use it, and not be hindered by you being an odd shape. Because it’s easy to feel squeezed and trapped. But it can affect my focus. I know, you know, the times of day that I focus best. You just need to know your shape and make the most of it, and I might not fit at a 9-5 desk, and I might be, you know, focused really well at 6AM until 12, and then all afternoon I won’t. It depends. So, that being adaptable to your own needs, and I think that can be said for everyone. Not just being neurodiverse, but everyone. So yeah, but also, in terms of my Asperger’s, I guess I’ll tell you a bit more about that later on.
AB: I’m thinking about how autism appears in culture. How do you feel when you see it portrayed in the media?
CP: I think that the, OK, one-line summary. It’s very male-orientated. It’s a very white culture, and there’s lots of heads banging on walls. And I think that’s because, for both [supporters] and people with autism, I think it’s due to the fact that we don’t know what it looks like in any other form, because it’s very hard to diagnose. It’s symptomatic, it’s very, very varied, and people that have it, particularly females, they’re known to mask their systems, so trying to get it out of them is really hard. Lucky for me, I was diagnosed at age 8, or 8 or 9. But for example, someone says to me, “Oh, Milly, you don’t look autistic!” as if like I’m tired that day. And it’s actually, I know that they mean well, so I don’t make a fuss. I’m just like, “Oh, yeah, OK.” I just have, I give an indifferent answer that I’ve rehearsed, obviously. But it’s degrading to say I don’t look autistic, because it’s not something that I have; it’s something that I am. This is my human shape. I am autistic, and I have a different shape, such that I experience life differently, to the point where it can hinder but also enhance your experience. So, in terms of its portrayal in the media, I think it’s, it’s not quite accurately represented in terms of how varied it can be, and I’m really hoping that this book sheds a light on how varied it can be, but also anchor it down to a common psychological route that explains why you are feeling a) that little bit weird or b) out of place or c) to explain the human that you are.
AB: Perfect. And there’s a fair amount of self-diagnosis when it comes to autism. Do you have any views on that? Does it have consequences?
CP: Self-diagnoses. What, just by reading or by the internet. It depends how it’s done to be honest. Self-diagnosis; you have to be careful, because you don’t want to end up reading the wrong thing and think that you’re one thing, “Oh no!” you know, it is good to have an expert opinion. But having said that, it is very hard to get a diagnosis. Not because it’s hard to diagnose in the first place, but it’s also very hard to even get therapy on the NHS, because it’s such a high demand. You know, the system is not as efficient as it could be. And I think because of that, it’s made people be overlooked and suffering in silence, and I don’t like that. But I am hoping that this book will bring them into light. That’s the most important thing. I want people to, I want people who feel hidden away and like, “I was not made for this world. I was not made for these times,” to read it and go, “Oh yeah, maybe I am.” And for them to step out of the corner and you know, go into the light. And self-diagnosis can be limiting at times, but you don’t have to self-diagnose to feel like you belong.
AB: Why is it that autism is closely linked with ADHD?
CP: They are a marriage made in heaven, but they live in hell. They are counterparts, to be honest, because ADHD’s a kind of chaotic, unpredictable, sporadic, wildfire that spins outwards, and it’s everything that makes you feel alive, and it’s messy, and it’s not routine. It’s fluid. And ASD is very, is more rigid. More focused. It’s like routine. It’s quite inwards, which is, it’s very introspective. And this is from my experience that is. I’m just trying to stratify why they’re so different from each other, and they save each other a lot of the time because they’re a yin and yang. Most of the time I feel like I’m a third wheeler. I really do. I’m mediating both of these psychologies simultaneously, and I’m like,” I just want to make a cup of tea.” But the good thing is though that they do compliment each other. I go into hyper-focused mode, I’ve also got my Asperger’s to push that through further, and I get stuff done fast. But the question is; what do I need to do by when? If I know what and how and why; I’m there. ADHD can make you feel lost, and so can autism, but together, somehow, you find your way through. It’s almost like magic. But they are closely linked. I think it’s very important to highlight the intersection of anxiety, so they can, one can save another, but also, they can act together to really provide a, you know, [pause] power of anxiety. And that can be hard to deal with. You don’t know what you’re going to be anxious about that day, but you know that your mind is spinning in both directions, but you just have to learn to train it. It’s literally what you’ve got to do. It’s energy, at the end of the day. It’s a bit of a privilege.
AB: And do you remember your own diagnosis? What did it mean for you?
CP: To be honest, it didn’t really mean anything to me. I was pretty happy just doing my own thing and carried on doing my own thing. It was mainly for my mother and my family and my mentors to help support me, so they could Google and research what was going on and how best they could help, and that was absolutely instrumental in me functioning and learning like a normal teenager. And then me kind of replicating these kind of strategies put in place in my adult life. So, actually, it didn’t mean anything to me, because I didn’t understand it. It was not something that, it’s another label. It’s another ‘ism’, or label for neurotypicals have to support people with neurodiversity.
AB: And was there anything that was so different about getting autism diagnosis so young, 8 or 9, and then your ADHD diagnosis so recently?
CP: To be honest, I think, because the symptoms do overlap, and I’m hyperactive generally as it is, as a person, you know. It might not be due to my autism, but that’s just me generally. I think the ADHD kind of got overlooked, and a lot of support was based on me having autism, which was fine. I mean, great. I only noticed I had ADHD when I went into a job where I had to be a shape. A certain shape, and I was like, “I don’t know if I fit in this shape!” I thought, “Why? Why? Why?” And it was almost like a self-diagnosis based on me running to occupational health at lunchtime crying, knocking on the door, I’m going to be really frank here, and then I talked to them, and they were like, "You’ve basically got ADHD.” And I’m like, “Yeah. Thought so.” Because the panic attacks were different. When you have autism, your panic attacks make you spiral inwards and you want to hide in a corner or put something over your head, covering all senses; it’s from overstimulation. But an ADHD panic attack is actually from understimulation, and you spin outwards because you want to move, and you’re restless; your mind is restless. And when I had to be in that certain shape, every fibre of my body was trying to push out, and there’s only so many lunchtime walks that can kind of quench that cognitive thirst to just burst out energy. So, yeah, so I, it’s interesting, because I didn’t realise I had ADHD until I realised I no longer fitted anymore, and that wasn’t because of my autism; it was because of something else.
AB: Your job.
CP: Yeah, so that’s probably why it was so late. But that being said, I’ve not actually been formally diagnosed with ADHD. I’ve tried to get one, but it’s really hard work. Really hard work. And even, I even thought about getting it done privately, but it’s very expensive, so I haven’t done it. And also, I’ve got the support I need, but it is important to note that people who are suffering and need that diagnosis, they are probably going to be struggling with getting that diagnosis, because it’s really hard to get that on the NHS. Not only obviously availability but diagnosing it. So, my advice is, if you know you’ve got something wrong, live it up and don’t hide it, because people need to know.
AB: Thank you. You mentioned your job. You specialise in translational bioinformatics. That term means absolutely nothing to me. What is that?
CP: Bioinformatics is quite a new field because there’s been such a big influx of data, so, specifically bioinformatics deals with biological data from the labs. Someone actually said to me, “what’s the point of bioinformatics if you can just do it by hand?” And I’m like, nothing. Because we have so much data and so many patterns within that, both obvious and not so obvious, we need a way of processing that data. Putting it somewhere and making sense of it. So, this is what bioinformatics, you know, I deal with clinical data and cancer data and lots of different disease data that we have in order to find patterns so that we can find therapies. And these might be, you know, there’s lots of different types of data that you can do this with. Translational, in this context, specifically means, ‘regarding clinical outcome,’ and how can it affect healthcare. So, that’s why I like it. It gives me that, I’m a biochemist, and it’s basically biochemistry on the computer for medicine. It’s great. It’s good enough for me.
AB: And so, bioinformatics, can you put that into context? How does that affect the wider world?
CP: Science, I think generally, especially those that code, is very hidden. It kind of goes on without you noticing it, but when, without it, we wouldn’t be able to elucidate the, you know, the results and the discoveries that we’ve made from all this data that we’ve harvested. So, it’s a bit of a process that a lot of people depend upon, but they don’t really know that it’s there. I think that’s a bit of a shame, because people work so hard, and their minds are incredible. Like some of the people at work. I’m like, “Your mind is awesome!” and to be able to shed light on that. I’m really hoping that bioinformatics and science and biochemistry have more of an awareness about how instrumental they are, not just making you alive, but also healthcare and you know, renewable energies. There’s such a big outreach about how bioinformatics and biochemistry can affect your life. So, I’m hoping that people, when they read the book, they can Google all the, you know, bits of stuff, that they’re like, “Oo, what’s that? What’s game theory?” or “What’s haemoglobin.” My favourite protein. Sorry. Yeah, I’m hoping it will stir curiosities that people can find a bit more a bit about science, and this subject that is a little bit hidden. It’s quite new though.
AB: I see. And you talked about outreach. You work both in the lab and you do a lot of outreach. Which do you prefer, and why?
CP: I love both, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I designed it such that, much like the different sides of science I like to assemble together, I like the different types of way of interacting with different sides of science in order to reach my arms out and gather them all. I like to say to my friends that I’m spider shaped. It’s actually an analogy I got from my mum, because we were talking about artists and Louise Bourgeois, and she did this art installation piece called [Unclear Maman]. Actually, it’s probably called Maman. [Unclear] is a jam. Sorry. So, it’s actually called Maman, and it’s about this massive spider installation, and when you look at it, you feel a little but, oo. A bit haunted. But when she gave me this book, it was about being able to tie lots of different pieces together via a web and being in control of them. And I like to think that I’ve got my main job that I really, that really feeds me, and I feel really happy there, but I also have side-projects that I do in my evenings and my weekends, and I love that, because not only is it a source of creativity, inspiration; it also enables me to practise lots of different things without that pressure of having to perform. And also, it’s having lots of different eggs in lots of different baskets but that they can feed into each other when need be. So, this is one of the reasons why I like to have a main job and different side-projects which is outreach. It’s just sharing the love, isn’t it? Basically.
AB: That’s fab. And you mention in the book that you have synaesthesia. Can you explain what that is and how it presents itself for you?
CP: So, synaesthesia, it’s, so it’s not a mental health disorder or variance or what have you. It’s just the way that you perceive the world, and specifically, my senses are very, very heightened, and that’s due to my autism. That’s one of the things that a lot of people with autism have; this sensory overload. But it’s a bit different to that, because you associate colours with words and smells and everything’s crosslinked, and so, you’re like, “But that doesn’t make any sense!” It doesn’t. You’re completely right. So, whenever I see a picture or I see words, all of them have their personalities, colours, smells, and they can get really confusing. But it’s OK, because I’ve got my ways of dissecting what means what, which is one of the reasons why reading fiction is actually quite hard for me. But also getting on the tube. Because it’s not like a form of delusion; it’s just more of an extra thing that you sense. And I mentioned it in the book in the fears chapter, the chapter where I look at how to refract or spread out different emotions so that you can process them, because when they hit you like a white-light, you just don’t know what to do with them. And one of the main reasons of me using that parallel was that I saw emotions very vividly with colour and with their own personality. Situations have their own personality and their colour, and from that, it really helped me, I won’t say label, but kind of cluster what was what. But how it manifests with me is colour and sounds and tastes and smells. It just heightens that. It makes the experience more [thoughty] basically.
AB: I think that leads into my next question; my final question which is can art influence science?
CP: Yeah. It’s a great question that, because one of my, well, a couple of my side-projects that I’m doing is communicating the parallels between art and science. I’m not going to go into it too much; I’m going to leave you with a cliff-hanger there, but yes, they are both in art complementing science with it communicating what science is trying to do, but also on like on an algorithmic level and how using the different strategies used in the creative industry and those used dealing with things on a micro-molecular level are very much paralleled. So, yes. Art can influence science. Because both of them root from creativity. Both have an innate chaos that they’re trying to find patterns therein, and they’re very much complementary. So, art is top-down, and science is bottom-up. That’s all I’m going to tell you for now.
AB: Thank you ever so much. It’s been an absolutely pleasure.
CP: Thank you.
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Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.