Dr. Olga Tymofiyeva authors "Just City" science-fiction novel

About ten years ago, soon after she had moved to the United States, Olga Tymofiyeva, PhD,  associate professor in the UCSF Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging, watched a lecture by Michael Sandel, professor of government at Harvard, speaking on the nature of justice. Not only did Sandel’s passionate and interactive lecture inform Dr. Tymofiyeva’s own teaching style to this day, but it also inspired her science fiction novel, Just City. Tymofiyeva recalls that “Sandel spoke of the ‘veil of ignorance’ that innately clouds our understanding, formed by our preferences and preconceptions. This is true even in scientists who strive to be without bias. As humans we do not see all the factors that predetermine our path in life, and often are instinctively resentful when they are pointed out.”
This aversion to the invisible rails of nature and nurture that determine so many outcomes in our life was the seed that grew into the novel Just City. At first, Tymofiyeva imagined creating a virtual reality game that would allow people to walk in someone else’s shoes. Then, she took a conceptual step back to write a story about the effect that virtual reality program might have. Somewhere between real-life virtual reality therapeutic treatments and The SIMS, the titular program in Just City allows its users to inhabit different bodies and lives to experience who they would be if their circumstances were fundamentally different.
In a near-future San Francisco, a young man named Nathan dreams of establishing his own start-up to solve homelessness with an app that should make people choose to work. As part of Nathan’s effort to raise money for his dream company, he signs up for a scientific experiment held in a virtual reality game that places players into the lives and experiences of people from very different backgrounds and circumstances. With “success” and “failure” at everyday life displayed as a game with unbalanced odds, Nathan’s once firm belief in meritocracy and our contemporary paradigms of justice begins to crack, placing him in conflict with his friends and his own self-perception.
What does justice mean when our actions are dominoes set in motion by our biology and environment? Tymofiyeva is an optimistic skeptic who sees this complex interplay as an opportunity for compassion. “If the causes influencing a person’s course in life are invisible, observers are much more likely to assign blame instead of sympathy. What we can see first-hand is given more explanatory weight against equally real but visually diffuse causes. And there is so much we don’t see.” 
At UCSF, Tymofiyeva uses imaging technology to reveal what isn’t readily visible to the naked eye. Her research delves deep into MRI as a tool to detect and understand the hidden causes and effects of adolescent mental illness, with a goal of preventing and ameliorating this suffering. “The experience of writing Just City deepened my interest in the variables of prosociality, compassion, self-compassion, and value/meaning-finding as they play out in adolescents’ lives. These factors can have a significant impact on wellbeing and potentially serve as protective factors in the face of depression.”

The four-and-a-half-year journey of writing Just City was an adventure whose success Olga credits as much to all those who helped her as she does to her own drive. She expressly thanks all the people who gave aid as Beta readers, editors, friends who test read, sensitivity readers, her book coach, writing buddies. When she experienced blockages, Tymofiyeva noted that “Sometimes simply having someone on the other end of a silent zoom call can give the accountability necessary to buckle down and put words on the page.”
Just as the writing process was made all the better by the support of those around her, radiology colleagues have been enthusiastic readers and reviewers. Department chair Christopher Hess, MD, PhD, writes that, “Olga's novel draws from her research to tie together the impact of electronic devices on adolescents with everyday issues in San Francisco such as bridging the gap between compassionate care and dispassion in managing the homeless.” David Saloner, PhD, noted that that Tymofiyeva’s novel “cleverly weaves together a number of current concepts in a coming-of-age tale embedded deep in the fabric of San Francisco. The book is a fun read with broad appeal – even for those as young as high schoolers.” In expressing her gratitude to colleagues, Tymofiyeva said, “The reception of the book by everyone at UCSF has been amazing. Hearing people’s thoughts about the book has created real connections, real conversations. It’s precious.”  
While a fully immersive virtual empathy engine is unfortunately not for sale at the moment, Tymofiyeva suggests that the lesson at the heart of Just City is caring enough to hear the life stories of others, which is possible to accomplish right now in our physical reality. She adds that, “We can also educate ourselves and others on the strong interplay between physical injury or illness and what makes up our personality. The most important avenue, and indeed the simplest approach to compassion and understanding, is to simply get out into the world of other people and pay attention to the stories they are living.” 

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