A Conversation with Steven Chan | See previous interviews

Steven Chan
Clinical Informatics Fellow

Steven Chan

Where were you born and raised? Tell me about your family and share an anecdote about your place in the hierarchy.

I was born in the East Coast and we moved to California. I am the oldest of three, and I tend to be independent and march to beat of my own drum. Our parents had "no video games" rules in place that we broke all the time! We fired up the old IBM PC and snuck online to use dial-up Internet to post messages and talk with other video gamers. Isn't that what teens do?

Did you collect anything when you were a kid? Do you still have that collection or have you another, like tech gizmos?

I've collected so many things! I collected newspapers from around the world; I loved studying typography and layout. Now, being in the DHM and DOM is such a treat because we get department newsletters—I love seeing how people creatively arrange and communicate information.

I also collected Star Wars toys, Micro Machines like tiny X-Wings and TIE Fighters that fit in a dental retainer case. I also collected train and bus tickets, schedules and passport stamps; I even have the tickets from when I moved to Berkeley fifteen years ago and my unlimited transit passes from when I was in college–it captures my life in travel! I am also a digital packrat: all of my pictures are stored electronically and are easy to keep close.

Does it follow naturally that problem-solving games are a pathway to information technology?

I loved video games but not so much board games. You know, video games unfortunately has been a stereotypical guys-only thing, huddling around an arcade or a television set, but now, games are so accessible to everyone. Businesspeople, parents, and older people can play casual games, hidden-object games on their phone, crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and matching puzzles. In the past, since video games were so technical on the computer and required the right hardware and software drivers, perhaps that's why I segued into informatics and technology. It can be addictive, like gambling, and visual animations can be a reward and payoff. I stumbled into this because I loved computers, and when I was in medical school I loved the human interaction and wondered if there couldn't be technology that could help people with anxiety or depression.

Emotions have not traditionally been data-driven or quantifiable, like the lab tests we do in medicine, but increasingly there are tools that can help identify and quantify happy, angry, and sad emotions. In the future, technology tools for behavioral wellness and emotional health will be more commonplace, since right now we are facing shortages of professionals in psychiatry, psychology, and mental health. There are wait lists in even metropolitan areas, and lack of providers in rural areas; sometimes professionals are even flown into areas because the demand is so high. Cost is a major factor so, again, that is why the work to develop apps for patients is of critical importance.

What ethics issues arise in mental health apps? Is there an oversight agency or institution?

These apps are not strictly regulated, so there is the possibility of nonprofessionals creating apps that provide harmful advice, such as advising alcohol or drug consumption to feel better. A few papers have discussed how apps have had such harmful advice! It is wrong and can be dangerous if people do not know what to look out for. I belong to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), and we put together criteria and heuristics discussing what makes a good app. Our job is to guide the general public, but it isn't always easy, so we try to improve communication and outreach.

Is there anything that you still prefer doing "old school" analog?

I face this all the time because people want to communicate on Facebook Messenger or on a chat program, and I just don't always want to. There's only so much newness that I can tolerate within a certain time span, so I ask that people email me and then they are taken aback. Email has become old school! I've asked teenagers how they communicate and they say Instagram and direct messages. I still have notebooks and tablets that I can at least doodle on. If and when I have kids, they'll probably tell me to use a brain–computer interface or something—to just think or say something and it will materialize, just like Captain Picard got his Earl Grey tea, or Captain Janeway with her replicated coffee. No, I love making coffee by myself!

Would you rather have the chance to see ten minutes of a beloved part of your past or ten minutes to see into your future?

I would say ten minutes into my future so I know whether I should sell my stocks or see if my retirement has shifted! I could then tell you (Oralia) and my significant other what stocks we should sell!

How do you get people, friends or colleagues, enthused about a project? Facts, hope, or bribery?

Probably a combination of the three. Recently, I had been trying to convince folks to manage their projects onto Outlook Groups, instead of the hodgepodge of email, Box, and wikis (the facts)! I said that it could be fun and would make our lives easier (the hope). I've also tried muffins and coffee (bribery). That last attempt didn't turn out too well, but maybe cold, hard cash might work better.

You mentioned doodling. Are you an artist at heart?

I used to make comics in high school and doodling still makes meetings fun. Have you heard of Sketchnotes? And how artists at conferences can sketch out main points visually? During some DHM Faculty Development training or leadership sessions, I sometimes doodle and it helps me remember things. I take what people say, but some people doodle patterns as a way of internalizing information. During presentations or talks, doodling helps make information come alive in ways that just dry verbalization doesn't always do. In college, I thought about becoming a cartoonist and joined a graphics club. We made computer graphics–animated 3D films and I almost got an internship to Pixar.

Do you really know Kung Fu?

I studied martial arts a decade and a half ago, using bowstaffs, sickles, nunchuks, and bare hands and fists. I haven't practiced in such a long time!

Describe the good, the bad, and the appeal of Google Glass to a nonenthusiast.

It was an experiment that didn't fully work in the consumer market. People wanted Google Glass to do more than it was capable of, the battery life wasn't great, and it looked clunky. There was also the creepiness factor. The technology, though, led to other inventions that could benefit people with hearing impairments or who speak different languages, so there were some good things that evolved from it.

What is your favorite new obsession?

Growing up, I loved the idea of having everything with me in case something happened. I've always packed things into boxes but since moving to Northern California, I've discovered Timbuk2 bags and I love their sales! It's my guilty obsession, getting well-put together bags at outlet prices.

If your refrigerator could talk, what might it say about you? Would it have the makings for a best last meal?

My refrigerator would say to you that I am a "ready to go" kind of guy. That means microwavable food, premade salads, canned coffee and green tea, all from Trader Joe's. Then I am all set for long days of meetings. My last meal would definitely be Mom's home cooking. She has traveled all over the world! She is remarkable and versatile and can make everything; Chinese food, Japanese food, Mexican food, American food—no one can beat Mom’s cooking.

Thank you, Steven.

- by Oralia Schatzman

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