This month Camilla Pang won the Royal Society book prize for her debut, Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships. She has a PhD in bioinformatics from UCL and works as a postdoctoral researcher. Dr Pang was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at the age of eight and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at 26.
Why did you decide to write this book?
I inadvertently wrote the book in my PhD thesis on bioinformatics, and my supervisor, bless her, said this is great, but it doesn’t belong here. One of the things people on the autistic spectrum do is organise our world in a way that makes sense to us using objects and sequences. For me, those sequences involved looking at the fundamentals of matter, and what that meant in terms of science. Even if I was just kicking a pile of leaves, I would do it repetitively in order to find the laws about how things react, and how they can be predicted. So from kicking leaves to Post-it notes to eventually reading about science, I constructed a map to navigate the world. Over time, it became bigger and notebooks piled up, so I ended up with a piece of work that I thought might be useful to someone else. And that’s the ultimate goal, isn’t it? You want to connect with people.
When did you become aware that you were neurodivergent?
I was diagnosed with autism when I was eight but I think I really noticed it when I was about four. It was like a general dysrhythmia, an awareness of not quite being the same, which was visible even to my peers. I loved patterns and ordering things. I was obsessed with Disney films, and particularly The Lion King. I would play the tunes on my xylophone. Elton John was my hero. His voice and the way he played piano just resonated with me, so I tried to replicate the sequences. And I succeeded in doing that on my xylophone, and later on the piano and guitar, and people said this kid’s got a knack for patterns and for hearing things by ear.
You write that at 17 you became fully human. What do you mean by this?
I don’t mean: “Oh, I turned the light on, and then there I was.” It’s more to do with an acceptance that you have a right to be you, to say what you want and take up space because you are a human. At school I was an outsider, and kids like nothing better than to gang up on outsiders. But, though it took me a long time to realise it, my autism had the advantage of making me immune to peer pressure. At 17, I think I just found my place in myself.
Your father is Chinese, your mother is of Spanish heritage and you grew up in south Wales. How did this mixed background influence you?
Being brought up in two cultures showed me that, in different cultures, you have different rules, and that’s cool, because the rules can bend and flex. Also, my mum is an artist, my dad’s a scientist-engineer, and I’m somewhere caught in the middle: too logical to be an artist, too emotional to be a data scientist. To be a scientist, you almost have to be numeric in how you live your life because then you can quantify everything. Deviations from that – whether through being a woman, or being neurodivergent or because of your race – hit a subconscious bias where some people think: “OK, how reliable is this person?”, and wait for something to go wrong because they’re not the bog-standard fit. This is something that I want to challenge. As for being an artist – art and science are inextricably linked, since I understand the world by patterns, which have to be spatial by nature and which capture the senses. But that’s for a later book.
Scientists who love biochemistry might not see the parallels with economics. But I do, and that is a superpower
Your day job is for a pharmaceutical company, but you also volunteer with one of the university teams that are working on Covid-19. How do you balance these roles?
Yeah, so actually, I’m some kind of spider-shape. In my main job I work with the immune system, using computers and coding to prioritise drugs for treatment of neurological and immunity-based diseases. But in my PhD, I set up a collaboration between UCL and the Francis Crick Institute, looking at cancer evolution in protein structures. And I wanted to carry on with that as a volunteer because I’m passionate about the subject, and I think it’s really good to exercise the different sides of science that you’ve been exposed to. During the pandemic I’ve been volunteering with the UCL lab to help with researching Covid-19. That’s what I do in my evenings and at weekends.
Each of the 11 chapters covers a different area of science. Did you ever worry about spreading yourself too thinly?
I tried to make my book the bread and butter of all its subjects, because science isn’t just biology, or chemistry, it’s intrinsic to everything that we see and do and live by, and formed the web in which I have systemised my world. And you can’t be an expert in everything. Even scientists who love biochemistry might not see the parallels with, say, economics. But I do, and that is a superpower, because it is something that’s obvious to me: everything’s just part of the same thing, but in different manifestations. Also, some non-scientists have said that it helped them to understand science through the parallels with people [rather than the other way round]. And I was like: “Brilliant! That’s convenient.”
Part of your achievement is to challenge myths about neurodivergence – for instance that autism involves a lack of empathy.
Yeah. Oh, completely. I’m not giving you hugs and kisses and expressions of empathy that are weird to me. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not working hard to make sure your needs are met. Empathy comes in many forms and languages, but it’s also an endeavour by one human to connect with another in a way that takes up a lot of their mind. So this book is a gesture of empathy. You can be warm and empathetic, which often go hand in hand, but basically empathy is nonjudgmental and quite simple. A lot of the time, I’m trying to figure out what people need, how I can make them happy, and I realised that this process in itself is a form of empathy.
A lot of your anecdotes are very funny. What role does humour play in your life?
Ha ha, thank you. Most of the time, I didn’t know I was being funny, which is the funniest part – I was just observing things. For instance, because my ADHD means I tend to focus intensely on one thing, I was sitting in bed in my waterproof jacket in the middle of the night, writing the book. This clearly worked. But science is about learning from failure as well as success, and humour is often tied up with an observation of your own failures. It creates that humiliation that you need when you experiment, because you have to be able to take a step back and acknowledge the hilarity of what it is to be human.
In a chapter on order and thermodynamics, you describe battles with your mum over tidying your room. How come your flat today looks so neat?
I find it hard washing the dishes and doing housework because, to me, it isn’t messy if I know where everything is. As a child I used to say I kept all my things in my “floordrobe”. I’ve got a lovely one-bed apartment now that looks over a park. And in lockdown, the more I’m in my home, the more I realise that one room is messy, and another one is tidy. So it’s having a relative comparison in my ecosystem that has enabled me to understand the difference. But you should see the mindmap in my other room. It’s a massive wall made of whiteboard paper with drawings and Post-it notes everywhere. I love to draw; I draw and then I write.
You are a fan of football and proteins. What can their similarities teach us?
The football team is a great module of human behaviour in that it’s quite coherent, but nevertheless all the players are doing different things. And for me, that sparked the thought that this is just like proteins. It’s like cell-signalling. Proteins teach us that being different helps us to work well together, and individuality is fundamental to effective teamwork. Also proteins evolve depending on context. Humans aren’t rigid either, and the beautiful thing about this parallel is that it gives us a permission to evolve too.
What would you tell your eight-year-old self?
At eight I was happy in my own world. I had all the reassurance that I needed from my family. It was when I was 17, when I felt human, that I started to lose faith. My advice is: carry on, it will be worth it. And even if you’re challenged by the system, that’s just a reminder that you’re built to make a new one.
• Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships is published by Penguin (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply