BC Talks 2017: Activism, Current Affairs, and the Brain

For the seventh year in a row, eight Boston College students will deliver lectures in the style of TED Talks, free and open to the student body. On Nov. 10 in Higgins 300, these students will take on issues of identity, free will, neuroscience, and more. Here’s a look at what motivates these eight students to speak up.

El Hadj Dieng

At first, El Hadj Dieng, MCAS ’18, wanted to give a talk about music. Then he went to the “Silence is STILL Violence” rally two weeks ago, sparked by the defacing of several “Black Lives Matter” posters and a racist Snapchat that circulated. Watching dozens of speakers stand up in front of Corcoran Commons and talk about their experiences at BC and their responses to racist incidents on campus made him think.

With each speaker, he heard the same sentiment.

“Everyone just wants to be heard,” he said.

They wanted to stop being thought of as “less than.” Dieng understood this well.

“I’ve always struggled with my identity,” he said. “I talk a certain way, I act a certain way, so people will say I talk white or act white, and that puts a problem of criminality as inherent in the image of a black man, and that in itself is a problem. I want to examine how that can happen.”

He scrapped the music talk and switched to something he thought could contribute to the conversation on campus—the idea of “law and order.” The political rhetoric behind law and order was famously used by Richard Nixon, but Dieng traces it beyond that. He points to law and order as a way of assuaging middle-class white fears and then examines the policies that stemmed from it. These policies disadvantaged black Americans and led to a feedback loop.

“When you have policies that turn communities into police states, crime’s going to happen,” he said. “You’re then going to have a call for more of the rhetoric and more of the policies, and then the media’s going to get involved, and that has such a disastrous effect on the black community … and it starts with the rhetoric. It’s maintained, proven, and sustained by the rhetoric.”

Three weeks after witnessing the massive crowd of students gathering to rally, protest, and be heard—Dieng hopes that his voice will spark the same sort of dialogue among those who hear it and that maybe someone like him will be inspired to take on the issues in their own way.

Elyse Mackenzie

Elyse Mackenzie found that you can’t always bring up neuroscience at a party and expect a lot of interest. Nevertheless, she has been fascinated with the subject since before arriving at BC. While witnessing her grandfather and a close friend suffer from neurodegenerative diseases, Mackenzie, MCAS ’19, was intrigued by the science behind it all. So when it came time for the college process, she made sure to apply to schools with rigorous neuroscience programs that would provide a sturdy foundation from which she could go on to pursue a Ph.D.

In the summer before coming to BC, Mackenzie interned at a children’s hospital in New Jersey, working with kids who suffered extreme brain injuries. This experience solidified her passion for neuroscience and she arrived on move-in day ready to learn. Mackenzie now works in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (CAN) Lab with Elizabeth Kensinger, a professor in the psychology department. Under Kensinger, Mackenzie began her work studying eye-tracking data from sleeping subjects. From those sleepless Monday nights in the lab, Mackenzie grew curious about the neuroscience of memory. In her talk, Mackenzie will discuss the neuroscience of memory, specifically how it relates to study habits. She also will provide insight into what we can do to limit memory loss as we age.

Mackenzie says that her time in the CAN Lab has done more than educate her about memory.

“It’s opened my eyes to understanding people,” Mackenzie said. “When people act a certain way that others dislike, I know there’s a reason behind that and knowing that has made me more understanding and more accepting.”

Carlande Nicolas

When Carlande Nicolas, MCAS ’18, walked into a safe home on Massachusetts’ North Shore, her world changed. The shelter was secret, an unmarked building hidden among others in the Boston area, where people slipped in and out every day, trying not to draw attention to themselves. They were battered and vulnerable, victims of abuse and exploitation, who sought out the shelter as a place to find food, clothing, and rest hidden away from those who had hurt them and would hurt them again if given the chance. The victims of sex trafficking live there for a few months, during which they receive counseling services and other resources to help them recover. Others who entered the shelter, like Nicolas, were volunteers, looking for a chance to help.

Working in the shelter as part of a learning and service program called “Modern Day Slavery,” which was aimed at combatting sex trafficking, Nicolas saw firsthand the pain that sex trafficking causes.

“I was able to hear a lot of the stories from the women, and it was just really eye-opening, dry, and real,” she said. “So that whole experience motivated me and really sparked my passion.”

This passion drove her to keep working against sex trafficking after the program ended. She wants to advocate for reform and assistance to prevent this abuse and help the victims.

“I hope that number one, [BC students] know that sex trafficking happens,” she said. “It happens in Boston. It happens in Newton.”

One way to combat sex trafficking, she said, is through safe harbor laws, which each state can add to their existing sex trafficking legislation. These laws prevent children from being arrested for prostitution. By not criminalizing them, the focus can be shifted to helping them escape the trafficking cycle. But a number of states have not passed safe harbor laws—Nicolas hopes her talk will help shed light on this. For BC students specifically, she hopes that her talk will make them realize how close to home the problem really is and take the time to educate themselves and try to fight it.

Jan van Merkenstein

In 10th grade, Jan van Merkenstein, MCAS ’18, was playing pickup soccer when he took a fall and hit his head. It was the kind of injury that might be expected and brushed off, but the pain of the hit didn’t go away. Even after the immediate pain left, Merkenstein started experiencing headaches, vertigo, and light sensitivity. He couldn’t go outside—the sun sent needles of pain through his head. He couldn’t use his computer—no brightness setting was low enough. He couldn’t even read—tracing his eyes left to right across the page hurt. The symptoms were clear. He had a serious concussion, and for six months, he couldn’t go back to school.

The memory lingered long after the pain left, and when Merkenstein left for college he found an opportunity to channel it. He started working for the Stanford Concussion and Brain Performance Center. Every summer, he went out to California and experienced the virtual reality technology they were developing. This technology is a way of assessing the symptoms of the concussed by tracing their eye movement in relation to a dot. It is just one of the major strides forward in the understanding of concussions over the past five years. The serious long-term danger of concussions, specifically the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), poses a serious threat to anyone playing a contact sport, especially football players.

“We should care for our athletes and not just use them as a source of income,” he said.

He sees cultural shifts coming as our understanding of concussions grows and hopes that BC can diversify its sports culture to accommodate these changes. As big expenditures go toward new practice and playing facilities, he’d like to see more focus on sports other than football and imagines that larger alterations in sports culture will spur this kind of change.

“I think using our sports as a base to build ourselves is a really tremendous thing to do, and I get that as a tactic,” he said. “But I think we need to move on and re-identify a new identity for ourselves.”

Soojin Park

The idea for Soojin Park’s talk started with the most dreaded and uncomfortable of encounters: a conversation with her Uber driver. After spending several minutes trying to find the car, Park, MCAS ’19, got in the backseat with a pout.

“This is the worst Uber driver in the world,” she thought to herself.

Her driver was equally annoyed with her tardiness, but after getting stuck in traffic, the two started talking. Park immigrated to the United States from South Korea when she was younger and her driver originated from Ghana. They compared their experiences and Park soon learned her driver’s daughter was in medical school, an aspiration of Park’s since she first arrived at BC. It was then that Park realized her clear-cut, absolute judgements about the driver were terribly misguided. She resolved to make an effort to avoid black-and-white judgements like the one she made before getting in the Uber and, with her talk hopes to instill in others a similar mindfulness.

Park sees dichotomous thinking all around her. As an orientation leader this past summer, she was a bit taken back by how many of her freshmen said they felt certain about their pre-med track, even though they had yet to take a college-level science class. Park noted that last year only 20 BC graduates went on to medical school.

“It makes me question how sure people are,” Park said. “Because they may think that they are but I think it’s more that they feel pressured to feel that way.”

Park wants to remind BC students that there is nothing wrong with being uncertain. Her talk, “The Gray Area: we crave absolutes, but life is full of infinite complexities,” will explore the uncertainty and nuance of the world around us. She hopes her audience will reflect on their own lives and find comfort in that uncertainty.

“I think it’s better to admit you don’t know,” Park said. “Instead of forcing yourself to set your mind to one thing and later learning you don’t like it.”

Adam Martin

Adam Martin doesn’t want you to freak out. That’s why he’s giving his talk. As a news junkie,  Martin, MCAS ’20, notices a trend of bombastic concerns that Donald Trump’s presidency will lead to a dictatorship or nuclear war. As an avid student of history, he realizes this isn’t the first time some Americans were unsure of the future.

“There have clearly been other times when we thought we were at risk of an existential threat,” Martin said. “During the New Deal, a lot of people thought FDR was going to become a dictator due to his rapid expansion of the government during peacetime.”

Martin finds comfort in a split he notices in the current Republican Party. He observes principled conservatives, like Rand Paul, who fight for limited government because they genuinely believe in its value. He also recognizes moderate Republicans, such as Dean Heller, who pledge ideological allegiance to Ronald Reagan but cannot afford to staunchly oppose some social programs because much of their working-class bases depend on such programs. Because Republican legislators rely on state elections, they cannot always afford to act in the name of pure conservatism and this forces them to compromise.

Democrat or Republican, no politician can afford to make severely partisan decisions without alienating some part of their base, Martin believes. With reference to other polarizing politicians in American history, he plans to discuss the implications of his observation for the current presidency, as well as what it means for the future of the Republican Party, and American politics as a whole.

“Donald Trump does not act alone,” Martin said. “He still has to work with a Congress. Political change is a lot more difficult and the constitutional system is a lot more stable than some might believe.”

Grace Chung

In Spring 2017, in preparation for her law school applications, Chung, MCAS ’18, was doing community organizing work in Georgia for Jon Ossoff’s campaign for the 6th congressional special election when she noticed the feedback she was receiving from citizens fetishized her Asian heritage and dismissed her because of her gender. She decided she wasn’t going to ignore these vulgar comments, and she’s using her talk to respond.

After talking with her fellow campaign workers, Chung concluded the crude responses she received from strangers were different in that hers were the only ones that mentioned race. This got Chung thinking about what it means to be an Asian woman and a woman of color. She points out that the Asian community has not been the most diligent in supporting its brothers and sisters of color in their own struggles.

“If we can start with advocating for the basic male to female equality, people will wake up and realize this is why so many other communities feel oppressed,” Chung said.

She hopes to raise awareness about efforts the Asian community can make to be more inclusive of women. She believes that activism for the inclusion of women is the first step the Asian community can take in a larger effort of solidarity with other communities of color. But she doesn’t think students need to sign up with campaigns or organizations to seek change.

“Activism doesn’t just end once the campaign does,” Chung said. “You’re always an activist.”

Branden Lee

Branden Lee, MCAS ’18, never thought doing debate in high school would lead to an existential crisis. He started debating, as many students do, and learned to enjoy the arguments and the logical points behind them. As he explored the field, he delved into philosophical debate and more elevated, complicated approaches to abstract concepts. At a National Speech and Debate Association tournament called “Big Questions,” he found one argument that had an alarming conclusion—under science there is no room for free will.

“All of our decisions and all of our actions come from our brain,” Lee said. “Our brain essentially is determined by genes and environment … those are externally determined. We don’t get to decide where we’re born, or if we’re born or not, or what genes we’re born with.”

This restriction creates a determinism that restricts choice. A child born in Melbourne to an independently wealthy single mother with exceptionally high intelligence and another child born in Moscow to a poor family with 10 other children and a genetic predisposition toward athletic skills will obviously have different lives. But their lives and decisions, Lee says, are not their own. All of those external factors, forced on them at birth and through life circumstances, restrict their decisions and remove their free will.

Lee’s talk goes beyond this argument and into its implications. When he examined the question of free will closely, he found that his own assumptions were shaken and that he began questioning his own beliefs.

“Can I really go on not believing in a God, if I believe that free will doesn’t exist?” he said.

The possibility of a creator and what human life means if our decisions—even criminal ones—are forced on us opens up massive philosophical possibilities. Lee hopes these questions will open a door for students who listen to his talk and that, despite the uncomfortable possibilities on the other side, they will step through and follow him in his search for truth.

Featured Image by Meg Dolan / Heights Editor

November 5, 2017