Too PG for Jeopardy with Lilly Chin
When Lilly Chin knew she couldn’t lose during Final Jeopardy, she decided to give a joke answer: “Who is the Spiciest Memelord?” But that joke became a meme itself—turning Lilly into not just the College Jeopardy champion, but an internet sensation.
Today, we chat with the MIT grad student about what it was like to be on the show, how the internet treats women in the public eye, and how her brush with fame changed the way she looks at online visibility. We also talk about Lilly’s research on soft robots, mentorship, Twitch streaming, and doing it all for the stories.
We’re so used to thinking about women in terms of their outward appearance that even when it’s on a very academic game like Jeopardy, people are still defaulting to thinking of, like, an object of attraction.
—Lilly Chin, MIT PhD student and College Jeopardy champ
Note: We’ve donated net proceeds from this episode to RAICES, the largest immigrant legal services organization in Texas, and ActBlue’s fund supporting 12 organizations working with migrant, detained, or deported children and families. Please join us.
Links from the interview:
- Lilly’s website
- The infamous “Who is the spiciest memelord?” clip
- The Jeopardy subreddit
- Talia Levin’s article about appearing on Jeopardy, “Big Tits for $600”
- Justine Sacco’s tweet about AIDS in Africa
- So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
- The “right to be forgotten” concept
- The field of soft robotics
Also in this episode:
- Creating intimate spaces online, from our newsletter to Tiny Letters to private Slack accounts
- Shopping feminist, ethical, local, and just plain good companies
- Why Katel has the best sweatshirt ever
This episode of NYG is brought to you by:
WordPress—the place to build your personal blog, business site, or anything else you want on the web. WordPress helps others find you, remember you, and connect with you.
Harvest, makers of awesome software to help you track your time, manage your projects, and get paid. Try it free, then use code NOYOUGO to get 50% off your first paid month.
Katel LeDû [Ad spot] Shopify builds software to help anyone with a great idea build a successful business. In fact, more than 50 percent of the entrepreneurs who use Shopify are women, including me! I use Shopify to power abookapart.com and so do people in 175 different countries! Now Shopify needs more great people to join their team. Visit shopify.com/careers to see open positions, learn about their culture, and so much more [music fades in, plays alone for 12 seconds, fades out].
Jenn Lukas Welcome to No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. I’m Jenn Lukas.
KL I’m Katel LeDû.
Sara Wachter-Boettcher And I’m Sara Wachter-Boettcher. And we did it, everyone. We did it!
SWB We got Jenn’s dream guest on the show.
JL Is it Kesha?
SWB Ok. We got Jenn’s second dream guest on the show. That would be Lilly Chin, who’s the 2017 College Jeopardy winner, and a current graduate student at MIT. We talk with Lilly about what it was like to be on the show, how her final Jeopardy answer made internet history, and how the whole experience changed the way that she looks at things like networked culture and online visibility.
KL Ugh you know something that really got my attention in Lilly’s interview, I’m really wondering if we can start there for a second. If you subscribe to our newsletter, I wrote a letter to introduce Issue #4 and I talked about how I used to get really bad panic attacks, and I still struggle with a lot of anxiety, and I’ve, you know, done a lot to sort of figure that out. It’s still an ongoing process and while I felt really great to have a platform to share something really personal like that, I also felt really exposed and, I don’t know, it made me think that like, I kind of forget that, you know? We’re in a room talking to each other and it feels really safe and supportive and we’ve had such good feedback about the show, which is great, but, I don’t know, you kind of forget that you’re really putting yourself out there.
SWB Yeah, I think about this a lot because I think podcasts do feel intimate, and they feel intimate for the listener, too, but you don’t really who might be listening. And I mean I think with something like a newsletter, you don’t know where that might end up or where it might get screenshotted and shared around. And I think, you know, we’re going to—we’re going to talk with Lilly a little bit more about this, but there’s ways in which that kind of like hyper-visibility or like constant networked feeling online can make it hard to know what context you’re in—and the context shifts on you sometimes without you realizing it.
KL Totally. I mean even writing that letter for that issue, I was like, ok, this went out to, you know, a hundred some odd people. Thank you for subscribing. But it lives in… forever in internet, and like anyone can find it. And I had these moments the day after we sent it out where I was like, ok. It’s just like, it’s out there. And I think, I don’t know, like it’s a weird feeling.
SWB What was making you feel like vulnerable or exposed about it? Or like what is the fear that you have about this letter existing out there where you talked about anxiety?
KL I mean I think part of the anxiety that I talk about is the sort of spiral that happens where you start to feel small or weak or like you’re not, you know, up to snuff or you’re not like performing or you’re just not like the person that you’re “supposed” to be. And I think that just is compounded when there’s eyes on that—when people are looking at it and you’re offering it up. And I think ultimately I feel, like I said, very grateful—and I’ve said this I think, you know, to you, if not, you know, recorded it—I’m really proud of the therapy work that I’ve done, and I’m so, so happy that I get to share that. But it’s also, like, weird [laughs] and raw. And so yeah, I don’t know, this whole thing has been like a process a little bit.
JL Yeah, it’s never just one feeling. It’s not like [yeah], “Oh ok. I know I’m going to feel exposed so I don’t want to do it,” because there’s things that make you want to share all of this like with people too. The internet’s not just like, “Uh well I don’t know what’s going to happen, so I’m outta here.” It’s very much like not one-sided.
SWB And I think some people probably have that feeling. Like I don’t what’s going to happen, so I’m outta here. But clearly we don’t, because we keep doing this podcast [laughter]. And so we are—we have things we want to talk about and things that like… it’s not just about, like, “I want to talk about this,” or even, “I want other people to listen to me”—although I do, I want everybody in the world to listen to me. I’ve got a lot of opinions— but, that I think that the kinds of stuff that we’re talking about and sometimes struggling with are things that are really normal and that are under-discussed. And just the act of having natural conversations about them in a shared space is really powerful [yeah]. But also there is risk there, and I think that that’s one of the things that we have to kind of like constantly make peace with, or at least I feel that, that like I have to make peace with what kinds of risks those might be. And so, you know, we’ve talked about this in the past, right? It’s like, “If I tweet that, what kind of randos are going to come troll me?” And is it just going to be your, like, everyday rando that I can block, or is it going to be actually something more sinister? And like those are real like internal monologues that I’m having on a regular basis. At the same time, though, there’s something to me that’s a little different about both like podcasting and also something like a newsletter—or like, I subscribe to a lot of people’s Tiny Letters—that is a little bit more intimate feeling, and in some ways almost feels like there’s been a resurgence in that. And I look at it almost like a way to reclaim space. Or reclaim something that’s not exactly privacy, but that it feels a little bit more private in a world where so much of our communication feels so, like—actually as Lilly talked about—hyper-networked [chuckles].
KL Mm hmm. Yeah. Or like, just branded. And that can feel weird too. I mean I love that some of my friends have Tiny Newsletters because I feel like I’m reading their journals, which is such a cool—it’s such a cool feeling, you know?
JL It’s got that same feeling of like, you know, blogging back in the day, or like, you know, it felt just more like … I don’t know, more connected with the people. And I think that’s sort of like what’s nice about the podcast, too, and getting feedback about the podcast is I just feel like it’s a different way to be connected with people.
SWB Blogging has certainly changed a lot and, you know, now it’s like, what’s the difference between a blog and an online publication? What is Medium? Like everything has sort of collapsed into like one big text box on the internet. And some of these spaces that we’re talking about give it a little bit of definition, you know? I think the same thing about a lot of the like private backchannel Slack accounts I’m in. I’m in a few of them that are like professionally focused, kind of… but what they really are is private communities of people who I’m close to for one reason or another where we can talk really openly and honestly about things that are happening in our professional world, but in a space where we have absolute trust with people. And I find that to be really valuable, and I feel like that’s where I turn so often to process how I’m feeling about things that are happening in the world. Where like that used to be Twitter, and that doesn’t always feel safe enough. Or sometimes it’s not even about safety. It’s like, sometimes that just feels too loud.
KL Yeah. Well [quiet sigh] my therapist what says that what we’re doing is a gift. So. I just want to share that [laughing] with you.
SWB Oh my god. If anybody listening has not listened to the episode where we interviewed Katel’s therapist, it is so good. Talk about a gift. Like that—that was a gift.
KL That was really wonderful.
JL And if anyone listening has not subscribed to our newsletter yet, you definitely should because it’s full of more little gifts.
SWB If you aren’t subscribing to our newsletter, we started it about a month ago and we are doing it every other week. We have, like, super-intimate letters from us about things happening in our lives, plus a whole bunch of links and things that we love. And it is called, maybe fittingly, I Love That [laughter]. So if you go to noyougoshow.com/ilovethat, you can subscribe and you can also check out the back issues [music fades in, plays alone for four seconds, fades out].
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JL [Ad spot] We’d also like to take a moment and thank our friends at WordPress. WordPress has been a supporter of NYG since the start, and we’re big fans of theirs too. After all, it’s how we run our website, noyougoshow.com. We trust WordPress because it’s super easy to set up and customize, but it’s also really powerful. For example, we added plugins to host our podcast, and also gather sign-ups for our newsletter. You can even set up a ‘buy’ button or add an online store. Plans start at just four dollars a month, so what are you waiting for? Start building your website today. Go to wordpress.com/noyougo for 15 percent off any new plan purchase. That’s wordpress.com/noyougo for 15 percent off your brand new website [music fades in, plays alone for three seconds, fades out].
Interview: Lilly Chin
JL Lilly Chin is a graduate student at MIT working towards a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Her technical research interests are in robotics hardware design. She studies how old and new forms of media collide, chiefly in video games, film, and internet culture. You might recognize her name, as Lilly was also the 2017 College Jeopardy Tournament champion! And she even created a meme while doing so. Welcome to No, You Go, Lilly.
Lilly Chin Yeah, it’s great to be here.
JL Oh so we’re super excited that you’re here. We’re big fans of Jeopardy both at my house and at work [Lilly chuckles]. I have to tell you that we followed the College Tournament really intently, and we were definitely all rooting for you when you were on.
LC Thanks [laughs].
JL [Laughs] We had this joke that I was going to miss who won because the final day of the tournament was also actually my son’s due date.
LC Oh! Oh! Oh. [Laughs].
JL And uh, sure enough, I went into labor that morning. At one point during labor, I think I definitely said to my husband and doula, “I wonder who won College Jeopardy.” [Laughter] We were very stoked the next week to find out that it was you.
LC Oh thanks [laughs].
JL [Laughs] So what got you interested in being on Jeopardy?
LC The RA from my dorm, actually, he had been on Jeopardy the summer before and we had all like made viewing parties and gone to see him. So when it came time for the test to be taken, he was like, “Oh, you all should just take it and see how you do.” And so it actually took a couple of tries before I was on the show, but then, yeah, my second time I tried out I got on. So.
JL Nice! That’s awesome. What—what’s the audition process like?
LC So it’s pretty cool. The first round is just this online test and it’s just really quick-fire, just asking you trivia questions. And if you do well enough on that, they invite you to an audition, which is in person. And the producers themselves definitely have a ton of energy because at the end of the day, Jeopardy’s a TV show. So they want to make sure that you’re really excited, that you have some sort of stage presence, and that, like, you know, you’re actually the person who took the exam since it’s all online.
JL Hmm. Yes [laughs]. Were you nervous going into that?
LC I was very nervous the first time, but the second time I actually was thinking like, “Oh, I have to go all the way to New York. It’s kind of a pain,” and I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go. But I had a lot of fun, so I ended up just going. And I think being more relaxed the second time around helped me out, like, be more natural in front of the camera.
JL When did—do you find out right away if you’re going to be on?
LC Oh no, so for the tournament you actually have to wait for like a month or so. I had forgotten actually when I got the call that I was going to be on, and for adult Jeopardy you actually have to wait. You’re in the contestant pool for like a year and a half before, so you’re just waiting there.
JL Wow! [Yeah] So when you found out and then you went to the show, what was the energy like on set there?
LC That’s really interesting. because it’s—like you have 15 people that definitely don’t know each other just sort of randomly in this place. And the thing I was struck by was that the set was actually quite large, right? Like you’re so used to seeing it on the TV just like cutting from the clues to the contestants and back again, but like actually seeing it as a space that you inhabit, it was really interesting. I guess also the energy is [stammers] it’s just the same thing of like, oh I understand, all of these contestant producers are really trying to hype you up and have you really excited. And so at the end of the first day, I just immediately went to bed. I didn’t even have dinner or anything. Just like, conked out, because I was just so exhausted from being that high-energy. Yeah the next couple of times I went on the show actually it was a lot more comfortable, because I knew how sort of the filming schedule works. But it’s a very tiring experience.
JL How did you prepare for being on the show?
LC So I did trivia in high school, so like Quiz Bowl and those things. So I had most of my trivia knowledge from there. But I would say like the one month before the show it was like learning about betting strategy, reading up of what the common questions are. I don’t think I did as much preparation as other people did, but definitely looking into betting strategy was a big one.
JL I feel like it’s such a wide variety—like, you never really know. I mean there’s like some repeats on Jeopardy all the time in like topics but it’s like, how could you possibly narrow it all down?
LC Yeah, I mean, it’s a funny thing, right? Because it’d still a TV show, so you need to have the answers be things that people at home will be like, “Oh! I’ve heard of this before.” So you can’t have it too obscure. I—I remember one thing funny though is that the popular culture is definitely like, right, like I’m a 2000s kid and so I think one of the things was like ’80s and ‘90s TV shows, and I was like, “Well, I know I’m not going to do well in this.” [laughter] Yeah.
JL I know I think—my co-workers and I always watch that, and that’s, like, definitely our alley so [laughter]. So we mentioned a bit in the intro that you are also the creator of a meme, which happened during Final Jeopardy. Can you tell us that story?
LC So I had seen like people give funny Final Jeopardy answers in the past. So I decided beforehand that, oh if I ever have a chance to do a lock game, like a game where I would win no matter what, I would put some funny answer down. And I decided to do “dank memes,” but then I was like, oh that’s probably not PG enough for Jeopardy, so I decided “spicy memes.” And then on the Final Jeopardy thing it turned out it was a “who is” question, so then I said, “Who is the spiciest memelord?” And got Alex Trebek to say it on national television [laughter].
KL That’s amazing.
JL So it was not planned?
LC I knew that like if I had the chance, I definitely wanted to say it, but it was also not planned for how viral of a reaction was gotten. Like it turned out—I was just thinking about my friends. Like, “we watch memes all the time at home, they’ll like it.” And then it turned out the internet also [laughs] really likes memes. So I did not plan for that at all. Yeah.
JL Right. Yeah. How has that—how has that been?
LC So I’ve been actually thinking about writing more academically about this experience, but this idea of the sudden burst of fame—like I was on the front page of Reddit twice, there’s like a million views on that video, and then it suddenly has a spike and then this long tail of just there’s still this ambient fame, especially since I’m still at MIT for graduate school where people, especially other students, will recognize me. But, you know, just the other day I was in the North End and got recognized on the street, and it’s not something I’m expecting. And this idea of like, you know, this sudden burst of fame. Like going up and then going down again and then suddenly like, “Oh reruns are happening, I’m getting a lot more Facebook messages from randos.” It’s sort of interesting, and it’s also interesting to be known more for Jeopardy than for my research, which is something I’m more excited about, I guess. But at the same time, the fame that I’ve gotten from Jeopardy might’ve helped me in terms of like recognition for my own research, right? Like whenever my advisor introduces me to someone else from a different lab, she’s like, “Oh do you know that this is the [laughing] Jeopardy winner?” [Laughter] So that’s an interesting balance. Yeah.
JL You’ve even taught a class about this, right? At MIT?
LC Yeah. So there’s an educational studies program where MIT undergrads and grad students can teach high school and middle school students. And so this was related with the comparative media studies part, where I really enjoy sort of showing that like it’s not just like analyzing books or film, like you can actually do all of these cool analyses of contemporary media culture. So that’s what I was trying to do was take my current case example and being like, “Look: here’s how these media analysis techniques can really help you understand what’s going on in your life, even if it’s something as weird as like national television.”
JL I mean have your views changed a lot about what it’s like to be a public figure?
LC Yeah. I think I’m more confused—I get more and more confused about why people want to be famous. Like when I’m doing my Twitch streaming, I think it’s interesting that there’s always like these people who are like, “Oh I want to make it big,” and there’s some crazy statistic about one in three British children want to be a YouTube star when they grow up [laughter][oh]. Yeah it’s because I mean that’s what you’re growing up with, and that’s what you’re seeing as your content. It’s not like TV or movies as much anymore. It’s like, “Oh, I see these kids making videos on YouTube.” And I’m sort of like wondering why people want the fame, because like I kind of get it, right? Like I want my research to have exposure because then more people are thinking about my ideas and I think I really appreciate that. but then at the same time it’s like there’s so much attention to your life. Also like the harassment part of it, and it’s a weird public/private divide that I’m not sure people know fully what they’re getting into when they sign up for this. And some people enjoy being like a figure of controversy, right? Like Kanye West and Donald Trump come to mind, where it doesn’t matter what the press is but as long as people are talking about you, it sort of continues like some gratification.
JL Right. I mean there’s—I mean you talked about being on the front page of Reddit and there’s also a Jeopardy community subreddit, and how does it feel to, like, look at people talking about you?
LC I was worried at first that there was going to be—about the internet hate. And there’s a Woman of Jeopardy Facebook group where people sort of like commiserate about the experience. Yeah there’s a really good Vice article that’s called like, “Big Tits for $600,” and it’s just sort of like a very good compilation and just sort of talking about the experience of being a woman on national television and sort of what that means. So I was—I was a little bit nervous about that, because I had read these stories before, but when it came down to it and I saw what people were writing, it just sort of seemed so petty that people were coming up with these impressions of me after 20 minutes of national television. I was actually more taken aback the second time I went around for the Tournament of Champions where people were actually extremely nice and just sort of doing analysis of the game and less about me because I had braced myself for all of this verbal abuse, and then when it wasn’t there and people were just really kind it’s like, “Oh she tried really hard,” it was really not what I expected and sort of threw me off guard.
JL For those who don’t know, on Reddit you can like you have like a little identifier that says that you were a contestant on the show to prove that it’s you. And I’ve seen like a couple of people definitely get into the threads with other people and reply to some of it, and I feel like a lot of is positive but then, you know, as you mentioned, like with women I’ll see a lot of comments like, “Oh her—” Not about you, about like other contestants that will be like, “Oh I hated her! Her voice was so annoying.” And it’s like wow! [Chuckles] People are harsh.
LC Yeah it’s just also like… in some sense of being like a female figure like in the—in the spotlight, it sort of puts you up. Like we’re so used to thinking about women in terms of their outward appearance that even when it’s on a very academic game like Jeopardy, people are still defaulting to thinking of it, like, as an object of attraction or something.
JL You’ve talked about, you know, you have an interest in the “fight to maintain one’s identity and narrative in a hyper-mediated network culture.” [Mm hmm] Can you describe a bit what that means?
LC What I found really is that … usually you have some control over your own identity. It’s very closely tied to you. Obviously you can’t control everything about what people think about but you, you know, you talk to people it forms an identity. But what happened is that with Jeopardy there was this very immediate division between myself and my image, right? So like millions of people saw me saying, “Who is the spiciest memelord?” on national television and so some people—so some people are trying to co-opt this as like, “Oh look! It’s a meme culture.” And then other people are like—Jeopardy itself is trying to co-opt this in saying like, “We need to target the 18 to 35 age demographic for advertisements and this is like, you know, a cool kid.” So they kind of go over and it’s like, “How do you do fellow kids?” And my friends from high school when they were like, “Why—why are you on my Instagram feed?” And I was like, “What?” And it turns out that they had used my image to advertise on Instagram to try to encourage more people to apply for the college test. Which I think is crazy like sure, yeah, I signed off all my rights, but in some sense, right? Like their curation of my image is no longer outside my control. I’m like fighting against, you know, Jeopardy, I’m fighting against 4Chan, I’m fighting against all of these forces about who gets to control my image. So it becomes an interesting thing, because I think this happens on some level to everybody, right? There was a good article talking about how Snapchat is dying and this idea that even on Facebook, even on Twitter, all of these things were cultivating our own personal brand of how we want to come up with. That everything is now sort of a online interactive CV, and there’s not really a chance for you to be yourself because you’re worried about how it’s going to be taken either way. So not everyone has this experience of, like, “suddenly national television is taking my image and running with it,” but we’re always sort of trying to deal with this idea that now that everything’s on the internet, there’s so many different forces that you’re really trying to curate something, and is it even possible anymore?
JL Do you think it’s possible?
LC I think in some sense you have to accept that like you no longer have control of your image which [chuckles] is—which is kind of like what I’m doing. But at the same time, so this is coming from a book I read from Jon Ronson, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. It’s this idea where individual people have to sort of be their own PR firm. That like you have to do, like, this brand curation. I think it is possible, but it becomes a lot more effort and you sort of have to understand what you’re doing, right? There’s a lot of talk about the right to be forgotten, because it’s like, oh kids don’t understand what they’re doing and you might say something dumb on the internet. I don’t think we ever had the right to be forgotten, like within your community—it’s the classic like, you know, small town, scarlet letter, everybody knows what you did wrong—but I think encouraging more people to understand how these forces happen and how to better protect yourself, I think that’s sort of the best you can do.
JL I do a lot of public speaking in the web field and I remember like the first time that I got back from a conference and the conference had posted pictures of me, and of course I’m, like, in mid-word so my face is all distorted, and it’s just like, I’m like, “Oh my god, that’s awful!” But I was like, “Hey, I guess I made it.” [Laughter] And I remember now because I have like, you know, people will be like, “Hey, can you take a picture?” And then they’ll like, you’ll take a picture of them and they’ll want to see the picture to like see if it’s ok [yeah] and I don’t—that doesn’t happen to me anymore. Like I’ve just given up on that battle [right][chuckles], because I think there’s so many bad pictures of me on the internet. But I did a talk one time for a Girl Develop It group here which was like sort of trying to encourage more people to get into public speaking and it was just sort of like, you know, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And I went through and showed highlights of all the terrible pictures of me on the internet and it just sort of was like one of those, “Well, like really what is the worst-case scenario of this?” And sort of, “Is it that bad in protecting yourself, like maybe against the things that are really bad? Not things like, ‘Oh here’s an unflattering image of me’.”
LC For public speaking, you go out there and you know really clearly that, “Oh I’m going to put out a face and I’m going to present myself and so I should prepare myself for, you know, being judged by other people.” But now with the internet, it’s less clear that really like anything that you do, like, it could be subject to like people seeing it and people making judgements of it. There was a famous case, which is Justine Sacco who made a tweet that was like, “Oh I’m going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding, I’m white.” [Oh yes] Yeah.
JL Before she got on a plane, right?
JL And then she got off the plane and there was an obvious amount of backlash, yeah.
LC And but the thing was, is that she only had like 200 followers before that, and so she probably thought, like, “Oh I’m just going to make this like off-color joke to like my 200 friends,” and then so what she thought was a private transaction actually blew up into like a huge like, you know, trending on Twitter like number-one thing. And I think that’s really the idea that I’m trying to get at is that it’s less clear what your private and public actions should be. So you sort of overprotectively try to curate everything. And then you sort of, like you were saying about the pictures, it’s almost impossible to do that.
JL Right. So you know all of this, like you know all of the potential [laughs] for repercussions of being on the internet and what can happen. But that said, like, you are still like I think sort of embracing this public figure. So, as you mentioned before, you have a Twitch stream, right?
JL Tell us a little bit more about that. Like, what makes you stream? And what sort of things are you streaming?
LC So I stream on Twitch, and Twitch is primarily for video games, and so I started streaming because one: I had the Jeopardy fame and I was like, “Oh, this would be a good platform to jump off on,” and two: a lot of my friends stream speed runs, which are trying to play video games super fast and I was like, oh, as a media scholar, I don’t understand why they do it so the easiest way to learn would be to do it myself. And it started off from this academic interest and then it turned into, I really appreciate the community. There are a couple of people from Scandinavia who like tune into me like super regularly, even though it’s like 3 am in Sweden time. And I find myself that like I’m putting on this like show for them, that I enjoy talking to them. I enjoy like, you know, discussing the video games, or like what’s going on in my life. And that’s sort of an interesting feeling, like it’s gone beyond just like, “Oh I want to put my ideas out there,” and it’s to, “I want to talk to these like two or three people,” and then I make more friends and it’s quite nice.
JL It’s again that balance, right? Like here’s a potentially like field that we’re like opening ourselves to all this potential negativity, but you keep finding really positive things.
LC Because in some sense the reason why it is still [chuckles] a positive experience is because I have like, you know, ten people who watch me regularly on a twice-a-week basis, right? And similarly I have sort of private I guess IRC, you know, like internet chat channels that I do with my friends, and in some sense like the only reason that these are still nice is because they’re public, but they’re still private in a way. And sort of finding these spaces on like an increasingly networked world is difficult. In the past it used to be that you would be in these local communities, right? Like, “Oh, I live in the Cambridge area so I’ll like talk to all of the people in Cambridge and find similar things,” but now in some sense we’re creating local communities but on the internet. So it’s no longer local geographically but it’s local in terms of interests or maybe like respect for each other and things like that.
JL Like you were you saying, you know, you just jumped into streaming because you wanted to learn more about, which is just so neat like to just like, “Ok. I’ve got an interest in something. I’m just going to do it,” is that generally how you live your life?
LC Yeah. I definitely do things because like, “Oh, it’ll be a lot of fun.” Or like, “It’ll be a good story out of it.” The whole thing about doing the spiciest memelord was definitely like, “I’ll get a good story out of this,” or like, you know, even trying out for Jeopardy in the first place.
JL I think that’s like such a neat idea. You know, I was reading a bit on your Reddit AMA, you had said, “One of my guiding principles for whether I’m wavering between whether or not I should do something is, will I get a good story out of it?”
LC Yeah [laughing] exactly.
JL This year the College Jeopardy Tournament of 2018 just happened and you also offered advice to the folks taking part in it. And you’ve also been an MIT Women in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science mentor. And worked with Girls Who Code. You are a mentor extraordinaire!
LC Oh. I don’t know. It’s just like, I have advice and, like, I appreciate all the people who gave me advice. So it makes sense to just sort of give back because I can. Yeah, I don’t know, I thought it was interesting because recently someone came up to me and was like, “Hey, do you want to be part of my admissions consulting group, where like, you know, parents pay a lot of money and you, like, review essays and stuff like that?” And it just felt really bad like because—because on one level, right, I enjoy doing this work and like it would be nice to get paid for it. But on the other hand, it felt like contributing to these systems of like people not getting the mentorship that they need just because they don’t have the right networks or they don’t have a ton of cash, and it feels like the right thing to do is to—is to give back in whatever ways you can. Like oftentimes I feel like I’m not giving as much as I could. I was a MedLink in the dorm system, which basically like we’re students and we live in a dorm and we have basic first aid training. And we also know about all the medical resources on campus. So if people are having relationship troubles we can point them to mental health or, you know, if they got a cut we have band-aids and things. And I think that was one of like most rewarding experiences because it’s not just that, “Oh like I want to help people because like it boosts a resume,” or something like that. It’s just that people are—people are having trouble and you want to help them out how you can. I guess like I don’t see… I feel like I could do more for mentorship like because like, as you’re saying, like I’m doing a lot of different things, but at the same time I feel like being there and at least like reminding people that there is somebody who cares is important.
JL Right. It’s really neat so I mean you find it rewarding, I’m assuming.
LC Yeah. Like I said I have a sort of insecurities about, am I actually doing enough to help people? Because when you’re doing so many things, like, is it on a superficial level or not? That’s why—that’s why I was a little—I was a little like taken aback when you were like, “Oh you’re a mentor extraordinaire.” Because on some level it’s just giving advice to people because you’ve been through these experiences and, you know, they haven’t. Even the older grad students when I’m freaking out about things and they’re just being like, “Yeah I freaked out about this too,” it’s sort of comforting [chuckles].
JL So what’s next? What has you super excited?
LC I’m really excited about my research, especially now that it’s summertime because I don’t have—sort of going from undergrad to grad school is this transition away from other people are setting the curriculum, and like telling you what to learn, to I’m setting my own path and like my own research. So I’m working in soft robotics. So usually when you think of a robot it’s this hard metal skeleton, but soft robots is this thing, “Hey! What if we make robots out of rubber or silicone, like soft materials, so that they’re safer around people and they can pick up squishy things?” So I’ve been working on, how do we make these soft robots work? How do they grab things? I’m also really excited about sort of this Jeopardy paper that I’m doing: how do we think about fame and identity using myself as a case study, but sort of broadening it to other people. And then finally, I guess, the combination of these two interests is as robots are becoming more and more commonplace, as algorithms and big data are sort of changing the way we approach things, how can we have people still be like comfortable with this—with these new algorithms and things? Like it’s more than just like, “If I have the robot from the Jetson’s show up like can I interact with it?” It’s more on a fundamental level of when I say “AI” most people don’t know what this means. And it’s actually pretty understandable but we need to stop thinking about scientists as like, you know, these like mad scientists who are doing whatever they want in their lab coats and more of something approachable, especially as the future is heading towards that direction.
JL We’ve talked a little bit before with one of our previous guests, Alison, about this idea of what the scientist—the white man in the white lab coat.
LC [Laughing] Yeah exactly.
JL [Laughs] The crazy hair. And I think like generally, you know, you start talking about robots and generally there’s like the, either like, “I am intimidated by that subject,” or like, Skynet questions I think starts being thrown out.
LC Yeah. I think, especially for my research, right? So soft robotics, it’s intentionally for like, you know, being around humans instead of not being in a factory somewhere, and I remember someone—there was a conversation about like, what does the future of work look like? And they were like, “Oh! You know, service jobs will be ok because who wants a robot to take care of grandma?” And I was like raising my hand, I was like, “Actually this is literally my [laughing] research!” And so on some level, I really want to tell people the thinking behind it of like the direction because I can’t predict the future of what research is going to be like, but to reduce the fear of like, “What does AI mean? What does deep learning mean?” I think would help people understand like, ok, like one: this is a future that I can understand; and two: this is a future where I can actually belong in.
JL So, what are you telling people?
LC So one thing that I need to keep remembering is that when I am not in MIT, and everyone’s working on like robots and drones and what have you, that like most people when they hear “robots” they’re like, “Woah! Like you must be really smart!” And I’m like, “Wait, no, I’m not. I’m not that smart.” And it’s just like—it’s just like, you know, you know how to build things, you know how to build things with Legos and stuff like that and when also when people hear “algorithms” they think of like ones and zeros flying everywhere, but at the end of the day an algorithm is just a set of instructions, you know. When you follow a recipe you’re already following an algorithm of some sort. So I think like, you know, it’s the same thing of like being able to talk about your experiences and sort of destigmatizing things whether it’s like, you know, “Math is hard,” or like, “Algorithms are mysterious black boxes.” I think just explaining things and, you know, being patient. I mean I think that people are going to realize at some point that robots are just a tool, right? And that like you still need to remember that like tools are for humanity.
JL Lilly, before you go, where will the next place be that we see you?
LC Hopefully on, like, the cover of the New York Times for some cool robot research.
KL Yes! Also you’re welcome back here anytime.
LC Oh, thank you! [Laughs]
JL Please let us know how the soft robotics are going. And how we can make sure to [Katel laughs] welcome our new overlords.
LC All right [chuckles].
KL Awesome. Thank you so much for being with us.
LC Yeah, thanks for interviewing me [music fades in, plays alone for two seconds, fades out].
KL So this week I want to say a “fuck yeah” to Pride Month, because June is Pride Month and I’m—that’s awesome. It’s also my birthday. Just PS. Just letting you know. And, I don’t know, this got me thinking about some of the folks that I follow on Instagram, and one of them is a brand called Wild Fang, and I really love them because they like they really walk the walk. They’re—they—they sort of say they’re not just a brand, they’re a band. And I—I love that because they’re very focused on the people who buy their clothing, and their very feminist, and they like—you can see that in everything that they do, including the fact that they give a lot of money that they raise to charity. And this month a percentage of their proceeds is going to The Trevor Project, which is the world’s largest non-profit organization focused on suicide prevention and crisis intervention among lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, which is fucking amazing. So this just got me thinking and we sort of started talking a little bit about who we’re shopping and brands that we’re supporting and I think it just led us to talking about like paying attention to that a little bit more.
SWB Yeah. One of the things that I’ve really been noticing is just, it feels like there’s a lot more options all of a sudden for brands that I can support that are doing things that are important to me or that are offering products that are like just more inclusive and also just better suited to like me personally. And it seems like a big sea change that’s happening just in the last couple of years. Like for example I know a lot of folks go absolutely wild for Everlane, and one of the things Everlane does is like, they do luxury basics is their market. Luxury basics like reasonably priced or something. I don’t think that’s their actual tagline. And one of the things that they do is they tell you exactly how much of that money was spent on paying the garment workers, how much of it was spent on shipping, how much of it they get as profit, and so it’s really clear exactly where that money is going, and I think that that is, you know, that’s like one example of a way that they’re kind of trying to set some new standards. I’m really excited to see organizations that are like making cool shit with a good cause in mind, making cool shit that is going to serve a wider range of people, just making cool shit while throwing away some of the like bad practices of retail industry.
KL Another place that I have bought a couple of things from which is just like a fun clothing shop that does like t-shirts and sweatshirts. It’s actually… I’m wearing this sweatshirt in my photo on the website and it says, “Smile,” and it has like a possum and it just has, “Smile,” is crossed out and it says, “Nope.” Which I fucking love. It’s like my favorite sweatshirt, and it’s by a company called Culture Flock, and they are a company that, quoting them, “believes in equality for all, being kind to others, and protecting the planet, and having fun every day.” And I love that because it’s very simple, but they’re also—we’ve talked about this on the show a couple of times, about like place and that you can do really fucking cool things in like a lot of different places—and they’re based in Springfield, Missouri, which I think is super cool.
JL I’ve also been trying to remember to shop local. And trying to pick up things at like places nearby where I live, because just like people in Springfield, Missouri, there’s places everywhere that have a lot of—a lot of local, great shops near there. So I’ve been trying to remember to do that instead of doing my very easy and convenient ordering that I do sometimes, sometimes I’ll go down the street to get the baby shampoo that I need instead of ordering that and getting it in five days.
KL Totally. It also like feels really good when you can see the person who is either, you know, either owns the shop where they’ve obviously done a lot of thinking about what they’re stocking there or, you know, they’ve even made it. It’s very cool to buy something directly from that person.
SWB I just really like the way that we are having a lot more conversations, at least like in the circles that I’m in and I think like in the circles that maybe a lot of our listeners are in, about sort of what we’re buying and where it’s from, and why we’re buying it, and it’s not to say that I’ve stopped all like bad impulse buys when it comes to, like, t-shirts that I think I’m going to love and then I don’t love or whatever. But it really has made me think a little bit more carefully about the way that I think about things like fashion, or the way that I think about like who and what I’m supporting. But yeah! I’m like really excited to see just a lot more options and a more stuff that I can feel better about and not just feel like I’m, you know, just spending money on fast fashion. So I guess I would say, fuck yeah to having way more options when it comes to places we could shop locally, places we could shop online, and maybe an even bigger fuck yeah to the fact that now I know what to get Katel for her birthday, which is definitely going to come from Wild Fang.
KL Yesssssss. Fuck yeah! That’s it for this week’s episode of No, You Go, the show about being ambitious—and sticking together. NYG is recorded in our home city of Philadelphia, and produced by Steph Colbourn. Our theme music is by The Diaphone. Thanks to Lilly Chin for being our guest today. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please make sure to subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcast. Aaaand subscribe to our newsletter! Your support helps us spread the word, and we love that. We’ll be back next week with another great guest [music fades in, plays alone for 34 seconds, fades out to end].