Neuroscience PhD student
Christine Liu is a scientist, sure—a seventh year Neuroscience PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, and she’s an artist, too—co-founder of the art collective Two Photon Art—but depending on how you first encounter her, you might also describe her as an activist, a coder, a writer, an illustrator, a businesswoman, or an amateur chef. When you meet her, however, it quickly becomes clear that none of these terms is a sufficient representation of who she is, because Christine is, first and foremost, decidedly just herself
She has come to embrace all these facets of her identity after a lifetime spent feeling like an outsider. Growing up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants and moving around majority-white schools in the Bay Area, Christine found herself turning to counterculture in search of belonging. “I could never afford Abercrombie and Fitch,” she says, “So I was sewing my own skinny jeans…I think I found a lot of comfort and solidarity with friends who just didn’t see the mainstream as an ideal.”
Christine spends her time leaning into her many interests. Most of that time is in the lab, where she is following one of her early, fundamental interests in neuroscience— how drugs affect the brain in both good and bad ways. Psychedelics, for example, have often been described as mind-opening, but many drugs can be negatively mind-altering and drive addiction. Under the mentorship of Dr. Stephan Lammel, Christine studies the neural circuits underlying the effects of nicotine—which, depending on dosage, can have both rewarding and punishing effects on the brain. When she’s at home, in a house she shares with friend and Two Photon Art co-founder Tera Johnson, Christine makes and sells science-related zines, pins, and jewelry while fundraising for social justice and science advocacy organizations via their Two Photon Art website. She also manages Black In Neuro’s finances as one of its board members and co-founders and mentors a first-generation graduate school applicant through the Científico Latino Graduate School Mentorship Initiative. In what might just be her most incredible feat, she makes it a priority to get at least eight or nine hours of sleep nightly.
Christine credits her supportive community and, in particular, growing up as a scientist inside of inclusive spaces, with her ability to maintain her sense of self. After years of undergraduate research experiences within diverse and inclusive spaces at the University of Oregon and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Exceptional Research Opportunities Program, Christine found graduate school to be a place of palpable imbalance—gender imbalance, racial and ethnic imbalance, and, most acutely for Christine, who remembers her first-year graduate stipend as more money than her entire family made when she was growing up, class and socioeconomic imbalance. The contrast between her undergraduate and graduate research environments was stark and served as a “wake-up call [to] how amazing it was to feel like I belonged in science and then how devastating it was to feel like I didn’t belong.”
This awakening was painful. Christine, however, is careful not to place judgment on herself or on her peers, but on what she calls “a system that makes it so difficult for people [who don’t have generational knowledge of academia] to enter.” “Looking back on it,” she says, “I see my path as a strength, because I was able to overcome it. But it’s also very sad, because it opened my eyes to the reality of how many people don’t make it. I truly feel extremely lucky and privileged to be a graduate student and to have gotten here, so…this awakening of the differences in socioeconomic class was fuel for me to try to help more people from similar circumstances get there.”
“I see my path as a strength, because I was able to overcome it.”
Though Christine says she is “very, very lucky” to have “mentors who really support me, truly,” the quality of the community she embeds herself in is no accident. Rather, community building is a deeply intentional core project of hers. “I actively avoid people or situations or structures that make me feel less-than,” she tells me. “I actively seek people who support me, and I try to create systems so that other people can also have that.” This means searching for other people who choose to support each other. For Christine this has often been in groups of outsiders. “There’s something special about groups of people who have all experienced being excluded,” she explains. “I find that those groups are often extremely inclusive because each person knows the pain that comes with being like intentionally singled out.” She also makes herself present and available for others to find community with her—she attends scientific meetings, displays her work at zine fests, cultivates public Twitter and Instagram accounts, participates in and even creates mentorship programs. And, if she finds herself in a community that makes her feel smaller or that doesn’t support her goals, Christine walks away. She calls this process “recalibrating the compass.”
With this compass, Christine gets to work—she writes advice on “How to become a scientist while poor” next to editorials about the value of social media in science communication, she makes zines about bias in AI next to zines about the science of nicotine, and she posts YouTube videos meant to demystify the STEM graduate school application process next to videos explaining the chemical reactions that occur while cooking. She uses herself and her creativity to make science a bigger, more inclusive community.
“I actively avoid people or situations or structures that make me feel less-than… I actively seek people who support me, and I try to create systems so that other people can also have that.”
Along the way, as more people who have traditionally been outsiders have entered the scientific community, Christine feels hopeful. “People who have experienced exclusion for one or more aspects of their identity,” she says, ”are gaining voices, gaining power, and making decisions. They are the ones who are at the gates now. And…they are actively questioning whether these gates even need to be here in the first place, or what we can do to get more people to the gate.”
Christine is now approaching the end of her doctoral studies, and she faces an uncertain future in a job market and world upturned by a global pandemic. But, Christine is anything but lost—“the pursuit of truth and discovery is still something that is at the core of what I want to pursue with my life,” she says. “I know that I need to do art, and I need to do experiments… And I am looking for environments where the mentors and the people around me believe that I have something positive to contribute to the people, to the environment, and to the community, even if I’m not solely identifying with or pursuing science.”
Christine may not be entirely sure what her next step looks like, but she knows she’ll be led there by her compass and by her community. When she gets there, she’ll be arriving as herself.
by Melissa Lee