Paksy Plackis-Cheng: A Beautiful Dialogue Between Science and Humanities

Paksy Plackis-Cheng: A Beautiful Dialogue Between Science and Humanities

During the Nanovalbruna festival a few students from the editorial staff of Messaggero Veneto Scuola were offered opportunities to interview conference’s participants.  Emanuele Quagliaro (18) interviewed Paksy Plackis-Cheng, founder of impactmania, who joined the NanoValbruna conference.

By Emanuele Quagliaro

What do you do and why did you start your business?

I am the founder of impactmania and a Senior Fellow at the University of California, in Santa Barbara (UCSB) where I create interdisciplinary learning programs for students. These programs have at their core connections between humanities and science.

NanoValbruna is a perfect example of learning from nature and then developing things in science to benefit humanity, right?

There should be a beautiful dialogue between science and humanities. How do we solve societal issues with the help of science? And obviously, science is very informed by nature.

How do these programs work?

I created an internship at the university. My students explore a theme annually, and conduct research by speaking with experts in the field. Similar to what you are doing over the next couple days here at Valbruna.

We learn from people who are driving cultural, social, and economic impacts. So, the students seek experts in their fields, connect, and learn from them to share the findings through novel ways of presenting it to the public.

This year we’re coming out with a magazine to share our findings for example. The coming academic year continues the theme around the human mind and migration — people movement. You’re from this region in Italy, right?

Yes. It is difficult to find someone who has not moved out because this is quite a poor region. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were many people who left the area — to America, for example, and to regions in Italy such as Lombardy. People tend to migrate because this territory does not offer many opportunities until now.

When you migrate even within a country, you are facing another culture, sometimes even another language, right? We have to adapt. We are looking at what happens in our brain when we move. How does our brain adapt to a new situation? How do people at the destination point experience the newcomers in their midst?

We are looking at societal issues and also looking at the impact behind it. Every year, we explore a different theme.

For instance, last year, what was the theme?

Last year, the program was Women of Impact. We interviewed hundreds of women in 30 different countries who drive impact — renowned scientists, award winning musicians and TV makers, entrepreneurs, ambassadors. Women who drive change in different industries. We then connected these women with one another and with the next generation of impact makers.

What is impactmania? Can you explain it in a few words?

Yes, impactmania is a program development firm. We create programs for organizations or academia to better connect with the community.

Okay, not only technology programs but also social?

Exactly! Especially from a social standpoint because the technology or research we’re looking into should strive to have an impact — whether it’s social, cultural, or economical.

How did you get to the point where you are now? I saw that impactmania has a Wikipedia page?

The Wikipedia page is fairly new; you have done your homework! We’re very honored with the Wikipedia entry because Wikipedia no longer easily accepts entries, especially not in the U.S.

My career started out in tech, so that is the private sector. Then I served in nonprofit organizations and now as an entrepreneur partnering with academia. So I look at things from different sectors. I believe that not one sector holds the truth or the answer — meaning we have to collaborate.

Why did you opt for this sector, which is not particularly the way people go about it. How did you come up with the idea?

Frustration. 

When you watch the news, don’t you often ask yourself what’s going on with our world? I was really frustrated with the media, how the media portray things. You are writing for a newspaper, you must have heard the saying, “If it doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t lead,” right?

Yes. The first time we entered the newsroom, we were told: “This is not academia, this is not a philanthropic association, here we sell words.”

That’s okay. I understand that, but what happens is, when you look around, there are amazing things happening. People, scientists, artists, even politicians — once in a while — do amazing things, but that doesn’t get covered because that’s not sexy enough. It doesn’t sell newspapers, right?

It does not sell.

Right, so because we don’t talk about that anymore, people have a really one-sided view of what’s happening in the world. That breeds polarization. Plus, when they want to do something, they feel hopeless. They think, “I can’t. What am I going to do?” They don’t know there are people making a difference, let alone connecting with the people who are driving change.

Therefore people sit around and are not part of positive change, everybody just looks at each other and says, “Well, the world is a mess.” And worse, “These people are to blame for it.”

I single handedly decided that I was going to change it!

While creating the 130 Women of Impact book, what do you think is the role of women in everyday society? Do they now have the recognition they deserve?

I think women’s work is still definitely under the radar screen. I started this project before the #metoo movement and now a lot of media outlets are finally saying, “We need to make sure that we cover women also and put women on expert panels.” But look at your own mother, right? Tell me about her.

Well, my mother is a lawyer.

And she’s not only a lawyer, right? 

Yes, she also manages the entire house. And if not for her, I think everything would have collapsed. My father was so busy with his work as a lawyer, too, so my mother has to attend to a job and take care of us because me and my sister are kind of messy.

If it wasn’t for moms and grandmothers, our families would collapse, neighborhoods would collapse. Communities would collapse. I think women are the hidden engines that keep things working. But the work that women do is not valued.

I’m attracted by the way philosophers think and by the way they explain things. There’s nothing so certain as science alleges it to be. Even with the coronavirus. There were plenty of doctors going on television; each one telling coronavirus did not exist. Socrates says that there are people looking at the stars, but they are not looking at the self.

I appreciate that statement. Philosophy and humanities in general need to be valued, similar in the way that we need to value everyone’s contributions in society. The globe is lopsided because humans have grossly overvalued some things over others. And devaluing some roles over others. That is why we have this imbalance, and that does not work as we have seen.

I also think that you are right about people not looking at the self. There is this quote by Rumi: “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

You’re teaching in the U.S. What do you think are the most important pros and the cons of the academic system?

Most people know that our education system globally is falling behind. Our education system does not know how to prepare young people for the future. And that’s why my internship is very different. It’s a very practical springboard to the rest of your career. It is looking at solving issues collaboratively and how to build a network of people around you. People who can help you on your way exposing you to things that you may not be able to easily find on your own or it would take decades for you to figure out.

I always say to the students, you just joined a startup. And in a startup, you learn to do a little bit of everything. You have to be very adaptable. You have to be very creative and resourceful. I have students from different disciplines who have to work together. A biologist has to learn to work with an economist; they in turn have to work with an anthropologist.

That’s how we learn to collaborate and look at themes — challenges — from different perspectives. We have to learn from each other. 

Even though I lived in England for two or three years still I have many problems with the language and I have an audible accent. I wonder about the fact that you speak Cantonese.

That is from growing up in a Chinese household. I’ve never lived in Hong Kong. I only understand and speak the language! Dutch is my native language. I’m very Dutch culturally. Then, living in the U.S. for 18 years has formed me greatly. I think the older you get, the more you appreciate that you’ve been exposed to different cultures. And languages provide a great insight into the spirit of a culture. I have the luxury to pick and choose what I like from different cultures.

That explains why you’re so interested in adaptation of the brain, when moving from one to another place.

Yes, I am a serial migrant! I am serially and continuously moving around the world.

About the Author:

impactmania features people and projects that drive cultural, social, and economic impact. This is to inspire, involve, and connect current and next-generation’s impact makers.
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