Interview with Christine Luk
Her journey leading up to the academic career
N: Can you tell us a little bit of your background?
C: My undergraduate study is in translation and I went on to do a Master in anthropology, followed by a MPhil program in gender differentiation in science and engineering training.
N: How do you go from translation to being interested in gender issues?
C: Translation is a very broadly conceived subject. There is translation study that is about philosophical investigation on what is translation. For example, when you have an idea and you have to speak out, it is also in cognitive translation process. My thesis was a translation project. Many people translate novels, which is literal translation. But I was not interested in literal translation because my literal skills are not good. I am interested in science and technology issues. I am interested in the reception and translation of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. That book is very important in the scientific field and was translated in many languages. The book was written in the 19th century. My interest is not to translate it into Chinese because it has already been done before. I would like comparing those different translations of the book.
C: I think translation is more than just translating the content. Good translation is first you do a faithful translation of the content, and you give a beautiful expression, and elegantly. Because of this background, I got interested in all those debates in science and technology. My mentor in college, a woman, also fostered my interest to merge these interests together (science & tech and gender equality). I did a master thesis to investigate this gender imbalance. We all know that women are underrepresented (in science and tech). I look at the training, for example the career pathway. I did a quantitative analysis to look at how many female students were admitted to HK in science and engineering track; how many of them graduated; how many of them pursue research as career. I talked to 40 of them and asked them about their challenges in studies, etc.
C: After I finished my master degree, I realized that the gender inequality has a historical background. It is more than what the 40 of them told me. At that time, I had a more contemporary focus, but then I looked into some historical literature and I found that there was a long historical bias on women. It was as if women were not suitable to work in lab, so I think knowing the history is important. After that, I got an opportunity to study PhD overseas with full scholarship.
N: How did you feel when leaving your family for a long period?
C: I really like it. At first, it was a big cultural shock. HK has many high rise buildings while Arizona is a flat land. I felt suffocated in HK because it was as if everybody is a banker. I would like to be a writer when I was young.
N: Did you feel like you didn’t fit in?
C: I did feel this peer pressure. People would ask you how do you make a living. My parents were a little disappointed as they wanted me to go to those elite schools. Luckily, I got a (older) brother and my parents put their expectations on him. At that time, I didn’t feel like I would have a great future. Therefore, when I got full scholarship to study my PhD, my parents were really surprised.
N: How did you feel when all of a sudden you were transported to Arizona?
C: I loved it. It was the first time for me to live in a house with front and back yard. For me, it was a very new experience. I felt like my horizon was broaden especially when I looked up I could see the sky instead of high-rise buildings. This fostered my Doctoral thesis’s interest in the history of space science. It is bio-physics. Before that, my interest was in the history of biological sciences. The intersection of those two was the discovery that the Chinese biophysicists were the first putting the first space travellers (a dog) into outer space. That was the beginning point of China’s human space program. Space science is a large-scale collaborative project. The real difficulty is to send living things back and forth from the Earth and keep them alive. I have become more grateful after the 6 years. I learned how to put things into perspectives. I could not do this in HK because the society in HK defines a path for everybody and you are regarded as failure when you could not follow. After living in a completely different environment for 6 years, even though the society in Arizona has its own issues.
Teaching Common Core at HKU
N: Your first ever-teaching experience is teaching Common Core courses?
C: No. After I got my PhD in ASU, I stayed behind for a year to work as a lecturer. So I did have some independent working experience before coming to HKU. The Common Core course teaching is the first experience of teaching local students.
N: Can you provide some comparison between teaching US students and HK students? Do you think there is a huge difference?
C: Yes, from my limited experience. Students in US are very out spoken. As a teacher, my role is to moderate. But in HK, my role is not to moderate. I have to facilitate, to push them. I have to encourage them to talk. I used technological device (real time online participation in class), a kind of clicker offered by technology office in HKU. I tried to arouse the interest of students, trying to get them to participate. In tutorials, I would also need to make them talk. It is sometimes difficult.
N: What are some of the interesting stories?
C: The class I taught was Gender Health and Globalization. Over half of the class was from Faculty of Medicine. They were either from the MBBS program or from Nursing program. There was a tutorial consisted of a mixture of students from Faculty of Arts and Medicine. There was one time we were talking about the ethics of fetal cells donation. The standing point of MBBS students was whether those fetal cells were developmentally usable at week 14 or week 16. When the MBBS students were debating about this, students from Faculty of Arts kept silent. It’s not they didn’t want to speak, but they felt like they were not qualified (to speak). I thought the MBBS students were not doing well in giving the background information. It was fine for them to debate about week 14 or week 16, provided that they drew other students into the discussion. They were not aware that they should communicate with students from all backgrounds. I tried to lead the discussion by asking them where the people obtained those fetal cells. (The answer was) You need to approach the women that plan to have abortion. I tried to bring the discussion back to how it all started such that the students from Arts could participate. I really valued that experience. When I opened up that discussion, I did not mean to solely talk about technicality or narrow down the topic to a certain field. My role was to persuade MBBS students to look at the issue in a broader view and to make the Arts students feel comfortable (to participate) during the discussion.
Expectations and hopes
N: Do you want to do more teaching or more research?
C: I want to do more teaching because in my case, I want more teaching experience. I don’t have enough teaching experiences. I do want to do more. I think it is more than that.
N: So far you have been working here for a year?
C: Since 2016, more than a year and a half.
N: Obviously, you are looking for more teaching opportunities. So what sort of things you need for you to do that?
C: I am not sure about the bureaucratic arrangement in Common Core office or other departments. My institute is very supportive. They started to have Common Core courses starting from 2017. There are two existing Common Core courses. For the tutorials, MBBS students complained that the teaching venue (the Main Building) was too far. I am grateful that we could have classes in such an old, historical building, but we don’t have that in Sassoon Road. My institute is supportive in the way they provide the classrooms and venues. I don’t know if I am qualified to say that, but if the lecturers and tutors could have more control on the allocation of funding, maybe that would be better. Sometimes I feel like now we are doing all these teaching, but we don’t know where the money went to. The people of higher authority make the decisions on what to do on the money. If we are allowed to take part in the decision making process of allocating resources, that would be great.
N: Apart from that, what other kinds of support do you need now?
C: Maybe mentoring opportunities among Common Core teachers, kind of sharing among committed Common Core teachers. Are there existing workshops like that?
N: Yes. We have workshops hosted regularly by CC teachers on certain topics. You are welcomed to participate. Not only you have a chance to hear what others have to say, you could also meet other CC teachers and peers. It is always good to build network.
C: I have one more suggestion. People are now doing the massively online courses (MOOCs). One student asked me whether I wanted to do something like that. I am not sure if our university have resources for that.
N: Yes, we have. You have to talk to people from TELI. HKU produced several MOOC courses.
C: Do they provide MOOC Common Core courses?
N: Yes, there are. Gina, from School of Humanities, she had a MOOC course on sexuality and gender.
N: Do you think students are interested in taking these online courses?
C: They just want to know if there are online courses. It is because in earlier time, only CUHK and HKUST have online courses but not HKU. I think that could benefit HKU students and people around the world.
N: If you have to picture yourself in five years, what do you think you will be doing in five years?
C: I want to finish my second book in history of biology, and I will be moving in the direction of environmental history. I want to be calmer. I think I am more restless than few years ago. I got much pressure in high school reunion. Everybody was comparing about salary and social status. At the age of 30, everybody is wanting to achieve success. After five years, I hope myself to be more calm and moderate.
N: In terms of career, what is your projection in five years?
C: I hope to have a chance in staying in HK Institutions. In CUHK, there is a satellite campus in Shenzhen. There is 60% chance for me to stay in Mainland China. The other 40% chance might be going back to US.
N: How about your aspiration, your dream?
C: I got a humble background, so working in HKU such a prestigious institution is a dream job. My dream is to see the history of science to take root in HK. This is not generally accepted in HK because many scientists and engineers are very conservative; they think that this topic is for retired people. They don’t think history of science is professional for historian. I want to see a change and the Humanities scholars to devote more time to science and technology issues because I think many issues in 21st century are science and tech related.
N: Do you see yourself a big part of it?
C: You are only pushing something like that when you have certain capitals, otherwise no one will listen to you. I think I am in the process of acquiring more of these capitals, but I do think this is something worth pursuing. I really hope the inter-disciplinary culture can spread to HK. One of the problems in HK is that people don’t commit resources to it. It is because when it comes to resource or allocating it, people become very conservative. They want to do it in the safest way. I want to be a big part of it.
N: That’s why we are having the woman innovative group. We want to help other talented women to pursue their dreams. It is very ambitious. But at least we can help each other to make some noise. When your book is published, we should do a book launch.