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NYU Sydney Professor Petronella Vaarzon-Morel Presents at the Federal Court of Australia and Keynotes Conference

NYU Sydney Professor Petronella Vaarzon-Morel, who teaches Anthropology of Indigenous Australia and Indigenous Australian Art, recently gave a presentation at the Federal Court of Australia as part of a tribute to the contribution of anthropologists to the development of Australian native title law over the last 25 years. Her presentation was on gendered relations to the land and native title business. She also gave a keynote at the annual ANU Centre for Native Title Anthropology Conference  in Perth which this year focused on emerging strategic issues in native title anthropology. The Centre for Native Title Anthropology aims to enhance the practice of native title anthropology in Australia through a series of innovative programs and workshops. The annual conference is a significant event.

NYU Washington D.C. Hosts Briefing on Islamophobia

©NYU Photo Bureau: Creighton

On March 13, NYU Washington D.C.’s John Brademas Center of New York University hosted a briefing, The Roles of Arts & Culture in Addressing Islamophobia. The schedule brought together funders working on these issues and provided an opportunity for leading scholars, thinkers, and activists to share their views.

Islamophobia is escalating rapidly across the country, fueling fear, discrimination and hate crimes against Muslim, Arab and South Asian communities. In recent months, we have borne witness to a growing number of hostile acts including vandalism, intimidation and verbal and physical attacks on vulnerable people. This growing crisis has propelled multidisciplinary funders to seek out new ideas and strategies to be responsive to galloping need.

©NYU Photo Bureau: Creighton

The funders briefing was a day of learning and discussion with creative thought leaders, artists and philanthropy professionals on how arts and culture can diffuse the cultural tensions and “othering” that drive Islamophobia. What is the role of art in shifting cultural narratives? What kind of creative partnerships and collaborations can serve as an effective response to encourage pluralism and harmony in our communities? What meaningful mechanisms currently exist or can be adapted to magnify mutual wellbeing?

This briefing offered a chance for funders to weigh these and other vital questions and propose concrete next steps for action.

The event was also co-hosted by ArtPlace America, Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Ford Foundation, New York Community Trust, New York Foundation, Philanthropy New York.

Former Czech Ambassadors Discuss Trump Presidency at NYU Prague

Two former Czech Ambassadors to the USA- Alexandr Vondra and Michael Zantovsky – recently spoke at NYU Prague about their views on the Trump Presidency.  They were joined by Tomas Klvana, NYU Prague professor and author of the recently published book FenomenTrump (The Trump Phenomenon).

The ambassadors focused primarily on how the new administration could affect European relations – potentially strengthening European countries’ commitment to NATO.  Tomas Klvana, who did his doctorate in the USA, spoke  from a more sociological perspective, siting his theories on why Trump was elected.  He spoke about identity politics, the rapid changes in technology, and how the ability for everyone to instantly publish their views online is affecting public opinion.
The audience – made up of students, professors and members of the public – asked about the panelists’ opinions on the personality of Trump and his affect on society.  It ended with a passionate discussion demonstrating the different perceptions of the definition of an “ordinary American” and how Trump’s term in office could continue to shape those perceptions.
This article is by Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague.

NYU London Professor Philip Woods Publishes New Book on Media Covering the British Retreat from Burma

Today we hear directly from an NYU London Professor, Dr. Philip Woods. Professor Woods teaches two classes at NYU London: Britain and Slavery 1492-1865 and Cultures and Contexts: Multinational Britain. He has been teaching at NYU London for more than fifteen years and says “it has been a really good experience.” Professor Woods also enjoys teaching American study abroad students, saying “They tend to be very enthusiastic and keen to learn about the country they are studying in.” He also is a “firm believer” in the benefits of studying abroad. He has seen students “transformed in terms of their increased confidence and broadened in their understanding of the wider world.” Professor Woods especially “appreciates[s] the importance that US universities, especially NYU, give to study abroad and opening up opportunities regardless of income. The book he recently published and describes in the post below, which involved studying war correspondents, was a new venture for him. Professor Woods describes himself as “still learning,” and notes “I will continue my research looking at media management in the Second World War in the Burma campaign, the longest of the war. |it is interesting how many people have told me about relatives who were involved in the campaign since they heard about my book.”

This post originally appeared on the South Asia @ LSE blog of the London School of Economics and Political Science. It is available here.
The beginning of the end of Empire? Reassessing the reporting of the British retreat in Burma

The British-Indian army fighting in Burma during 1942 is sometimes misleadingly referred to as a ‘Forgotten Army’. In fact, the army’s long retreat was given good coverage in the western press which provided twenty-six correspondents to cover the campaign. Philip Woods’s new book is the first scholarly analysis of media coverage of this retreat, focusing on newsreel, magazine and newspaper correspondents. It argues for the historical value of the journalists’ contribution, most especially in their published memoirs. The book has implications for the study of journalism and the history of Burma and India.

The British defeat in Burma at the hands of the Japanese in 1942 marked the longest retreat in British army history and the beginning of the longest campaign in the war. It also, arguably, marked the beginning of the end of British rule, not only in Burma but also in south and south east Asia more broadly. There have been many studies of the military and civilian experiences during the retreat but my book, Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma 1942 (published by Hurst on 3 November 2016) is the first to look at the way the campaign was represented through the western media: newspapers, pictorial magazines, and newsreels. There were some twenty-six accredited war correspondents covering the campaign, and almost half of them wrote books about their experiences, mostly within a year or two of the defeat. Their accounts were heavily criticised by government officials as being misinformed and sensationalist. Historians have tended to avoid using them, except to add colour to their accounts, perhaps because they are seen as being too patriotic and optimistic in their coverage and thus giving the public an unrealistic view of how the war was progressing.

My book draws on archival sources to assess the validity of these criticisms. How do the war correspondents see their role? It is clichéd to talk of war journalism in terms of ‘The First Draft of History’ but in view of wartime censorship restrictions it does seem that correspondents were keen to have their experiences recorded, especially when they could publish less censored versions usually within a year or two of the key campaigns they were covering. What were the constraints on war correspondents, other than censorship?  Clearly, there were limits resulting from the nature of the media that they worked in, often exacerbated by wartime considerations, such as the reduction in newspaper space. This can be seen very clearly in the case of the newsreel cameramen, two of whom covered the Burma retreat. By examining their films and the supporting documentation, one can see how they needed to meet the requirements of the newsreel business, which acted as a largely patriotic, rather anodyne adjunct to the main films which audiences had come to see. Even so, the newsreels and the photographs which appeared in the popular pictorial magazines of the day, provide very good evidence of the way that the war was represented to the British, American and Australian publics in the days before television.

Indian Kumaonis of the Burma Frontier Force hustle into sampans to cross the river at Shwegyin while the main British force attack the Japanese in the background. Credit: George Rodger. Image adapted by CBI-Theatre from 22 June 1942 issue of LIFE.

There is, of course, the issue of authenticity in the reporting: did the journalists make up stories or present them in a misleading way?  Evelyn Waugh’s satirical novel Scoop (1938) famously depicted the way in which journalists would sit in the bar far from the action and file reports which started ‘From the battle-front…’ Journalists in Burma were sometimes caught out, claiming to be witnessing events first-hand when they were reporting second-hand accounts. From the First World War there were clear examples of battle scenes being faked or re-enacted for the cameras. During the Burma retreat I did find a clear case where a battle was re-staged for newsreel and still cameramen, but this was exceptional and went against clear company guidelines. As in the First World War, it resulted from the difficulty of getting good action pictures, in this case because of jungle and night-time fighting.

Generally speaking, I believe the war correspondents did a good job within the constraints they faced. The job was both dangerous and very emotionally taxing. The Hemingway-style machoism expected of them served to cover up what today would be described as post-traumatic stress.  It made a definite difference to the quality of the reporting when they were able to cover the fighting directly, as against newspapers relying on army communiques. However, it is in their memoirs rather than in their contemporary dispatches that the best quality is to be found. Using notes and photographs taken at the time, they reconstructed fuller and more analytical accounts of the campaign. Most correspondents had left-wing sympathies, which were usually strengthened by their wartime experiences. They pressed for political concessions to be made to India and Burma if the allies were to win the support in these countries that was necessary to win the war. They were saw the need to support Nationalist China under Chiang Kai-Shek, whose armies playing a major role in Burma, although they provided damning evidence of the Chinese corruption and politicking that was undermining the Lend-Lease supplies sent by the USA. The American and Australian reporters were the most critical of the hierarchical, racist and bureaucratic nature of British colonial regimes in India, Burma and Malaya.

Although my book may seem narrowly focused on a few months in 1942, it has much broader implications both for the study of journalism and for the history of Burma and India. A good deal of attention has been given to the loss of Singapore in February 1942 but the fall of Rangoon and the subsequent inevitable loss of Burma was actually much more serious, opening up major threats to India and China. The loss of Burma’s rice exports to India and the implementation of scorched earth tactics would soon have disastrous effects on Bengal, contributing to devastating famine in 1943. The mass migration of hundreds of thousands of Indian refugees from Burma and the tragic loss of life involved contributed to a devastating blow to Britain’s image as protector of its citizens in the region and proved impossible to repair.  I examine the way that sheltering and evacuation from Rangoon was mishandled by the Government of Burma and its hapless Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith. I also look at the way that journalists had to contain their private views on these issues in their newspapers but made them very clear in their later memoirs. The Government of Burma continued to operate in Simla after the retreat and devised detailed plans for their post-war return. But as Chris Bayly and Tim Harper have so admirably shown in Forgotten Armies (Penguin: 2005), there was to be no lasting return for either the Governor nor British rule in Burma. The war had given rise to more radical nationalisms in the region that could not be assuaged.

Reporting the Retreat: War Correspondents in Burma 1942 is now available here.

About the Author

Dr. Philip Woods studied History at LSE and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He has published on British-Indian politics after World War I, and the British use of film as propaganda in India. He has taught at the University of West London, Kingston University, and now teaches at NYU London. 

Two NYU Abu Dhabi Students Launch One “Priceless” Support Program For Local Families

Starting a community program from scratch can be daunting. NYU Abu Dhabi students Hannah Taylor and Sally Oh — founders of the Family Friends community initiative for those touched by autism — know first-hand the roller coaster ride that pilot programs often are; scary yet exciting, nerve-wracking but fun, and definitely worth it in the end.

The inspiration for Family Friends — a series of weekend workshops — came from Taylor’s two years of conversations and experiences with the autism community in Abu Dhabi, including an internship with the Autism Support Network (ASN) — Abu Dhabi. The need for Family Friends was born because ASN and its founder, Nipa Bhupatani, highlighted the importance of holistic support for those touched by autism spectrum disorder.

Like all new community outreach initiatives, Family Friends took on a shape of its own. The end product was a hands-on experience centered around mindfulness, poetry and music. ASN families came to NYUAD campus on Saturdays over the course of four weeks to spend time with NYUAD students and faculty, workshop facilitators, and to learn from each other. Beyond new social support, the families took home concrete lessons for how to improve their daily lives using mindfulness.

“Hearing that parents have found key social support through the Family Friends program and have learned mindfulness lessons that they use in their daily lives makes all of our efforts more than worthwhile,” said Taylor.

“So many people offered their time, care, and passion to Family Friends,” added Oh. “It would simply not have been possible without their selfless enthusiasm.”

Both Taylor and Oh hope the Family Friends program will grow in the years to come and help form a strong, closely knit, friendly, and comfortable community of allies in Abu Dhabi that offer support for autism.

Community Collaborators

  • NYUAD Office of Community Outreach
  • Anna Kaminski, mindful learning expert, workshop facilitator
  • Student volunteers Katie Sheng and Anastasia Karavan
  • Bahareh, poetry thera pist
  • Jim Savio and Goffredo Puccetti, NYUAD faculty

2017 has been declared the Year of Giving in the UAE. NYUAD’s Office of Community Outreach and student volunteers give back to the community in many ways, by contributing time, skills and knowledge to the community. We call this drive for social good NYUAD Heart.

This post originally appeared on the NYU Abu Dhabi Salaam blog, available here.

NYU Buenos Aires Professor Mariano Lopez Seoane Discusses Teaching a Networked Course on Queer Cultures and More

Photo by Sebastian Freire

Today we are in conversation with NYU Alum and NYU Buenos Aires Professor Mariano Lopez Seoane, who has been teaching at Buenos Aires since the site was established in 2008 and who helped pioneer NYU’s first networked course, taught in both New York and Buenos Aires.

How did you come to teach at NYU Buenos Aires? I understand you pursued graduate studies and earned your PhD at NYU. Did your connection to the university influence your interest in teaching at NYU Buenos Aires?

Yes, totally. I got PhD at NYU in the Spanish and Portuguese Department. I had moved back to Buenos Aires for a while just to do research for my dissertation and while I was there doing research, a professor of mine from NYU contacted me and told me that NYU was opening a Study Abroad Center in Buenos Aires. He asked whether I had an interest in teaching. I had had such a wonderful experience at NYU that I was immediately intrigued. At that time, I was actually deciding between going back to the United States or staying in Argentina. Teaching at NYU Buenos Aires seemed to me the perfect opportunity: a combination of both things – staying in my home country but working in a foreign environment. So it was an excellent opportunity for me.

I had to go back to New York to defend my dissertation, but then I returned to Buenos Aires for good and immediately started working at NYU Buenos Aires. That first year, I was asked by a former professor to develop a course that would highlight some interesting aspects of the culture of Buenos Aires, which I did. It was a very successful course, popular among students. A year later, another NYU professor contacted me from the Spanish Department. She noted that the initial course was successful and asked me to develop another course. This course was to focus not only on Buenos Aires, but on Latin America in general. So I designed another course that was an introduction to Latin American culture. I have been teaching at NYU Buenos Aires continuously since 2008 when I developed the first course.

This spring will be your third time teaching the first NYU networked course, “Queer Cultures & Democracy” which started in the spring of 2015 and involves students in New York and Buenos Aires. Can you describe how this course came to be offered and how it is structured across the two locations?

Over the years, I developed connections with colleagues in New York. In particular, I was in contact with Gabriel Giorgi, a NYU professor and friend who is also interested in queer cultures. We started to do a series of small conferences, first in Buenos Aires, focusing on queer issues in Latin America, and then one in New York, focusing on what was going on there. Many students participated and so we thought, “Why not do a course?” We created this course together focusing on queer culture and queer theory, trying to compare and contrast what happens in New York and Buenos Aires. We have been teaching the course for the past two years.

The course, “Queer Cultures & Democracy”, highlights the important role of different queer cultures in strengthening our democracies. It provides a sense of the differences between North America and Latin America. However, we specifically focus on New York and Buenos Aires, not the US and Argentina. We really take advantage of our locations and ground the coursework in our cities. There is a strong research component to the course, so students need to go visit and look into archives, visit significant sites, conduct interviews. Students are required to draw from experiences in the field in each city.

We really try to make the most of being in two locations. We meet at the same time even with different time zones. The class is arranged so that the first part of the class is more like a lecture. We grapple with difficult concepts in gender theory and queer theory, and that portion of the class we do separately. Then there is a moment in which we want to discuss something with the entire class. This takes place during the second part of the class. For example, if some students are sharing the results of the research they have done – let’s say going and speaking to queer activists and connecting those conversations to theory – then we use technology to discuss that together. We have screens in both classrooms so we can participate in one conversation. So students in Buenos Aires can report on what they experienced and share their ideas with their classmates in both Buenos Aires and New York.

We also come together in other ways. For instance, if we watch a film and want to do a discussion, we connect and have a collective conversation. We also encourage students to write their final papers as a collaboration between sites. We try to facilitate this where possible. If we know of one student from New York interested in transgender rights, for instance, we try to find someone in Buenos Aires interested in the same topic and we encourage them to write together.

This kind of networked course is difficult to organize, but it is worth the effort. The students like it. It works in many ways. Sometimes students in New York have no interest in Latin America and then after the course, they want to come. Sometimes students in Buenos Aires discover things about the city in which they live, New York, that they didn’t know. We once swapped – Gabriel came to Buenos Aires for a month and I was in New York for a month – which was interesting and useful for the students and for the course. We both had a better understanding of the issues in the other city, and actually got to experience certain things – going to the archives, for example – firsthand.

 

 

What have been the greatest learning experiences of this course, both for you and for the students? How does the networked approach influence the course? How does teaching literally across cultures and countries in a course about cultures and democracy enrich the classroom conversations?

What has been most interesting for students, and what both we and the students have learned in the course is that we get a sense of how queer cultures and queer activism have been central in deepening and strengthening our democracies. We have more democratic societies because of the existence of these minorities and their struggles – for recognition, for rights – have made our societies and democracies more vibrant and strong. Not all students in the course define themselves as queer, so there are some students who have perhaps never had exposure to these issues. They leave the classroom with a sense of the centrality of queer issues to democracy. The networked nature of the course also encourages all of us – students and professors – to think with more intent on the comparison and contrast between the two sites. We know we are going to have group discussions and it is important that people have something to say. So the comparing and contrasting is developed in conversations. This becomes useful because students understand that it is something they need to think about all the time. This is an aspect of studying abroad in general – through coming to know another culture, you get a better understanding of your own culture – but in this course it is intensified.

From the perspective of someone who studies Latin America, I would add that there is an additional aspect of this course which is interesting. It is very typical that we see our own history or people from abroad see our own history in Latin America as a series of moments when we copied someone else, usually Europe or the United States. We see this in talking about independence, the constitution, and more. This idea of the US and Europe as models for Latin America, which they have been, is very common. But on the specific issue of queer cultures Latin America shows a unique vitality. There has been vibrancy among the activists and artists here such that sometimes things happen here before they do in the US. For example, Argentina had a same sex marriage law in 2010. The US didn’t have that possibility until 2015. This is very interesting because it is a topic in which traditional narratives about how Latin America works are challenged or subverted.

Photo by Sebastian Freire

I understand you have also been involved in launching the first Master’s degree program in Gender and Queer Studies in Argentina. Can you tell us more about that?

Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires, has many institutions with researchers or professors that are interested in these issues or teach these issues, but there was no institutional space where you could study, for example, a masters program on this topic. So if you wanted to do a PhD with a focus on queer studies, you could do it but you had to find the courses and professors yourself. So I worked with some other professors and Daniel Link, a public intellectual, to develop a program. We created a core program in this topic, from an interdisciplinary perspective – topics range from public health and politics to courses that deal with the history of cinema from a queer perspective, the history of the arts from a queer perspective, the history of activism from a queer perspective. We basically gathered all of the people working on gender and sexuality in different institutions and put them in the same place. The Master’s Program is at a national university, UNTREF . The university said we could have thirty students, and we received applications from more than sixty students, indicating that there was clearly a need. Classes are starting in March. The Master’s Program is connected to thinking about new policies on these topics and also connected to activism. We consider it a successful initiative thus far.

In addition to your research and work on LGBTQ issues, I understand you also research literature and are an accomplished translator. Can you share a bit about your work as a translator and about the kinds of literature you are drawn to?

Most of my translations have been on theory. I have translated Fredric Jameson, a cultural critic, and the books of philosopher Susan Buck-Morss. I have also translated the work of Avital Ronell, philosopher and literary critic at NYU.

My Phd was on Latin American literature. I am mostly interested in contemporary Latin American literature dealing with the problems most associated with Latin America – political violence, narco-violence and how it affects our communities, gender and sexuality. I am drawn to works that deal with these topics in an interesting and imaginative way. I am not looking for reports on these topics, but literature that offers something more while dealing with these topics. Works I appreciate may have an interesting use of language or literary images. Literature and the arts have to offer something extra. It cannot only be about the topic, what matters is what they do with it – offering us a different perspective that we haven’t thought about, for example.

What has been most rewarding for you about teaching at NYU Buenos Aires?

It’s a very welcoming and supportive atmosphere for working. As a scholar and professor, you feel welcomed and appreciated. You feel as though you can come up with ideas and projects and that they are welcomed – for example, proposing a new course, or changing a course. NYU Buenos Aires is a space in which you can be creative in your own field. You don’t need to follow what was done in the past or what is being done now. You can think of new possibilities and they are considered and often accepted. This is something I love about NYU. For me it is good to have the connection to NYU, my alma matter, of course, but being part of an international network is amazing. I believe that scholarship and teaching should be international and need to have a cosmopolitan horizon. In order to teach effectively, you need to understand what is happening in other parts of the world and to connect with others in your field. Collaborating with other researchers is already a given at NYU. This greatly enriches you as a scholar and researcher. If you work at a national university, it can be hard to get in touch with and collaborate with people from other places. At NYU it is a given. I am in constant dialogue with people in other places – NY, of course, but also at times Berlin or Madrid.

Do you think that time abroad is valuable for students’ academic and personal development? If so, how do you think that value manifests?

I think it is central. The students tell me all the time that coming to Buenos Aires has changed their lives. They say that time here is key to understanding their own culture in different ways, seeing things about the US and how they can be a part of their community and society that they couldn’t see before. I know this because I have studied abroad myself for five years. It changed my life and perspective completely. This is true whether you are abroad for many years, or for only a semester or a year. You denaturalize your own culture and life, recognize that there are other ways to do things and maybe other cultures have something to teach you.

This is important in many disciplines. It is important for the humanities of course, the humanities being the dialogue between cultures, but it is not only important for the humanities. It is also important in law, economic science, public health, and other fields. Seeing how things work in different contexts is also enriching. I also believe in the idea of experiential learning – here while experiencing a different culture you have classes to reflect what is going on with you in this different culture, and the courses use what is happening to you as a student to assist in your growth.

I also think that for people in the US going to a country in the developing world, here in Latin America or in Africa at our site in Ghana, is especially interesting. While of course you learn a great deal from going to a place in Europe, the contrast when in the developing world is starker for all kinds of reasons. It is a very specific type of difference and students are exposed to situations where not everything is taken for granted, where things are not working as they should be, where the political system is vastly different. In these places, students get a sense of how the world works and understand that the world is not limited to the so-called “North”.

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion: Anthony Appiah and Deborah Willis Speak at NYU Florence

On March 13 and March 14 respectively, NYU Philosophy professor Anthony Appiah and NYU professor and Chair of the Photography Department at Tisch Deborah Willis are speaking at NYU Florence as part of its Equity, Diversity and Inclusion programming.

Professor Appiah will participate in a dialogue about issues of identity. According to Appiah, “Not everyone accepts that you have to be a man or a woman; or that you can’t be both an Englishman and a Scot. You can claim to be of no religion or gender or race or nation. Perhaps, in each case, someone will believe you. And that is one reason why the way we often talk about these identities can be misleading.” The event, Mistaken Identities: Culture, Color, Country, Creed, will give students an opportunity to engage with a leading thinker on these issues.

The lecture from Professor Willis, Reframing Beauty: Intimate Visions, will focus on artists and photographers who are looking at the past, recreating portraits through the camera’s lens while others are re-staging beauty as a performative act. The tension explored in this lecture is found in the works that ask questions of the unknown viewer that confront the work through a wide range of media from film, video, painting, sculpture, installation art and mixed media. They explore gender and desire; humor and apathy; child games and toys and play with the imaginary through dreaming and projecting. Some use their own photographs and archival photographs to incorporate stories about social politics about injustices. These works focus on the notion of individuality and what comes together is a collective pursuit of the idea of “framing beauty” in a complex society. How does one re-image and re-imagine a history of beauty through satire and sincerity as a result of absence is critical to the questioning of beauty. One of my most powerful experiences as a curator is discovering artists who embrace the broad concept of memory to explore the complexities of life, from making visible stories of activism to transforming everyday experiences to dreaming through aspects of beauty.

NYU Prague Students meet with Prominent Tibetan Refugee

The students with Nyima Lhamo.

In late February, NYU Prague students had the unique opportunity to meet Nyima Lhamo, the 26-year old niece of a Tibetan lama who died in a Chinese prison in 2015. Ms. Lhamo, who fled Tibet in 2016,  was in Prague on an advocacy visit to tell the story of her uncle’s death.

Her uncle was Trulku Tenzin Delek Rinpoche, a Tibetan activist and community leader who promoted Tibetan culture and was often critical of Chinese policies. In 2002, he was sentenced to life imprisonment on charges of terrorism and inciting separatism in the Sichuan Province (charges which he and his supporters denied)  He died in 2015 at age 65, thirteen years into his prison sentence.  Chinese media sited the cause of death as a heart attack, but no death certificate has been issued and there are many questions surrounding his death.
Ms. Lhamo escaped to India in July 2016, a year after her uncle’s death, leaving her 6-year old daughter behind.  She fled China so she could appeal to the international community to pressure China to investigate Rinpoche’s conviction and death. Before escaping, she and her mother were detained by the Chinese authorities for 18 days in Chengdu on charges for “leaking state secrets to the outside world.”
The event was organized in collaboration with the Forum 2000 Foundation, founded by the late Czech President Vaclav Havel, and the human rights organization People in Need.

By Leah Gaffen of NYU Prague

NYU Shanghai Student Michael Lukiman Finds Interning while at NYU Tel Aviv “Life-Changing”

To conclude this series, we hear from an NYU Shanghai student who studied at NYU Tel Aviv, Michael Lukiman.

What is your school affiliation and what year are you? What is your major?

My main campus is NYU Shanghai, though I originally come from Southern California. I am a senior in the first graduating class of this campus, with commencement in May 2017. My official major is neural science, the study and research of the brain.

What inspired you to study in Tel Aviv?

I had heard that Tel Aviv was a business-oriented city, indeed in a place labeled as the world’s “Startup Nation”. Additionally, I felt I had a lot of perspective to learn from such a unique country and region. Similar to the reason I decided to study in South America in the previous semester, I feel that the various segments of the world can have unimaginably different modes of thinking; to fully put the puzzle together, sampling each place by living there can give those different modes of thinking due respect or at least understanding (which can help negotiate conflicts). But ultimately, it sounded like an adventure.

How was your experience? What was most inspiring, surprising, or moving about your time there? What did you find challenging?

My experience was life-changing. I would often walk along the Hayarkon River in Tel Aviv’s North side. What surprised me was just how much it was like California in terms of geography and climate – golden beaches, chaparral, and hiking to boot. There’s a point where you realize that these places were more alike than alien. What moved me was feeling the sun on my skin and looking toward the Mediterranean ocean. What inspired me is the sense of unfaltering unity in the community of Tel Aviv, including that of the NYU staff. It was challenging being a clear foreigner, but even then it was easy to get by with curiosities and the effort to speak the language. It was a pretty safe atmosphere, getting to the statistics of it. More universally, it could be seen as challenging to approach political or cultural elephants in the room, but NYU provided an exceptionally safe space for doing so. Additionally interesting, my technology internship’s locale had me walking by goats, cows, chickens, and pastures – a peculiar and outstanding way to stay connected to nature in the “tech” sphere.

I understand that you interned with Israel Brain Technologies while at NYU Tel Aviv. Can you tell us about how you came to intern there? Is this an academic internship or non-credit internship?

I like the feeling of creating something unique and emotional – and curious about how things work (and how we can make them work), notably the brain. When mixing this startup spirit with my academic major of neuroscience, finding Israel Brain Technologies allowed me to handle practical, real, and serious implementations of neuroscience-oriented ideas on a daily basis. I’d like to thank Ms. Ilana Goldberg, the internship coordinator, for being a very effective and important liaison in finding this perfect fit. I interviewed with her over Skype a couple months prior to starting, and everything was connected for this non-credit internship (it provided much more value than a couple credits). In this startup accelerator supported by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and former prime minister Shimon Peres, I worked closely with Miri Polachek and Yael Fuchs to get involved in all levels of an industry where business, science, and entrepreneurship lock eyes.

What did your work involved? How did you find the experience?

In an accelerator, there are multiple stages: first, you need to select which companies are promising and worthy of your resources, then spend months polishing their efficiency, marketing, and product through training and meetings (because nothing is perfect off the bat), and finally, connect and demonstrate their value to the investors. I had privilege of helping to organize the judging rounds to decide which final dozen or so of the upwards of fifty companies would come under IBT’s wing, thereby earning me the key opportunity to sit in on the board meetings and serious decision-making discussions behind the table. How does an idea go from paper to effectively profiting and providing value in the community? I played a part in learning the financing infrastructure of such an institution, as well as being able to connect one-on-one with entrepreneurs of these companies, in Israel of all places, the country with the most startups per capita. More importantly, I could learn what life was like day-to-day in an industry like this – the meetings, the organization, the challenges, the jargon, hierarchy, and not to mention how long their workdays were.

As I understand it, Israel Brain Technologies is a non-profit that seeks to accelerate the commercialization of Israel’s brain-related innovation and establish Israel as a leading international brain technology hub. Did being there feel as though you were at the crossroads of the non-profit, tech and start-up worlds? How would you best describe the organization, its mission, and how it influences the development of brain technologies?

Yeah, it was definitely a sweet mix of all things entrepreneurial and scientific! Moreover, it was grounded. There were no obsessive metrics, although there was an emphasis on overall social impact and how much money would be needed. You could emphasize simple rules like: Who would use this? Why is this important? Why is it better? How do we get there? What’s the market like? Is it possible? Is it efficient? When you mix the detailed pace of truth-finding science with the expedience of business, it kinda becomes like engineering. The mission of Israel Brain Technologies to me was to address a silo of business that we once saw as impossible or overly complicated – empowering companies with exciting ideas, some of which sought to allow you to control machines just with your thoughts (not physically impossible), or companies that were out to cure and assist those with Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and other disabilities. These are companies that, if successful, could add thousands of years of quality of life around the world – and some of these breakthroughs are already in practice today. That’s invaluable. To make these groups successful, we need to think about money, resources, and how to get themselves to the people that want to hear about them. I knew this internship was genuine because the type of the people working there – many of whom are mothers who are wonderfully leading the mission while managing to care for their kids. Those concurrent activities vest you into anything you do.   

Do you feel as though the work you did as an intern has been valuable? Has working for Israel Brain Technologies changed your understanding of innovation is promoted? Or the various manners in which we are seeking to use technology for the brain? If so, can you describe how?

In every internship, my main objective is to learn insights and work my way up a knowledge, wisdom, and community ladder. I like the simple heuristic to provide a new conceptual continent, or at least district on the map, so to speak. There, one could either mentally rest or return to when needed. Israel Brain Technologies has given me the most in terms of this, where I can think about science in relation to business and money, and hence what I’m studying in relation to what other people are experiencing. I learned that starting a company is both overwhelmingly complex and simple. I learned that pressure is just reflective of how much you can offer – if you aren’t thinking in the right mode, no matter how hard you try, you can’t get into the right arena. Most of all, it assured me that neuroscience is still the promising new frontier that I first saw when choosing it for my initial college career – generally, anything that most people can entertain as science-fiction and then be surprised about when someone tells you it’s a real product is society’s current sweet spot of discovery. On the honest flipside, I learned that lots of people don’t have what it takes to really think in a risk-welcoming, conflict-welcoming endeavor while still focusing on the big picture. Something gets in the way and creates tunnel vision with the companies that we didn’t accept, either pride, doubt, or lack of enthusiasm. You’ve really got to objectively focus on what you’re doing, at least if you want to make it exceptional. Either have a good track record or a good spirit – anything less, you can imagine people will not demand as much. That’s just a lose-lose for both you and the people. For startups, this means accepting when something is just a plain bad idea, or maybe realizing that something is a good idea when everyone else says it is bad. For neuroscience, there’s a realization that anything a brain can do, a computer may eventually do, given some bureaucracies. This fact in turn humbles anyone. A brain just just another component which we can funnel technology through; it can decay or be sharpened. So I think it’s logical use it wisely by getting an internship that keeps it on its toes.

How do you feel your internship experience has complemented your academic experience at NYU Tel Aviv?

It’s hard to think of a way which my classes related to my internship. That’s probably a good thing, since sticking to one main behavior in a new country can easily put a cone around your head to experiences. I mostly took politics courses, as well as a linguistics course about Hebrew, Arabic, and other languages of the region. It’s a cop-out, but I can say that language and socially/tribally-driven politics has a reserved space for neuroscience because knowing the brain can help us anticipate and navigate these once irreducible landscapes. It’s what I’ve always said to myself. But one could say that about any field. In my classes, we talked about dictatorship, religion, and all sorts of controversial things. I do have to say that it’s a good exercise to think how our brain is lighting up when discussing these topics that are close to home, where so much identity is on the line for a lot of people. There may be a latent element there that can help us prevent conflict and ease tensions, just like how we discovered more empathy and personal stories can increase donations to charity. Another link is that running successful companies and running successful governments have their parallels, although on different scales. One similarity is that you’ve got to care for your people or else you’re not going to have a good time.

Has your time studying at NYU Tel Aviv or your experience in either internship informed your thinking about your future plans? If so, how?

Because of these experiences in Tel Aviv, I realize there’s a lot of work to be done not only in creating new things but fixing old ones. So it’s Silicon Valley with a more evocative twist. It put me on the other side of the table – after judging other companies, now I judge myself: I have my work ethic, and that provides a certain amount of value to people. How much does brain research mean to a government or economy whose main metric is still profit or gross output? How much will working 100 hours a week and dotting every “i” marginally increase what we can do opposed to what I can experience or share with other people outside of work? And how much are my genetics and environment really going to allow me/us to accomplish? These are questions that being on the other side of the table taught me. There’s a generic match in every institution, and being in Tel Aviv thinking of different governing styles and judging different companies begged the question to find what unique features groups really need to break ceilings. Ultimately, this experience in Tel Aviv showed me the real world of business as well as the real, firsthand world of political strife, as far as I know of course. In other places, we may take big corporations and an established government for granted, whereas they are only as solid as allowed, not to say that they’re not strong. That is, although there’s a lot to learn, life has become a bit more transparent, at least to a 21-year-old me, through this experience.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about your time in Tel Aviv or while at NYU?

I recommend an experience like this, especially if you think you don’t quite fit the bill, because the abrasion may just provide pearls of insight.