Finding Purpose Through Reincarnations and Transitions

Dr. Vivienne Ming is a theoretical neuroscientist, entrepreneur, and data science aficionado. In 2013, she was named one of "10 Women to Watch in Tech" by Inc. Magazine for her work developing a new model for predicting glucose levels in diabetics and manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder. In addition, she is an outspoken advocate for diversity in tech. Dr. Ming — who is a transgender woman — has had a unique comeback story: she dropped out of college and became homeless, before eventually returning and finishing a Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University in Psychology and Theoretical Neuroscience. Inspired by her personal struggles, Dr. Ming decided to devote her life's research to analyzing purpose.

This feature is an aggregate of multiple informal conversations we had with Dr. Ming. Transcript edited for clarity.

Stories worth noting:

1) From dropping out of college to graduating at the top of her class
2) Hacking into her son's glucose monitor and making it ten times better
3) How to "die and reincarnate" into different dream careers
4) Vivienne's transition
5) Using data to track inequality in the workplace

Could you tell us a bit about your lowest point and eventual comeback?

Actually, in the very beginning, when I was still a straight white male, life was pretty good. My family wasn’t rich but we were well off. However, I was a very unhappy kid who couldn’t find any success in school, had a very small group of friends, and couldn’t figure out why I should make an effort at anything. I faced immense pressure from my dad, who expected me to be a kicker in the NFL and a Nobel Prize winner at the same time.

Sal Khan Commencement Address

Vivienne, pre-transition, as Evan Smith graduating college in May 2000.

After high school, I effectively flunked out of college, became homeless, and lived out of my car. All of the wonderful things I started off with, I squandered by the time I was 20. And with most stories like this, it involved intimate moments with suicide. There was a point in time in which I sat in my car in the middle of the night with a loaded gun shoved into my mouth and my finger on the trigger. I mention it not because it’s what I want to highlight, but rather because such moments incite real change in your life.

It’s not the beautiful moments that matter, but the moments in which you need a reason to be alive.

What reason did you find that night?

Well, nothing came to me so I had to make one for myself. If I would never be truly happy, my purpose was to make everyone else’s life better. Maybe this comes off as a la-di-da perspective, but slowly, I got myself back into life from one small job to another. None of them made me happy, but that’s not the point. The point is that with small steps, I proved that I could actually take care of myself. I saved enough money to go back to school and finish the last half of my degree in under a year. What changed was that I went back to school for a specific purpose — to make other people better.

It seems like many college students today struggle to find that purpose. It just seems like such an intangible concept.

Whatever you are doing right now, whether you like it or not, go all in. Your parents are forcing you to be an engineer even though you want to be something else? Go all in and be the best engineer you can be.

For example, years ago I made a new glucose monitor for my son, who has Type 2 Diabetes, and it worked better than anything readily available at the time. The doctors fitted him with a monitor that could notify you of an imminent low blood sugar episode twenty minutes after the first drop was detected. Twenty minutes! That’s a lifetime for a worried-to-death mother!

Sal Khan Commencement Address

Vivienne with her wife, Norma, and their two children.

I probably broke a few laws, but — for lack of a better word — I "hacked” into his monitor to see how it obtained data, and decided I could do much better. I had my son wear a Fitbit and countless other tracking devices for months. After downloading all of the data and running tests, I finally settled on a model that could actually predict his first blood sugar drop twenty minutes in advance! I could have just stayed content with the current data and technology. Instead, I decided to create something that makes people better off.

So is this the key to finding purpose and happiness? Be insanely good at something? What if your first guess isn’t the right one?

Be ready to move on and find the next thing. You need to be ready to die and start over again.

So you just became the best engineer — now die and reincarnate as a journalist. Then an entrepreneur. A writer. A politician.

All my richest moments in life have been these moments of transition. You combine everything you learned from the last life with the problems and tools of the new life, and make things nobody has ever thought of before.

Some of those moments have come out of the blue. I began working in a theoretical neuroscience lab because a professor recommended me. I had no background in machine learning at that point. We were researching the use of artificial intelligence to analyze real-time lie detection in videos for the CIA. Later, I used that same tech to help autistic kids read facial expressions and to help refugees find lost family members from facial recognition in grainy pictures. Being able to have such an impact was huge for me.

Have you walked away from anything huge because it didn’t align with your purpose?

Yeah — I declined Uber’s offer to be their Chief Scientist. Taking this position meant becoming ridiculously wealthy and powerful, but my purpose isn’t self-driving cars or making Travis Kalanick ridiculously rich. I walked away because my purpose is just to help people.

Amazon had a better pitch. At the time, they were about to reach 100,000 employees and wanted me to figure out how to motivate such a large workforce. It was quite the opportunity — helping 100,000 people at once! I live for this so I offered to do it for free, but they never got back to me.

Given LGBT Pride Month happened recently, and the political news around transgender discrimination, we wanted to hear the story of your transition.

I worried about transitioning for a very long time, especially since I was working at my first job at a small company in Texas. In any other life, it could’ve gone horribly. Surprisingly, my boss and coworkers were so accepting. They didn’t treat me any differently afterwards. Sure, they tripped up here and there with the name and pronouns, and some asked odd questions that were only out of genuine curiosity. But overall, their support made the process that much easier. That was a key step to becoming happy.

What I said earlier about dying and being reborn again? This was one of those moments. It was complete chance that I came out on my birthday. It’s a literal birthday with double meaning.

Gender transition isn’t just about gender. It’s about making yourself a better person.

Gender has been a big part of not just your identity, but also of your work on diversity in the workplace. Your article, The Tax on Being Different, is a groundbreaking, data-focused look into discrimination in hiring practices.

I’ve always been interested in this. It was something I wanted to solve as Chief Scientist at Gild, a startup that was trying to change the hiring and promotion process through software that ranks candidates by measurable skills and hides any information that may bias the recruiter. For most employment decisions, everything amounts to an “annual 360” in which the manager is the only one in charge of making recommendations for promotion or hire. All of this is terrible. Women and people of color are being systematically undervalued.

My research shows that women tend to do more untracked and uncompensated work than men, but only get recognition for 50 percent of what men get recognition for.

Why would women ever want to enter the workforce then? If I’m building a human resources system, I’m building one in which I’m tracking all of your emails, Slack conversations, and movements in the building. If she meets with someone outside of her team and I see that this other team is more productive, she’s having twice the impact on this company than what her direct manager might see from just formal data, like a survey.

(Editor's note: For more information, see Vivienne's video on The Anatomy of a Hire.)

Data analytics is in everything now. What’s the best way to get students interested?

Start off by looking at data that’s already there. So many people are trying to predict data now but we can learn so much by observing natural things around us. Humans behave naturally, but tests, models, and surveys are in no way natural.

When people think of data, they think you just need people to fill out survey forms. In truth, simple things like tracking the trajectory of your cursor across the survey form on a computer screen and seeing how it shifts towards alternate boxes is informative. By tracking the cursor, you are measuring the person’s behavior and personality — latent things that otherwise can be inaccessible.

(Editor’s note: At Penn, MKTG351, taught by Michael Platt, teaches neuroscience marketing. Students in this class are able to use Wharton's "secret" eye-tracking lab.)


Disclaimers: The views presented here are solely those of the interviewee. They do not represent Socos, Uber, or any of the other individuals or institutions named above.

Header photo courtesy of Business Journal.

Laura Gao

Aspiring designer, entrepreneur, writer and everything in between.

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