NIKI CHEN: Find your fit


Exploring the effects of illicit drugs on the human brain, Niki Chen aims to dispel the stigma associated with drug addiction - primarily the view that victims of addiction are in some form 'weak'. Moving from Hong Kong to Melbourne to study, Chen was confronted by the laid back nature of Australian culture and the inconsistent labels given to people who move countries.

Niki Chen has just finished her thesis and see’s her future as working at Bunnings due to a love of hardware and handy work.


THE PIN. Where did you grow up?
NIKI CHEN. I was born in Hong Kong where my family lived after fleeing mainland China. We moved to Melbourne when I was around two years old, as my family were afraid of what was going to happen when Hong Kong (a former British Colony) was handed back to China. After we came to Melbourne my dad passed away so we went back to Hong Kong when I was five. After high school I came back to Melbourne for my undergrad, then I did my honours and now, I’m just doing my PhD.

That’s the whole thing [laughs].

So when you came back to Melbourne, were there cultural differences that really stood out to you when you returned as an adult? Did you have culture shock?
N. Yes, there was a huge amount of culture shock and I really did not like living here for a few years. I went to boarding school in Melbourne and the school was really different. I was surprised by how undisciplined everyone was. Students were just feral, yelling and screaming, and they didn’t care what the teacher said. I thought that was shocking.

Oh, and I went to a single sex school! That was weird. That was so weird. We don’t have them in Hong Kong, they’re all co-ed. Oh yeah, and people were racist in a different way to when I went to an international school in Hong Kong where even after 1997, there was still this colonialism.

What kind of racism did you experience in Australia compared to in Hong Kong?
N. It was really different. Expats in Hong Kong are the minority but in Australia I was not an expat, I was an immigrant and that is a different relationship.

I think it’s funny...not funny ha-ha, how white Australians here are like ‘oh, immigrants, they don’t assimilate and they don’t learn the language and they don’t, you know, learn the culture and stuff’ and all of my white friends in Hong Kong including some that had lived there for 15 years, didn’t know Cantonese or much of the culture either and it is not seen as a negative thing even though what they’re doing is just the same as the people they complain about in their own country

Coming to Australia from another country, is there an Australian culture?
N. Yeah! Totally! Absolutely! And it’s really different. It’s funny you say that because people would be like, ‘oh my gosh, you have an accent’ and I’d be like ‘you have an accent too’ and they’d be like ‘no I don’t’ [laughs].

That’s the thing, when you’re in it, you don’t really see it. What is Australian culture? Um, being laid back; the ‘she’ll be right’ thing; being a dickhead [laughs]. I think it’s also being less ambitious, there is less of an emphasis placed on ambition. Even though there are some ambitious people here. There are also more obvious contrasts like how Chinese culture is a collectivist culture that places a lot more importance on the family unit, sort of like filial piety, deference to authority, stuff like that, which I don’t think we get here. People don’t understand it.

When you were growing up, were the things you questioned as important to you as they are now?
N. Yeah. Every Sunday we’d have dinner with the whole family at my grandparents house which was a part of respecting your elders and spending time with your family. I’d be like ‘every Sunday..I wanna play Pokemon’ but now I wish that I had paid more attention to them.

It was also hard because we didn’t speak the same language. So we’d have really basic level conversations about food, obviously,just so that we could communicate. It wasn’t til I was much older that someone told me that my grandmother wasn’t actually speaking Cantonese. I thought she was actually speaking Cantonese it just turned out that she had a weird accent because she was really old and, in fact, was speaking Shanghainese...weird.

Do you think understanding a culture is important to identity?
N. I hadn’t really thought about that before. I spent all of my childhood and youth doing certain things because my family were really traditional. But I never really thought about what we were doing as being a part of the culture. I guess as I got older, I began to really appreciate more and more those cultural specificities that I got to experience. Having an appreciation for that totally helps you form your identity.

That feeling of being caught in the middle, and being 'othered' by both of these parts of your identity, your Chinese relatives will be like ‘you’re not very Chinese are you?’ and your white friends will be like ‘you’re not white’ [laughs]. People are going to judge you based on how you look so it’s good to be like, ‘yeah I am, and it’s awesome’. When I was younger I had a more nebulous idea of my identity and felt like a bit of an impostor. When people judged me based on how I looked I’d question ‘am I that?'

To move into science, what drew you into it? Have you always been interested?
N. I’ve always been into science. I love science. When I finished high school there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to study science. I was actually considering physics as well because I had questions like 'what is the world and how does everything come into being?’, then I thought well, actually, the brain is the thing that generates the world and what it is. You can only know the world through your experience of it, and your brain generates that experience.  From this I got really interested in neuroscience. Tripping on acid is an experience that you realise is all in the brain but you can trick your brain into thinking something totally different. When I got into neuroscience I wanted to study drugs because I'd had my own struggles with the bad side of drugs and that feeling of compulsion. When I saw an honours project on cocaine and behavioural neuroscience, and how your brain makes decisions, I thought that was a really interesting question and what I wanted to study.

I know you’ve already explained it to me but can you explain ‘the cocaine thing’?
N. Yeah, I was really interested in addiction because there is such a huge stigma around addiction and people are still having a hard time accepting it as a mental disorder. Certainly, that’s true for all mental disorders, maybe less so for schizophrenia and things like that, but definitely anxiety and depression, people still...

THE PIN. ...see it as a sign of weakness…?
N. Yes, yes exactly. I think that’s especially true of addiction because people judge a person by their actions, behaviour and the decisions they make. It’s hard to understand a disease of decision making because isn’t that who you are? So my research looks at the underlying neurobiology of addiction and anxiety disorders using mouse models and genetically engineered viruses and pharmaceuticals.

I am interested to see how the conversation around that progresses and if people will look at it differently to how they used to.
N. It is very much something that interacts with societal factors because not everybody that takes drugs will become addicted and there is a drug exposure component. If you are exposed to drugs in your social environment or in your family environment then you are more likely to at some point try it. Then there is the genetic component and your environment, as in stresses that you experience. Those have a really strong influence on your disposition to become addicted. Drug addiction is associated with and disproportionately affects people of lower socioeconomic groups because they tend to be exposed to more stressful conditions. People use class to dismiss the 'other' and think “Oh, they are scummy people and they become addicted and it’s because they have no willpower’.

Then you have people who are regarded as being quite high functioning, who are probably equally as addicted, but wealthy enough to maintain the appearance…
N. Exactly, exactly! They are more immune to the detrimental effects because they have a lot of other support and privileges.

What does it mean to be a female working in science? Is it changing?
N. In biological sciences, at least at the PhD student and post-doc level, it’s a pretty even gender balance. Although, you know, all of the higher-ups are men. I guess I am pretty lucky because one of my lab heads is Jee, who is South-Korean and a woman, and the youngest lab head we’ve had, and a total fucking bad-ass. She’s just like, 'girls are smarter' and most of the lab is female and all really pro-feminists but, I guess...yeah, definitely, science is macho.

Do you have any role models and if so, who are they?
N. My lab head, Jee; my mum and my step-sister’s mum. I don’t know anyone that I’m like ‘oh, you’re just like me!’, so you have to pick and choose the aspects of certain people and ignore what you find shitty about them.

Do you get asked where you’re from, how often does it happen and how do you respond?
N. Yeah, I guess because of my accent and because I’m Asian. How do I respond? I just say I’m from Hong Kong because I cannot be bothered. I have a scripted line...

'I’m from Hong Kong'
Oh really, you have an accent?
'My mums Canadian'

...which she is but that has nothing to do with my accent. People just want to categorise you in their head. 

What does it mean to be who you are in today’s society?
N. There’s no community of queer, female, person of colour scientists. Maybe there is! Maybe there is a secret society out there?! I’ve got my scientist friends, I’ve got my queer friends and I’ve got my straight friends. Some of them intersect, sort of, and a few friends are Asian. I know that I don’t fully belong to any of those things but I just need to not be bothered and not emphasise the ways in which we are different, but enjoy the ways we can interact and how we’re similar.

THE Pin. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you’re in, what would it be?
NIKI CHEN. My younger self...some advice...I love my life now and there is nothing that I would go back and change, who knows what would’ve happened if I had. I guess the only real one thing I can say is don’t waste so much time feeling rejected because you won’t care about that when you’re older. It’s a waste of time.

- This interview has been edited and condensed

Photo credit: Niki Chen