37: Vivienne Ming
theoretical neuroscientist and entrepreneur

photos by Cindy Chou

Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded Socos, where machine learning and cognitive neuroscience combine to maximize students’ life outcomes. Vivienne is also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Redwood Center for Theoretical Neuroscience, where she pursues her research in neuroprosthetics. In her free time, Vivienne has developed a predictive model of diabetes to better manage the glucose levels of her diabetic son and systems to predict manic episodes in bipolar suffers. She sits on the boards of StartOut, The Palm Center, Emozia, Engender, and Genderis Inc., and is a Chief Science Advisor to Cornerstone Capital, Platypus Institute, Shiftgig, and Bayes Impact. Dr. Ming also speaks frequently on issues of LGBT inclusion and gender in technology. Vivienne lives in Berkeley, CA, with her wife and their two children.

Cindy Chou is a photographer, creator, and Urban Studies student at UC Berkeley.

This interview was conducted over Skype by Sophia Richards on October 23, 2017. Cindy Chou photographed the conversation in Vivienne's Berkeley office.

SOPHIA: I begin every interview asking people to tell me about their experience of girlhood, but I think for you, I’ll ask two different questions. What was your experience of boyhood? And during that time, what did girlhood mean to you?


VIVIENNE: I wish as much as almost anything that I had an answer to your original question. One thing is clear, which is that I was always a different kid. This isn't to say that I or anyone else knew what that meant. I wasn’t particularly effeminate, but I always felt different. I didn't “get” a lot of what it meant to be a boy. 

I was good at sports; I even hold some track and field records at my old high school —or at least I assume I do, because I don't go into that locker room anymore. But it was just never “me.” I always felt like such an outsider in kind of everything. 

For some people, it’s clear right from the beginning. I sit on the board of a summer camp for kids who are, as we call them, “gender-expansive.” The majority of them will probably never undergo any traditional notion of transition, but at this point in their lives, they're exploring. But that wasn't really me. Maybe it was the times —the seventies. Maybe it was that my dad grew up on a farm. [Gender-expansiveness] was certainly never a clear option. 

It wasn't until high school when I realized that, the girls I wanted to date, I also just wanted to be my girlfriend —in the way girls use the term. We'd hang out together and sort of giggle and have fun. I did my best to play the role of being a boy, but I felt so much more affinity for all the young women around me. 

It was also around this time that my father insisted that I play football. As I said, everyone knew that I was different. My father was a wonderful man, but I think he kind of failed in this circumstance. He insisted that I play football with some slightly demented notion that it would be prophylactic against turning gay. Bit of a backfire. As I often jokingly say, it was out on the football field that I realized I was playing for the wrong team. 

And interestingly, this actually mirrors a lot of research. There's great research that displays, out of seventeen different intervention methods, the only effective way to build empathy for other people is called a counter-stereotypical exemplar, in which the subject simultaneously witnesses violations of their typical negative stereotype and negative presentations of the nominal positive stereotype. And by that, I mean being on a football field with a bunch of teenagers just reeking of testosterone, with grown men essentially behaving in the same way. It was so unappealing to me. 

In some ways, that life is hard to remember. All of it. It feels so distant to me now. I felt so disconnected from everything around me, but coming to that understanding didn’t change anything. In fact, it's probably when my insomnia started. It's almost certainly when my eating disorder started. [I was experiencing] all these things that are a bane for boys and girls, and so stereotypical of people having body-issues. They all really hit me once I came to the realization [that I did not want to be male], and unfortunately, it took more than twenty years before I was in a position to do anything about it.

In some ways, that life is hard to remember. All of it. It feels so distant to me now.

SOPHIA: I heard you speak about your insomnia, but I've never heard you speak about having an eating disorder. Would you feel comfortable speaking about that in a gendered sense?


VIVIENNE: I don't speak about the eating disorder as much because the insomnia is such a punchline in that it literally disappeared overnight [after my transition.] Even coming out to my then-fiancé didn’t have that same impact. With eating disorders, it’s less instantaneous, because the process of transition is so gradual that there's no immediate moment where you're suddenly looking at the body that you wanted. Bulimia is probably the best description for it. I had it for decades, starting from when I was about twelve years old. To be really blunt, when you hate yourself, you hate your body, and there doesn't seem to be anything you can do about it, it lends itself to this incredible amount of cyclical abuse and regret. I never did drugs. I don't drink. I never have. I don't even drink coffee! But boy, did I abuse food. And I am a bit of a food snob, so I didn't just stuff myself full of Cheetos. I would get fancy food and then waste it. Vomit it out. It was bizarre, and went on for a very long time. 

Before I came out to my wife, I was in astounding shape. I could do headstand pushups and lifted very heavy weights. And [after my transition,] a quarter of my body weight melted away almost immediately. I suppose my logic was: if I’m stuck being a man, let’s try and do that well. But that dysmorphia felt just as bad as being fat and male, or skinny and male. None of it changed anything. Estrogen was the magic. It is the best drug ever developed for anything.

SOPHIA: You’ve spoken about experiencing a huge personality shift when you began hormone therapy. Can you describe that?


VIVIENNE: It's essentially a second puberty, and it was wonderful. The original version I took was injectable and it's like getting injected with molasses. It's very thick and you have to have to use these huge syringes. It’s one of those quirks of being with someone you love; I’m sure my wife did not expect to be jabbing me in the ass with a horse syringe every two weeks. But oh my goodness! It was a transformation. I'd have experiences where I'd just be doing the dishes and suddenly end up in tears —but they were wonderful tears. It was this complete opening up. [Before hormone therapy,] I didn't hug people. I would never share food. I'd work so hard to remain disconnected and hidden and shielded from others, and all of the sudden there’s a needle in my butt filling me with estrogen, and I can get up on a stage and talk to 10,000 people. I can cry in public and hug people. 

To say that I'm a totally different person would be untrue. It feels like I had a fraternal twin and we had grown up together and shared so much, but now he's gone. And it's a little sad. And I'm this other person who's very similar, but different. It's different being happy. It's different being confident. It's different feeling like the most wonderful thing is being a mom. When I came out to my parents, I told them that after I transitioned, I'd be the same person, just happy. And I genuinely thought that. But now, as I'm implying, it doesn't even feel like my life connects up with that old one anymore. Not just that it's diverged, but when I remember my past self, just sort of daydreaming, I feel like I become that person that could answer your first question [about my experience of girlhood]. I can remember myself as me back then. And that person never existed. It's a memory and identity is an amazing creative thing, and I think probably in a very healthy way. I think it's very reparative for me to be able to...in an honest way with myself, to be able to project back a better person that I don't think so negatively of.

Suddenly one day there was Vivienne, and the world made a certain space for me.

SOPHIA: As a neuroscientist, how has your understanding of the social and biological elements of gender changed or been enhanced by your transition?


VIVIENNE: I started with the foundation of my biological understanding, but as you might imagine, I studied up rather exhaustively. There's very little good research about the neuroscience of transition. I mean, very truly nothing. So unfortunately we just have to kind of set that aside for now. Is it motherhood? Is it the estrogen? As a scientist I couldn't tell you what was different about me. Probably a little bit of everything. But to what degree? I wouldn't change any of it for the world.

What does it mean to completely change the hormones that someone has spent their whole life in? In my direction, or in the other direction? It completely changed everything. It's just huge. Men's and women's brains are genuinely different. And almost all of those differences emerge during development due to hormones.

We know this in a variety of different reasons. One of the most famous is a genetic congenital disorder called Congenital Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome. Essentially, the person is born with an X and a Y chromosome, and their initial gonads differentiate into testes and start pumping out testosterone. When you think about these things, it's a little like a lock and key, and the key (the testosterone, the androgens) doesn’t fit into the lock (the cells in your body). So after a little while, it kind of gives up the ghost, and those tiny testes shrivel up and stop putting out any testosterone, and then those women just develop as women. Until they reach their early teens and they don't have their first period, they don't know [that they were born male]. Nobody knows. Who would ever have a reason to look more closely? And it turns out that they are behaviorally, cognitively, and emotionally indistinguishable from XX women. 

But of course I'm different. I grew up in a certain body, and my brain developed a certain way. So what does it mean? One thing I can tell you is, I am a woman. But I have a very different experience with the world than XX women. And socially, in some very positive ways. I am very aware that I didn't grow up with people ogling me. I didn't grow up with people telling me that I couldn't do math or that I shouldn't get married or that the focus of my life should be raising children. Not that every young woman in America succumbs to that, but it influences all of us. And I know that, because it influences me. Almost from day one of my transition, I felt those influences that I had internalized but had never meant anything to me before. Suddenly I start thinking I’m not beautiful enough, I’m not appealing enough, I’m not fitting crazy stereotypes that somehow lurked inside my head.

I obviously made an effort to change my appearance, but I never made an effort to change my behavior. It all just came very naturally. The person I am now is not some scripted character; it’s just the space that the world made for me to be me, plus a whole lot of estrogen. Suddenly one day there was Vivienne, and the world made a certain space for me.  Doors literally got opened. And less pleasant things. People cat-called, and they stopped asking me math questions. 

So my priority shifted to holding onto qualities I cherish about myself that people suddenly didn't seem to value. That I could do math. That I could run a company. It's very clearly communicated to you in Silicon Valley, not that women can’t do business, but you've gotta be special. And it is truly fascinating to feel this wonderful acceptance of yourself mediated through terrible dismissive stereotypes. How do you balance those two feelings? They see me as me, and that's why this guy just patted me on the head.


SOPHIA: [laughs]

VIVIENNE: Five years ago, I'd have punched him. Now I have this incredibly confusing and in some ways disturbing conflict between feeling, “Isn't this something you signed up for?” and “This is disgusting.” I have no resolution to it. 

My childhood is distinctly different from virtually every other woman, and yet I still ended up in this same place. I just got smuggled. I got smuggled into adulthood. I wish I had an honest answer to your first question, but I also respect the fact that I get to see something different than almost everyone else gets to see, and that's pretty special, too.


SOPHIA: Can you talk about your work in artificial intelligence and neuroprosthetics?


VIVIENNE: It's a little different now, because for the last several years of my life, I’ve been the person up on the stage giving a keynote speech, but it used to mean that I would go to a conference and people would just assume that I'm with the marketing team or something. The number of times that young men would explain my algorithms to me is just...oh my goodness. There's a painful desire to punch people when stuff like that starts happening. It’s amazing to realize that your team members, your employees, are staring at your chest when having a conversation with you. Like, wow, I could just bob up and down, and you would nod up and down right along with me!


SOPHIA: [laughs]


IVIENNE: I am very self-possessed. I'm older. That doesn't threaten me. But it’s amazing, how automatic it is, that these employees are essentially openly committing a firing offense to their boss! And I didn’t have to grow up negotiating around these kinds of experiences while I was in a more impressionable period of my life.

Also, losing all of that weight, I suddenly became cold. Just all the time, cold.


SOPHIA: [laughs]


VIVIENNE: I used to joke that in every convention center and conference room, there's a thermostat that has a single tic, and it says, “overweight, middle-aged man in a three-piece suit.”


SOPHIA: [laughs]

You can’t keep going through the world thinking that it’s a meritocracy, thinking that it’s a place where everyone has the same chance at an outcome, because you’ve experienced it both ways.

VIVIENNE: Someone actually tweeted at me that I was right, and it turns out, yes, all the climate science behind air-conditioning is based on exactly that body-type. So that's one of those things that isn't in the pamphlet: “So you've made the bad financial decision of becoming a woman.” Little things like, you're always going to be cold from now on, because every room will be super chilled for men who have too much clothing on. 

But I have found transitioning an almost unreservedly positive experience, even with the negative aspects. Because it changes how you see the world. You can't keep going through the world thinking that it's a meritocracy, thinking that it's a place where everyone has the same chance at an outcome, because you've experienced it both ways. 

It also kind of opens things up in a more, meta- way. It’s worth sympathizing with what guys experience, also. Your body early in life is just a massive wreck full of testosterone driving you to do these crazy stupid things. Not to let anyone off the hook for terrible actions, but you get a sense after a little while that there's real humanity and sympathy in everyone.


SOPHIA: What do you believe that women need or can do for each other presently?


VIVIENNE: I'm sure many women have read about this before, but it was a practice in the Obama White House. Women were feeling like their contributions were not being valued, so they got together and came up with this plan. There would always be at least three women in the room, and if a woman made a good point, two minutes later, a second woman will echo it and attribute it back to her. Three minutes later, the same thing. And that's what it took. Three times before it stuck in people's heads that something was a good idea, and it was her idea. 

That mirrors a lot of my research —if you're familiar with it, the tax on being different. Women genuinely, measurably have to work harder to achieve the same outcomes, as a function of bias. People of color have to do the same. People with disabilities have to do the same. If you're curious, there is one known piece of research about people that transition from female to male actually decreasing the pay gap. Men always get paid more. If you transition from male to female, like me, the pay gap increases rather dramatically. 

But this reinforcing one another is a very tangible thing woman can do for one another, because it actually takes extra work to achieve the same outcomes. And I love their plan because it provided a tangible way to share the burden of that work.

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