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‘Brain Bridges’: Stanford senior makes documentary on global talent flow

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“What is an invention that is inherently human?” film studies major Dexter Sterling Simpson ’21 said. “The bridge.” 

“Brain Bridges,” Simpson’s new documentary, investigates global talent flows, brain hubs and socioeconomic development, all parts of a long-term project by Stanford sociologist and Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) Director Gi-Wook Shin. It is now available on APARC’s YouTube channel. It opens with a depiction of several television reporters in quick succession using the term “brain drain.” This term has been used in the past to suggest that emigration leaves home countries depleted of human capital. But Simpson does not see it that way.

In an interview with The Daily, Simpson said that the bridge metaphor helps the audience understand the two-way transfer of information, experience and communication, instead of the one-way notion of “brain drain.” He added that the term “brain linkage” gives another dimension to the concept, connoting not so much a linear visual, but something decentralized and multifaceted, like a web.

A 2016 clip of Shin comes into the frame next in which Shin gives a speech, describing his personal immigration experience. He explained that the focus of human talent is centered around human capital (skills, education, knowledge and experience, for example) when it should be focused on what he calls “social capital,” a new model for valuing labor that incorporates the connections between cultures and the potential for transnational collaboration.

A positive-sum approach

In 2018, the U.S. was the home of 91 billion-dollar startups, according to Simpson. 55% of those startups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs. He argues that “minds and bodies in transit” connect the world in a positive-sum game.

Noa Ronkin, associate director for communications and external relations at APARC, said in an interview with The Daily that when shifting to a point of view which encapsulates the entire array of connections and networking that an individual has, it becomes evident that there is an “ongoing system” of people and companies from multiple countries that builds over time. 

Ronkin also said that in some countries immigration is not “very encouraged” and that a theme throughout the rest of the documentary is “to look at different ways that governments can develop policies … that can be implemented to make these opportunities more available for their people.”

The production team

Simpson began filming in the summer of 2019, meeting regularly with Shin and APARC research project manager Joyce Lee, who have been working together for over 10 years. Through a research assistant job with APARC, Simpson was able to learn about the effects that highly skilled migrants have on the U.S. and their home countries as an aspect of globalization, often including the stories of Stanford scholars and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Simpson said that Shin and Lee gave him the freedom to go home and think about individual aspects of the film before putting together a coherent finished project. Over time, he said, the documentary became a “living force of its own.”

Simpson described experiencing a “scattered mind” when trying to pinpoint a beginning, middle and end to the documentary.

“It was meant to introduce people who had never been aware of the concepts,” Simpson said, “but also inform people of just the depth of global talent migration and of brain linkages.”

Shin wrote in an email to The Daily that Simpson “refuses to be conventional” in his process.

“I like such attitudes and his fun-loving yet serious character, which I think are well reflected in this film,” Shin wrote.

Lee wrote that filming was done prior to shelter-in-place orders, but production took place in the spring of this year.

“It was everyone’s first time exploring this new way of sharing and promoting our research initiative — that is, ‘visualizing’ (in a literal sense) research, while we were used to textualizing research,” she wrote.

Simpson said that while he did not anticipate completing his project remotely, the overall experience has given him insights into his career trajectory.

“I learned so much not only about my relationship with the work and with the research but also just about documentary filmmaking in general … This really confirmed my passion, and I absolutely intend to keep making films like these.”

Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Matthew Turk is a writer for The Stanford Daily.