Shaman (Chief Visionary), Transform Alliance for Health

Dr. Vyvyane Loh graduated Magna Cum Laude from CAS with majors in Biology and Classical Languages and Literature, and subsequently graduated from the Boston University School of Medicine. Eight years later she received an MFA in Creative Writing from Warren Wilson College.  Dr. Loh was awarded the Bunting/Radcliffe Fellowship in Fiction in 2006, a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fiction in 2008, and was shortlisted for the 2005 international IMPAC Award in Literature for her debut novel, Breaking the Tongue. She continues to utilize her knowledge of the humanities and of medicine to inspire creativity, health, and ambition. She is now the Chief Visionary at the Transform Alliance for Health in Newton, MA. Dr. Loh sat down with the Department three decades after graduating as part of our series in which we check in with our alumni, and ask them to reflect on the impact that Classical Studies has had on their personal and professional lives. Dr. Loh has had what many would consider to be an unusual career trajectory for someone so passionate about the language and literature of Ancient Greece, but to her it isn’t strange at all. In fact, Dr. Loh thinks “that every medical student should have a foundation in the Classics.” Here’s why:



How did you decide on a Classical Language and Literature major?

I started at BU as a Biology major and I had already fulfilled many of the biology requirements at home in Singapore and so while I ended up doing some independent studies in biology, I thought that I had better fill out my time with something that I knew nothing about. So I was flipping through the catalog of majors and saw Classics and that was certainly one thing that I knew nothing about. Then, when I came to Professor Scully’s office, he had insisted that since I was on the pre-med track that I should take Latin, but I insisted on Greek. And the more he urged me to take Latin, the more certain I became that I had to take Greek.

Which Classics classes stood out to you while you were at BU?

Reading epic, especially Homer in Greek and Gilgamesh, really confronted me with the idea of human connection and the human condition. I was very young and confused at the time trying to make my way in the world and living with my own humanity and my own emotions and so it really spoke to me in that sense.

Were there any other experiences in your undergraduate that stood out?

I remember feeling very at home in the department. Coming from Singapore, it was important for me to have a base and a sense of belonging here. I remember getting a key to the library and just being able to meet there regularly or go there at any time, especially with such a small group contributed to that sense of home.

What place has the Classics major held in your life, professionally or personally, after graduation?

My deeper understanding of my patients is grounded in Classics. It helped me read people better, especially their words, and analyzing texts allowed for that. I think many of my patients tend to feel uncomfortable talking with regular health care practitioners about their mental health and I think they tend to feel more comfortable talking about that kind of thing with me because I have a certain knowledge of the things that they are talking about, like life, love, death, and suffering that comes from the Classics curriculum.

Had it not been for my Classics education, I would not be able to approach those topics as meaningfully. I specialize in metabolic disorders, the most common of which is obesity. I often say that food is not the problem, it is the solution to the problem, the bigger problem, which is life. Whether it involves relationships, family, etc, (the things that nobody talks about) I talk about them and it truly makes a difference in my patients’ lives and makes their problems more approachable and solvable.

Separately, going back to that idea of finding a home for myself here in the Classics department, I actually talk a lot about that in my new non-fiction book I have been working on. Although it focuses on medicine, that concept of home has since stuck with me and seeps into my writing still.

What advice would you give to young people who would like to follow in your footsteps?

I may be biased, but I think that every medical student should have a foundation in the Classics. Everything that you learn there really comes to life when you are a doctor. Things like the Iliad and Gilgamesh really haunt me in a way because when translating, you’re interacting so deeply with the text, which is different than simply reading it, such as with, say, an English major who has a stack of books to get through and perhaps spends less time with every word. Working through a thought process in translation was so rewarding because comprehension came through the slow, but unique act of translation.

Also, everyday I had to negotiate American culture into what I could understand and doing that with Greek and Latin (which I eventually took later) validated my experience of being a foreign student, with the material and language itself being so foreign to me.