In this episode, we sit down with Kaiping Chen, Assistant Professor in Life Sciences Communication at UW–Madison. She leads us down the path to what she does now, from exploring political science to diving into the computational methods that drive her communications research. Through her community engagement work, she seeks to connect data science, democratic theory, and human-computer interactions to find out how to empower people, especially those who are underserved, to participate in environmental policymaking.
She explains how she’s finding out who says what in deliberation processes and highlights her invaluable experiences collaborating with community members and listening to community NGOs. Lastly, she delves into the support required for young STEM faculty, emphasizing the significance of holistic success criteria, promotions, and diverse mentorship opportunities in the field.
Michelle Chung: There are so many ways we try to connect with others. Maybe it's practicing those hours we log on Duolingo to talk with your neighbors that speak different languages. Or the smile we share with someone after they open the door for you. For today's guest, Kaiping Chen, finding and understanding ways of connecting is what fuels her passion for communication.
Meg Riker: And as a communications scholar, she is always learning from connecting with others, whether it's through her time as a piano player, using music as a medium for connection that crosses language barriers to her curiosity into how people participate in local government. This passion for connection led her to UW–Madison as an assistant professor in Life Sciences Communication, where she works to connect to the communities to learn about how they engage in environmental policymaking.
Michelle Chung: She'll talk about her path into science communication and share with us some of the amazing work she's doing in community engagement and thoughts and how to make the journey easier for other young faculty in STEM. We're so lucky to have her on to connect with us and all of you folks listening in.
Meg Riker: From the Wisconsin Energy Institute and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. I'm Meg.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle.
Meg Riker: And you're listening to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women in energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW–Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Michelle Chung: Let's dive in with Kaiping Chen.
Kaiping Chen: Hi everyone. I'm Kaiping Chen and I am an assistant professor in computational communication from the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW–Madison.
Michelle Chung: One of the main questions that you ask is how can we combine public information to engage with under-resourced people? You said there's a lot of work being done in three different topics democracy, science, communication and data science. Can you explain your research and each of those topics?
Kaiping Chen: Yeah. So thank you for this question and a lot of my work looking into how we can empower, especially those people who are under resourced and under heard to participate in environment policymaking. I look at–I’m a communications scholar. I'm look into how we can use deliberation design to either host those in-person events or use digital technology to let people participate in local policymaking.
The data science part kicks in when we know that when we listen to people, after we hear from them in those in-person or online deliberation, how do we, you know, communicate their voices to local policymakers? How can we analyze, accurately, reflect their voices? So this is where I learned about data science, especially thinking about how do we analyze posts in public opinion data in both kind of text format and sometimes in visual format to make sure they are they are voice is amplified in local policymaking.
So this is where I kind of envision myself putting three things together, which is democratic theory, which guide me to think about what does our inclusive dialog look like right? What does diversity means in local policymaking? So that's the democratic theory. That means by a lot of we can talk more later. And the second part is data science, which give me a bunch of skill set to really understand what people say.
And then there are other is really I'm also a designer. I use human computer interaction. Those website design, do you think about where not only can do, you know, deliberation through in-person events, but also some people prefer to participate online. Some people prefer to participate to use text message. So how we can diversify the way we listen to people.
So this is the way I see myself putting these three things together. Democracy, data science and human-computer interaction designs.
Michelle Chung: That's an impressive three-part intersection. Is there a part of your work that is the most exciting aspect?
Kaiping Chen: I think the most exciting aspect is really about the first is integrating these three things together. And this is a where I, I have a background where I first started a political science during my bachelor degree, and then I did a master's in public administration. So focusing on public policy. And then I did a Ph.D. in communication and got a certificate in computational social science.
So this is really the integration of these three things out of most exciting part is how you can put deliberation designs and, you know, the data science together to really understand what do people say and how to link what they say to the places they live, their neighborhood, characteristics of their neighborhood. So the integrated integration is really kind of one of the most exciting part.
And the other part that I really, really love is, and many of the times I do work a lot with local government work with those fantastic community NGOs. And more importantly, work really directly with the community members. So these kind of, the really putting science and environmental communication into practices to work with real people to see, oh, think about how we can empower them to share their voice.
How can we empower them to know that they can actually help the local government improve? Their living environment, right? Make their neighborhood better. This part of the way practical aspect applied aspect of our working with community engagement is also kind of the one of the most exciting thing for me. There are a lot of challenges from there I'm still kind of learning, but that is really kind of the learning process.
Handling challenges really make sure that different stakeholders local government, community and your community member, they can work together to address those challenges is really kind of wow, excites me a lot.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, that is exciting. What you were saying about how your background and all those different parts of your education kind of culminated into you working with the community in this more environmental justice space.
Kaiping Chen: Also something which actually brought me to look at education in the United States. So when I was kind of like it even started in later primary school. Actually, every summer I work with the neighborhood association in my hometown, Shanghai. So this is where during the summer you volunteer to help, for instance, help, right, Community board to share community stories of how they do recycling, how they deal with environment, or sometimes you visited or senior citizen to share stories with them.
So for me, it's like since I was a very little kid, I know that I want to do this type of community service, public services. And this is why I also chose political science as my major during the undergraduate, because I want to think about the key question is how can we empower those wonderful people in the communities to participate in making their neighborhoods better and how to really connect their opinions with the local officials will make those policy and that this is where democratic theory, specifically deliberative democracy theory, is the part of which addressed that answer.
So this is the way I came to the U.S. during my undergraduate. I attended a summer school at a Yale University and got it a chance to work a little bit with the New Haven mayor's office. If you really think about how democracy really work in U.S. and then to continue learning that throughout my in a Ph.D. degree.
So that is actually what brought me to to the U.S. is to understand to study democratic theory and how people participate in politics.
Michelle Chung: That was something that you didn't expect was how democracy worked in the U.S. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Kaiping Chen: And so that it was a shocking experience. I did at my summer school at Yale when I was 20 years old. And ah, we we learned kind of in China, you know, I studied political science. So a famous democratic theorist Robert Dahl wrote a book talking about who governs in New Haven. So these are the why also drive me to apply for a summer school out of Yale, because I really want to see who governs in New Haven.
And then during after the summer school, I actually attended those town hall meetings and I sit there and I am actually only the Asian person sitting there. And I see that during those public meetings, only a very few people stood up and shared their thoughts. And they are not ordinary citizen. They are all they are people from their interest group and very few people talk, share their opinions.
It's different from what I read on the textbook. What did the town hall meeting look like? What Tocqueville talk about Democracy, America, The School of Public Spirit. That's very different from what I thought. So they I went I had to talk to the chair of the Board of Aldermen in New Haven. I see. Can I do a little bit work with you to observe how democracy work in the United States and that he happened to also study political science at a Yale University.
So he said, yes, you can stay here for a while, one more month to, you know, work with me to see how you know, how the legislature work here, how the mayor's office functioned here. So this is where, you know, I stay there to really see, oh, how do people participate in this kind of town hall meeting, public committee?
How do they talk to the politicians? So these are the where the expectation happens is, you know, not many people really, because it's a local government. Right. And they're on the other side of the space is, while I was doing actually PhD later on at Stanford communications. So my advisor, he conducted a lot of what he called deliberative polls across the world.
Michelle Chung: And for those of you who don't know, a deliberative poll is like a big group conversation where people come together to discuss important issues in depth and then share their opinions. It's different from a regular poll because people get to hear different perspectives and learn more about the issue before they share their own thoughts. All right. Back to Kaiping.
Kaiping Chen: And I was fortunate to participate in one of the deliberative poll in my hometown, Shanghai. So I put to them connected with a local neighborhood, a government in Shanghai. And then this is where I was moderating those small group discussion about the local people from the local neighborhood share their thoughts about hard economic budget to improve environment and other things in the neighborhood and in China.
You know, usually you always think about is there's not kind of like a participatory culture and much of the participatory culture. But then during those events, I see people share or play a lot. They just love talk to the people. So this is where it come to kind of like the question, make me wanna address is it's not about people in us or in China who is willing to participate.
It's more about do you create the space, the structure for people to talk to each other and how can we create this, you know, help for the liberation space where you allow people to talk to each other rather than shout angrier with each other. So this is where, you know, I did a lot of work in public deliberation theory to think about, let's design it in the correct way.
And this also ties to our current work I am doing with our local government and at a two community NGO here about environmental justice and where we hold it. We held a two events last October where we brought nearly 100 members from black and a lot in this communities to share about three kind of environmental issues energy saving at home, extreme heat and a house and a tree canopy and green spaces.
And the for those kind of event, the way we kind of design, you know, how people are going to share the assaults of this event. It's really I ask my community NGO, you know staff what do you think is the best way to engage the Black and Latinx communities? So I kind of they are kind of like, awesome, my teacher, where I learn from them.
What's the best way to let people feel comfortable to share opinion. So this is where we see that in the Latino Community Forum, we actually have the Mexican dance during the event and of icebreaking. We ask people to put where they come from on a ward, a map, because they are within the Latino community, they are different culture subcultures.
So we ask people to put on the map to do a icebreaking event. So we incorporate this culture adamant into these events and afford a black community event. We use a style called a world cafe. So this is where the founder of the Urban Triage tell us that a world cafe going to be our way where people love to rotate spend of 20 minutes at each table and each table is a different topic so they can share a source and then they rotate it to the next table.
So it's kind of like shopping around the where they learn and share about get knowledge about different issues. So these are the way I kind of still kind of like for me is this structure how we design it matters. And as scholars, it's of course important. We learn a lot from the literature, from their theory, what does inclusion and diversity means?
But I think it's equally important that we should listen to the community NGO. Every community is different in terms of how people want to share ideas. So this is a way of going back to the question you ask me. What is the most exciting part of my work? It's really to think about how I can integrate, you know, those sides, communication, deliberative democracy theory, how to really put them happen on the ground, and that this is where, you know, I have a lot of meeting, learning with the local community leaders, the black leaders, Latino leaders to know that, oh, how do you find a connection between what we think about in the literature and what
is really going to benefit the people on the ground?
Michelle Chung: There is like a thread of meeting people where they're at, where you want to integrate those culturally informed designs into what the science says.
Kaiping Chen: Exactly.
Michelle Chung: Yeah.
Kaiping Chen: Yeah. And also another thing I want to share is the community engagement. The work I'm doing now is it's very important that we held the event last October, right? We listen to people and then the key issue is how can we continue to follow up with people rather than just that we brought people together, we listen to them and then we don't have follow up.
They are wasting people's time. They don't know whether they are, what they share, how we're going to use it, how the researcher going to use it, how the local government, how do they going to react to that. So this is where like this semester we have two exciting things which are happening. One is we held another follow up event with their Latino communities.
So my collaborator and your collaborator is Wisconsin EcoLatinos, a wonderful organization. I encourage you guys to check out and the March first, we brought the same group of people who attended last October's meeting, come back and this is where they are then County and their city of Madison. Local officials in the space of energy, climate change, they give response to this community member regarding this is what we heard from you last October.
And the here are two sets of policy programs. For instance, regarding oh, how we think about to deploy air quality sensor, how we can think about doing working on the urban heat map in Madison look like at a what is your further feedback for our work. So we have this type of follow up. We do a lot of work after last October, we analyze what people say and we have a lot of we have follow up meeting with the local official to help them think about what is the best way to respond to people.
So people know that they are heard, What are the next steps? So this is a one hour activity we are doing now and we want to continue to do that. And at the other is we an almost a finishing building our digital engagement website. It's a website where we have a lot of questions designed with our NGO partner and the local government where we want to engage more members from the community.
So like in the last October we brought 100 people. But what about if we bring 400, 500 people, so more people, you know, to share their thoughts about what environmental justice means to them and what are their thoughts about how they can improve air quality, what type of, you know, what type of green spaces they envision in their neighborhood.
And the hot day experiencing the extreme heat during the summer in Madison. We have that thing right? So this digital kind of tool, we our building is for us to think about how do you sustain this type of engagement, especially, you know, after pandemic, right? People have different modes, hybrid mode of thinking about how they want to participate.
So giving people the opportunity to not just to participate in person, but also have a way to participate online. And we are also envisioning we can do some text, a message or some people want to send text message so diversified a way of people to sustain the participation. Yes. What we are thinking about doing a lot in this semester, So this is where really the goal is to make sure that people's voices are being listened and the reflected in the local policy making.
Right. And the second is to sustain this engagement because we want to really empower them. They can't be empowered through one event if they want to really think about they can get a lot of useful information. They have the capacity to make positive change in their life when you to constantly listen to them. So this is where a combination of like in-person deliberation and a digital, this hybrid way of our civic participation is what we are kind of like designing through this project and we are applying for more funding to continue this effort of sustained our civic engagement.
I think it's very important for us to understand public opinion under the context of intersectionality. It's really to put a simply who living where says what. So it's kind of like how there's what's the relationship between intersectionality and a public opinion and environmental justice. So this is the paper we are working on.
Michelle Chung: Something that we've been talking to a lot of the guests in the season on, and we know that there's a lot of disconnect between scientists and the communities that they work with. What specifically motivates you to bridge that gap and how do we invite others in to bridge that gap?
Kaiping Chen: Yeah, So I think one thing we also motivated me to do the current environment justice, my team and I, we had a meeting with our local government, the city government and then county government way back last year, last spring. And they told us that for them, you know, they really want to listen to the black and Latino communities to know about what is the living situation of those community member regarding the environment, what do they think about electrification, right?
Energy use, tree canopy in the city and a county they really want to listen because they don't know what people think about. And the puzzle for them is how can they listen to the people? So this is where like are me and also the University Alliance, Gavin Luter, who helped me a lot to bring together through this one year engagement to try to really is to bring the local government to talk to, to listen to actually to the community members, and to also learn a little bit about what does the community NGO want, because we find that a very interesting thing is at the beginning that local officials think a lot about electrification, which is very important.
And then what do we hear from the community member is a lot of the community members, they cannot do the electrification because they are renters, right? They don't own a home, so they cannot really change those things. And some of the people they will share that they still love Gas stove right? They think of food as taste better through the gas stove.
So this is where like we see there is a gap between how their local policymakers think about what people want to save energy in versus what the community members, you know, need and also community members they care a lot about what is the cost. Is that going to increase? My utility bill? So this is where dialog needs to happen and a continued dialog needs to happen in order to bring the different sides together to kind of like slowly mitigate, mitigate, right? this disconnection.
Like what do you say? So for me, like as a communication scholar, the kind of the is let's bring people to talk to each other in a structured setting in a way where people can really necessary and to share ideas comfortably with each other. So this is where it kind of is actually what brought me at the beginning of this project is I see a gap in terms of different communication gap, like community members, they don't talk to each other.
Actually, one of the things people share with me after the October event is they really love this event because, oh, they now can talk to their peers. They now know that, Oh, we guys set the temperature really very differently at home, you know, So this is a way are kind of like the social learning between community members, between the government and the the community member, between the government and the the NGO.
Right. So this is where this dialog, the goal is to really create this space for continue the communication.
Michelle Chung: You're not only making that space to bridge the gap between all these different stakeholders, but also that it's a space where community members can talk amongst themselves to.
Kaiping Chen: Exactly this kind of like social learning and if people can enjoy them. So if they learn from each other, like some of one of the group doing our Latino community forum is people begin to share that they have solar panel. And then that person began to share how the person really do the solar panel in the house.
And then people say, Wow, you can do that. So this kind of like the social learning space where people learn from each other regarding, oh, how can they save energy at home? What do they do where it's extreme heat, how to protect their family. So these kind of their knowledge sharing among community members make them in the realize that actually people are working, people like me, they are doing small changes to improve their living environment.
Michelle Chung: And that's empowering.
Kaiping Chen:That's actually very, very empowering for them. Yeah. And we are doing the same thing again on the digital website where actually we have a part on the website where we tell people, here is what we hear from your peers last October regarding how they save energy at home, how they think about green spaces and how they protect themselves during extreme heat.
And can you share some stories from you, how do you do that? Right. So these are the way we are also doing this kind of social learning space, kind of a little bit of education sharing between community members. Yeah.
Michelle Chung: You've talked about how all of your work before has led you to this project that you're doing now. You're majoring in political science to education and communication that's led you to where you are now. And it's been a path where you keep building on your skills to this culmination and this project that integrates all of them along the way.
Was there any point where you thought that you'd be doing something different than you are now?
Kaiping Chen:I think for me, doing kind of community engagement and working with helping the local government, the community members, to share their ideas, to really amplify their voices in local policymaking. That's something I've always wanted to do since I was in primary school. So, I continue to do that. I think the the part where I thought about when I was in high school or in college is that part of the role of data science.
So when I did undergraduate and studied political science, the majority of the time we didn't do data science. And that the moment where I began to realize that our size is important is the first a year when I was at my grad school at Stanford, I was working on a project. I wanted to look into what people say, share about about their life, about their environment, our social media.
And then I was trying to collect a social media posts and I found that there are just so many posts on social media. We are not able to just to manually go through each post to understand what people say, to understand what policy, what politician respond to, to the people. So this is where I began to realize that I need a set of skill set which allow me to automate the process, and that this is a time where I began to do the certificate or computational social science, which is really or a sub area computational communication, where it's really to think about how we can integrate communication theory and data science methods.
So just natural language processing, computer vision, right variety of data science methods to understand public opinion in a large scale and in real time. So that's something which I didn't think about when I was doing community service, you know, when I was very young. But then I realized it's an important skill set and this is where also it's a skill set I'm teaching my students this semester.
I'm teaching social media analytics, a course which is open to both undergraduate and graduate students across the campus. And we have students really from different majors coming to this class. And in this class, I, you know, tell them, you know, what is there, How do we think about social media through our critical perspective?
But also, I teach them about some of the data analysis, you know, programing skills so they can know how can I analyze social media post hoc and I analyze human communication combining, you know, social science theory with computational methods. So these are the way I'm also kind of trying to teach my students to make them aware that data analytics is really an important skill If we really want to accurately reflect what the community tell us.
Michelle Chung: Along the way, did you face any obstacles or challenges on your way to becoming a top researcher in your field?
Kaiping Chen: Hmm. One of the major challenge also, it's kind of like I envisioned that as opportunity or exciting thing for doing my work. Life Sciences Communication and community engagement is really about how do I build trust among the community members, particularly when I, you know, enter our new city, right? You know, here, Madison, it's different from where I studied it before in New York City or Palo Alto.
Very different communities are very different. So how do you enter the community to start, you know, to know what they needs? That is the challenge about that entry point, because community members, they want you to trust, but they won't even talk to you if they don't know you. Yeah. So the way I'm actually learning a lot and I actually get a lot of help is I did a two things.
The first is the University Alliance is a wonderful organization, they put me in contact with the local government and they introduce me to community NGOs and also our South Madison partnership. They also helped me do a lot of connection. So they are the trustworthy person in the communities. So they brought me there, they introduced me there.
So that's the kind of key thing, they give me a lot of support for my community engagement work here. And the other thing I also enjoyed do a lot is there are many community events happening. For instance, are some NGOs. They were holding a summer picnic. So I went to those events, I attend those community events. So then the community members see my faces, the community leaders see my face.
So this is a way another way I began to learn a little bit more about the communities. So these are two challenges, right? Entry point And how do you sustain this trust thrive because people come to the events, you hold events. The key question they ask me is how you're going to utilize our information, utilize our opinion. And this is where I need to think about how to respond to them.
What is the role of researcher? What I can do and what I am not able to do. So I need to be honest and transparent to the community members about the timeline of which stage we are at now. So this is a kind of a series of challenges about the trust, the challenge. How do you first build the trust, establish trust at the very beginning, and that is how do you sustain that trust?
Make sure you don't lose that right? So I think that that's the thing where I'm learning and are getting a lot of help, actually learning a lot from like my colleagues at LSC and also from are the UniverCity Alliance. Yeah. And also another challenge is doing community engagement actually takes lots lot of effort. So I was sometimes joking with my friends and colleagues that if I just to write a paper, write a computational paper using data science methods, analyze social media opinion, I can do that paper very fast.
But with community engagement, it takes a very long time to do. And then you can't just say, Oh, I can just produce a paper write publication very fast. It takes time and a years. And this is sometimes it's not. If we think about strategically, it take very long time, make a trip. All the effort of just that doing purely let's say you analyze social media so this is where the challenge is.
How do you find the time to do this type of work and to keep your passion, even though you know that publication of come slowly, right? Because we have those different ways of, you know, we have those kind of requirements for you and your scholars in terms of publication and to do a community engagement work well, finally, to keep impact for publication.
But it takes time. But sometimes the criteria for our, you know, variety of things, you know, doesn't allow us to wait for long. Yeah. So how do you balance that type of thing? And I think this is also actually there the key challenge and also sometimes are doing community engagement. The real impact is actually not always in the publication, it's actually in the impact of what things you bring back to the community, whether the government redistribute the resources back to the community.
And those are the things which are different from the traditional way we evaluate a scholar. What are the criteria for evaluate community engagement work? That is something where might not be in the space of across many institutions. So this is where like this type of impact on the community, it takes time because the government won't directly redistribute the resource after they listen.
They need to wait for the federal money, right? Sometimes. So it takes very long. So this type of impact, how do we evaluate? I think that's a challenge and also a promising thing for institution to address is how do we evaluate community engagement, a scholarship for junior Scholar and for other scholars? What's the way to evaluate beyond the publication?
Michelle Chung: Yeah, I like how you framed it as it's an incredible opportunity because there are so many more people that are engaging in this type of work. Things need to change in order for them to not be left behind, to bring value to the very important work that they're doing, that you're doing. Did you have any mentors that helped you on your path?
Kaiping Chen: Yes, I think I have a variety types of mentors. So the first is at our Department of Life Sciences Communication, where every junior faculty member is assigned a mentor, different mentors, So like my mentors at LSC, they give me a lot of help to guide me, to give me the confidence about I'm doing the right work in terms of community engagement.
It is valuable. So that advice, that kind of encouragement from my colleagues at LSC is really crucial for me. Yeah, because sometimes it's really take a lot of time and a you need people to tell you to kind of like reinforce your belief that community engagement is valuable. You should pursue that. So this is a way they are advice and encouragement.
They also share a lot of about their experiences. They are excellent scholars not only doing science communication scholarships, but also what they are doing with their science communication practices. So they share with me a lot of practices from themself how to build a trust among different stakeholders. So these are a group of mentors where I really appreciate a lot and I also are have mentors across at our institution, you know, not in the US but other parts of the world.
So they are a group of scholars which way they often share with me about in this academia As woman, how do you navigate through different challenges and also as a young scholar, junior faculty member, how do you think about how you create resources and a space network for yourself? So these are other scholars across, you know, everywhere in the work.
And also I think the other mentors I really appreciate a lot is my community partners. They are always doing community engagement. They are the ones who actually teach me in a continue to teach me are what's the best way to do engagement on the ground. So they are actually also my mentors.
Michelle Chung: I like how your mentors, the really big role that they play and the role that you play as a mentee as you're really there to listen.
Kaiping Chen: Exactly to listen.
Michelle Chung: You do so much working on this this community engagement project that you said, you know, it takes a lot of time and a lot of intellectual and emotional energy, you’re affiliates of like six different departments at UW, you're doing all this work. You're teaching on top of that. How do you balance it all?
Kaiping Chen: I think for me is first, the important thing is I regard I'm a communication scholar, so even if I'm dining outside, having food in the restaurant, I love to talk to people. That's part of my job. So it's actually I incorporate a lot of my research and thinking into my daily life. So there's really not a way for me to say I balance my work with my daily life because for me it incorporate together and and I also well, one thing is I always find a time for to give myself enough time to sleep.
So I sleep like 8 to 10 hours every day and to give myself enough energy. And I also love to share my, you know, thoughts, hang out with my friends, my mentors, my colleagues. So this is another way for me to kind of relax, relaxing. And because for me, I'm a kind of like I'm a very extrovert person talking to people is a way for me to relax like what we are doing now.
Yeah, yeah. So this is a where, you know, I kind of tried to find out in cooperation, integration of my work and in my life.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, I love what you said about how your, your work is really just integrated in your daily life. That really speaks to your passion. Exactly.
Kaiping Chen: Yeah. Because a lot of the idea or some of the ideas I come inform my research things, you know, like graduate school undergraduate is really. I talk to the community members in the community events. I just chat with people and then I learn, oh, they are encountering this problem in their life. They don't know how to find information to help improve their neighborhood.
So these are the research ideas. Many of my research ideas actually come from. I talk to people in my life. Yeah. So this is why I say it's integration. Yeah. And it's not that. Oh, I need to find a balance. This is the time I work and. And this is a set of time. I kind of relax. For me, it's integration.
Michelle Chung: On top of that is something that's played a big role in your life. I know you play piano on your website you mentioned that your playing has helped you build resilience and instilled in you a growth mindset. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Kaiping Chen: The role of music in my life, which teach me are really kind of two things. So the first is the music, like playing piano allow me to actually do a lot of culture exchange when I was a kid and a teenager, so one of the things I did is I joined many of the student. We caught a student arts group in my hometown, Shanghai, and this is where they brought you to different countries or to meet with different people where you share a music with different audiences.
So this kind of allow me to really, again, to use music as an entry to communicate with different audiences because people love music. There was said they are listen, they were kind of like, ah, get relaxation, get joy from listening to the music. So this is the way I actually use that as a way to communicate and extend different cultures of people, not just in China but also in other countries.
And that our second thing is, you know when I started learning grand piano when I was three years old. I really wanted to play it very well. And I did many competitions. And during many of the competitions, you're not going to always win the medal right? You're going to many of the times you are at a stage, you're going to be very nervous.
So I actually was through doing those competition and a performances. It also teach me about how do you overcome those hurdles, overcome challenge, How do you face failure? Because many of the times, you know, across different points of our life, we're going to experience fail and many of the times fail might be the default in our life. So how do you think about those situations?
What lesson do you learn about this is a what kind of the music teach me is fail is the default. I know that. But then I know it's fail. I will face it and not fear about that, but I think some lesser to prepare for my next a success.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, that's a really valuable lesson to learn early on in your life.
Kaiping Chen: Yeah. And it also prepared me actually to be a teacher because you need to be on a stage all the time, right? To teach students to engage, interact with students because playing music, many of times the performance is not about you are doing a performance for yourself, it's about you are doing a performance is an interaction between you and the audience.
What type of music you want to bring to the audience and how you see the reaction. So this type of interaction and engagement through music performance also give me a variety of skill set to be a teacher. To engage with my students in class.
Michelle Chung: What do you see as continuing obstacles for women in your field?
Kaiping Chen: One key question for for people like a woman in my field, besides communication or who do computational communication first is about how do you give them the particularly at the early stage whether they are graduate students or where they are junior faculty member. How do you make sure that they have enough resources to succeed and to sustain their research work, for instance, for junior faculty member or doing community engagement work?
We need lots of money, because we need to support the NGO staff who do the work with us. We need to support a community members. So we need lots of money. So how can we get those resources right? Like, Oh, you do grant writing, you need to seek resources for grants, variety of organizations, right? So this is where I think how do you tell people about the skill set is very important and it's something which is a challenge for graduate student and also to particular junior faculty members.
And the second thing, which I feel a lot is data science, because I work a lot with data science, and data science is still a field dominated a lot by males. How do we actually, you know, encourage people from more diverse backgrounds to learn about data science? Because finally the way we do community engagement is not about the research.
We're always going to be in the community. I want to build the capacity for the community members themself to have the skill set to do advocacy later on, to have that digital literacy skill, to have the analytic skill. So how can we build a those skill set among those underrepresented communities? So That's also a challenge for me and one off the effort in the way I do it now is so for communication.
We have a association called International Communication Association, so that's a one of the largest association in our field and they have different division are I'm the officer for the Computational Methods division and I'm chair that the AI task force and for us is really we want to think about first is how do you actually attract people from diverse backgrounds to learn about computational methods, to know that data analytics skills is very helpful to that because many of the times they think about data science programing, they immediately they get scared.
So how can we teach them that It's not a scared skill set? You can actually learn step by step to build out confidence. So this is something, you know, we are working around thinking about in terms of the division institution level, what we can do to tell people that not only analytic skills is important, but what are a step by step process to learn and to get at this skill set.
Michelle Chung: And so you've been asking those questions. What are the possible solutions or strategies that you found that do invite people in?
Kaiping Chen: So what do we do is like we we are planning to think about. So for instance, as a you know, as a teacher, you know, I started doing data science analytics in my class and uh I teach them I give a lot of hands on exercise workshops to walk with my students who were coding together. And they will feel a lot of challenge.
And I tell them I share my story about how I also feel those challenges when I was in graduate school and graduate and how I overcome them. And I always give them that confidence about, you know, you can learn that, but just to take the step slowly. So I do a lot of these kind of in-class workshops about that.
And the way I also think about in terms of the Association Division Computational Methods Division, we want to ask people what are their preferred way of learning computational methods rather than we assume how they want to learn. So we are in the process of collecting community updates, right? So we have scholars who target people in underrepresented underrepresented groups, and we ask them, What do you think?
What are the research topics you study, studied? How do you think that our science might help you as a work question? What are the resources you need from us? So we begin from your bottom up approach. Yeah, to understand what they need to where they see the value. And then we're going to think about as third division level what we can do step by step.
Again, to pair those resources, give those resources back to those communities.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, I see that same idea again, listening to people and asking them what they need exactly. Figuring out how to give resources to the young junior faculty here so they can succeed. Do you see solutions?
Kaiping Chen: Hmm. So for me, this is a way our our members are really very important. You know, like in my case are my members, my mentors at the department and also across different places. They share with me about where are those resources? Because sometimes we don't know that there are resources there in terms of grant or network opportunity there.
So they share with me this and also many of the times they will help me connect to those resources. Yeah, So I think really think about for for junior faculty member is at at a very early stage how can you build up a network of mentors to help you find those resources to help you let you know about?
How do you get those resources? What out of set we need to develop as junior faculty member in order to get those resources? That mentorship group is really very important.
Michelle Chung: This is something that you brought up in the pre-interview. We talked a little bit about how there's often like an uneven expectation between like women and men when it comes to work. And in this podcast in particular, they're brought up a lot women faculty will be asked to do things because there is a gender gap, will be asked to be on many more committees to have that.
The diversity of voices to be represented. But when there are less women overall, then the women have to take on more of the burden of the work. So we talked a little a little bit about that.
Kaiping Chen: You say that we've observed that many of the times women are put into different committees right? serving all women of color, are asked to serve on DEI committees. So they actually have more kind of spend more time compared to the maybe to the male faculty member. So I think this is some questions where first is as scholars, sometimes you need to say no, and this is something, some skill set.
My mentor also teaching me is how to say no politely because you need to protect your time for your other work and for your family. So first is need to be brave to say no. And a second, also very important for me I'm thinking a lot is if you ask woman or woman of color to serve in the DEI committee or other committee how this they're going to incorporate into their promotion evaluation, how are you going to link back with their the kind of the surface, the evaluation work they do.
So this is where we need kind of more incorporation, thinking about how you design those metrics for the career promotion. Right. And then the third thing is many of the times you in those committee, when you do have responses, right, you ask people to serve in a committee and people discuss how is the institution gonna give responses to their suggestion?
People raising those committees. I think the responsiveness part, what do we mean by responsiveness to that? The committee. What do you mean? How do we measure that both short term and long term? That's some of the question. We need to think ahead and ahead of time in order to really think about how do we address this imbalance issue in time, imbalance between in the woman and our women faculty members?
I think some of the things we can also think about is our UW–Madison is really a wonderful place. We have the Wisconsin idea and actually last Monday was the Wisconsin Idea conference and I gave a talk there and people she a lot of wonderful projects ideas really for people to implement Wisconsin ideas doing the community engagement work.
How do you provide a resources to woman woman of color, faculty members to help them sustain their community engagement, to really implement the Wisconsin idea? That's also critical, I think.
Michelle Chung: Yeah, making that a priority.
Kaiping Chen: Exactly. Yeah, because many of the times people who do community engagement are actually community from those underrepresented background, right? They actually lack the resources compared to other people and they are put into doing community engagement work because of the passion. But then how can you pair resources to them
Michelle Chung: Yeah. Are there changes that you would like to see for women junior faculty in your field?
Kaiping Chen: The major thing, you know, I would like to see for women faculty is how do you think about community engagement work like public service work? How do you ah encourage people to do that? Not just the woman, but the people from different race, from different race ethnicity, people from the different level in their career. What are the resources you will provide to them for them to sustain their passion in terms of this engagement work? And that–that's a huge challenge.
What are the natrix performance evaluation paired with resources we can think about for people to implement the Wisconsin idea? Mm hmm. That's something I think we need more dialogs at an institutional level.
Michelle Chung: Knowing all you know. Now, what advice would you give to your younger self?
Kaiping Chen: If there is are kind of like suggestion or maybe some encouragement I would give to my younger self and also give to women and people of color in doing the research. Academia in our field is really about be not fear about your failure. So don't make those failure try to kill your confidence. Kill passion.
Sometimes I just feel very tired of doing a lot of this work. But then I ask myself why at the first hand I do that work is because we hold the value system like for me is to make social impact really benefit different communities. Resources you know, is there the value I hold and are thinking more about, you know, what is not just to get lost in their day to day job we do but to think broadly why we had to do first time.
Why would you even choose this job? What are the value systems which we hoped to do this job? This will give us a broader picture. And there you can think about, oh, in terms of priority of a different task, what will you choose? You know, where to when you say no. Right. So having this big picture about what is the value you want to create, not just the within the five years, you know, but next ten years, What do you see yourself as a scholar in the field and in the society?
Those bigger questions in terms of value and the the impact, You know, if we can kind of think a little bit to always keep that in mind thinking ahead, that will give us a lot of guidance about the day to day job activity. What do you thinking in the long term? That's probably something which actually going to help you achieve that bigger impact that we have in the future.
So then the failure turns into opportunity. Right?
Michelle Chung: Exactly. And that's our show. Thanks to our guest Kaiping Chen, assistant professor in Life Sciences, Communication at UW–Madison. And thanks to all of you listening in. Please subscribe, rate review and share this podcast with a friend.
Meg Riker: You can find the Wisconsin Energy Institute at energy.wisc.edu and the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at glbrc.org.
Michelle Chung: We'll see you next time on Propelling Women in Power.
What is your superpower?
Kaiping Chen: Yeah, I think the greatest strengths I have is I'm not fear of any failure in my life.