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Face to Face with Dr. John Ji

05-16-2018

Dr. John Ji is Assistant Professor of Environmental Health at Duke Kunshan University. He supervises the Master of Environmental Policy (iMEP) program as its Director of Graduate Studies. Over this talk, Dr. Ji shared his perspectives of opportunities and challenges that worth attention, his understanding of research and education, as well as his thoughts on iMEP program and the students.

What would you like to share with us today?

I’d like to share my perspectives of 1) what I think are some modern opportunities and challenges in the greater environment sphere. This involves what are some unanswered questions, what are the policy debates that's going to have impacts on future generations and where the student can make the most impact. 2) What I think are important marketable skills students can have and can pick up from this program. The skills would help them if they enter into the field of environment policy or to use their knowledge that they learned from our program and apply it in various kinds of capacities, so marketable skills. 3) is about our school, Duke Kunshan University. Why should someone spend two years here and how might she or he maximize their time? In another word, get the best return for their time.

Awesome. Do you want to start with the first one? Where do you see iMEP students can apply their knowledge into and what are the modern opportunities and challenges?

I feel some people may go into politics. They may become policymakers. When they do they realize that policy making is not exactly based on evidence, but it's important to understand how to generate evidence and how to interpret the evidence. That's where I feel research comes in. Because we are at an academic institution, we're looking at various ways of finding the truth about certain topics. The highly relevant areas, areas of most debates, are climate change. How do you measure climate change, if you can do anything to fight against climate change? Attached to climate change, there are also various other kinds of environmental issues that comes along with changing temperature, including crop yield or water scarcity, also industries. Pollution comes from industrialization and production, so it is a balance of what to do with your resource and the output that you can produce.

Other kinds of very modern issues and what we are working on including China. China currently has a war on pollution. I see more pessimistic people than I do see optimistic people, because China is often labeled as a highly polluted country. But through some of our research, looking at sustainable development goals, I would say, looking at the data, many people will be surprised at the amount of progress China is making in reducing pollution. For example, PM2.5--air pollution, if you look at the data. In many places in China, PM2.5 reduces at a drastic rate. Some of our preliminary findings show that China would achieve some of the sustainable development targets ahead of schedule.

There are other bigger country to country dialogues that we study, such as the Paris Agreement. What happens if countries choose not to cooperate in carbon emission reduction? This involves a lot of economics, economic decision making and game theory. China's the Belt and Road initiative is also one of them. With China’s second largest economy in the world, how does the Belt and Road influence foreign policy? These are some of the questions that we see in our research center. There are people working on them.

Are these also topics that you think the students can apply their knowledge into?

I think students would be very aware of the latest information on these topics. I think the field be as dynamic as it is, would probably involve or change by the time when students enter into the work force or enter into the position where they have to make decisions.

Do you see other challenges that you want to talk about?

One thing that comes to my mind is a new concept called planetary health. It really pulls together people who are working on the environment from different angles. It could be ecology, biodiversity, economics, economics of the environment and economics of policy. It could be related to the health of human beings, the health of other organisms and species around the world. I really feel in the past few years, a lot of these different efforts and different angels are actually coming together. As inter disciplinary as it is, you have more voices from different angles.

Do you see the concept of planetary health a challenge or a milestone of people's understanding?

It’s probably a combination of both. I think it is a challenge because now the question is much bigger than any particular field. Traditional science involves A/B testing or hypothesis testing--testing A and B to see which one is correct. It's a challenge to take these kinds of evidence and to affect policy making, because policy making is not entirely based on science, as I mentioned earlier.

Do you want to talk about the unanswered questions that you see?

Yes, maybe in my field. One unanswered question is a how bad exactly is air pollution for human health. We use a concept called the burden of disease attributed to air pollution. The global burden of disease attributed to air pollution has an estimate rate based on past studies. There are voices pointing out that those response curves in China aren't as drastic as other places in the world where populations have experienced lower levels of air pollution so there may be an attenuation effect, so that’s one question now we don't have answer to.

A second question is we have been creating so many new chemicals in the world and the effect of these chemicals on human health isn’t very well studied. There are some very well studied examples in the past, such as ah lead exposure or mercury exposure. There are plastics that are bad for the hormone system or the endocrine system, such as BPA and phalates in plastics. There are things on furniture such as flame retardants. These are things that are identified after we see certain negative consequences but there are a lot of things that we just haven't seen the effect of yet. At the same time, if the effect is small and we may never see it. But if it's small and prevalent in society, then we may see large consequences that are just hidden and away from naked eyes.

These unanswered questions, are they the same questions that you think about often? Are they in your mind recently?

I am thinking about these questions but more on an incremental scale.  I attend academic conferences often and I hear what other people are working on and ask questions to myself: 1) Is their conclusion or their finding accurate? If so, what are some of the missing information that is still not there? When I attend these academic conferences, I tend to put things into two buckets in my mind. One is things that we know but we are getting more precise estimates of. For example, air pollution and cardiovascular disease. We know air pollution is bad for cardiovascular health. We have plenty of information on this topic, but there's good research that shows what is the causal pathway, how does the effect differ in different populations. These are things that you have a good understanding of but you're getting a better understanding of, so that's one bucket. The second bucket are things that I never heard of before. The evidence for these things may not be all that complete, but there are hints of things. You see some cases of things, but there are no major studies, so these are things I tend to look for.  In my own field of research here at Duke Kunshan, part of my time is spent on pushing the boundaries of the body of knowledge that we have more experience with and we're just getting a more complete picture. The other one is, keeping an open mind and trying to pick up things that nobody else has been aware of yet and trying to find out if there is something that we just don't know that maybe new and novel.

Which one of the two things is more interesting to you so that you are willing to spend more time on if you could?

Finding new and novel topics is more interesting to me and it is what I want to spend are more time on. But in reality, is the opposite. I spend more time on things that are known and for sure because you're able to foresee what you can accomplish in a short amount of time.   

At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned debates which are going to have impacts on future generations, can you elaborate on that?

I guess this is a little bit outside of the environment field but there are things that our students would have to understand that we don't understand.  We're living a very exciting time.

One is block chain. This is a computer algorithm that creates hashes that an interconnected network of computers can recognize. It has been used to create cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and other kinds of coins in computers. As long as they are connected to other computers, they will be able to recognize what goes on around the world and they have been trading. It's being the news a lot recently so this is a new financial system that is beyond every financial institution in the world. Financial institutions create money and they create policies and they can control these currencies. That's how we have a global financial system. But something like this comes up. It could be traded around the world and recently has gained a lot of momentum. I think it's here to stay forever and it is only going to become more readily available. How do our economies deal with it?

Another one is the extreme temperatures and weather events around the world. Coastal cities in the United States this past year experienced many terrible things, with many hurricanes that swept places close to water, like the Gulf of Mexico and Puerto Rico. There was a wildfire in California because of the drought. Earlier this morning, I saw in Santa Barbara, there was a huge flood because of heavy rain. Due to the wildfire, the water could not be absorbed in the ecosystem and just went and swept various neighborhoods. What do coastal communities do, especially along the equator? It is where they are going to be hit the most.

Another one I think it is going to change the world as we know it, is CRISPR technology. Have you heard of this one? It's a way to edit the genome into any way you want. Basically, we have the DNA and it is the double helix and there are four possible combinations with A-T-C-G, which creates different coding. You can use CRISPR to find exactly where you need to edit and then you can change the combinations into anything you want.  That technology has not won the Nobel Prize, because it has a lot of legal battles of who invented it. But it's going to change the world, as we know it.  

Genome sequencing, the ability to sequence the whole genomes at a very low cost. It almost follows the Moore’s law that overtime it is going to be twice as good for half the price. Now we have so many more genomic information, how does the world respond to that information? That creates a lot of issues as well. If you know someone is going to get heart disease, what can you do with that information? 1) Is ethical to let the person know he/she is going to get heart disease because people with these sets of genes would get it for sure?   2) What does it mean for your insurance company if you know you're going to get heart disease?  3) Can you use this information in an advantageous way? Can you somehow try to prevent things that you're predisposed for? 4) If you know you're going to get heart disease and you have this gene, can you edit it out of future generations and should you? These are some of the newer technologies that are available. They originated from academia, but I don't feel people in academia are going to be the only ones equipped with these tools. 

The society is going to change. Students have to be aware and have the critical thinking ability.

With all these opportunities and challenges that you see, would you like to talk about your research? Can you introduce the research that you have been working on?

I do two kinds of research right now. One is on the science side and one is on the policy side. Both are meaningful. I enjoy more of my work on the science side than the policy side, but we get a lot of information from the policy side.

On the policy side I'm working on sustainable development goal research. It is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. About twenty years ago, Bill Gates stepped away from Microsoft and wanted to change the world in the way that he wants to see it. He funded this project that I'm involved in. We look at various kinds of environmental health targets in China and how things would be by 2030.

On the science side, I've just attained a data set on a group of people over the age of one hundred. It's actually started by a Duke faculty and he meticulously spent many years creating this cohort people. I want to see what are some of the environmental factors that lead to longevity. I also want to know among people who already live a long life, whether changes in their environment can lead to faster or higher mortality rate over time. This study was started to look at mostly social economic factors. Actually, this study confirmed that having a daughter is a predictive of good health around the world. If you look at the variable -- Do you have a daughter? Yes? Check -- in all regression models, it is statistically significant of living longer and happier and having good health.

For both mom and dad?

Yeah, yeah. But we're looking at environmental factors (laugh).

A new idea that I'm currently writing a grant on is how to end diseases where it began. The approach that I'm taking is using dental samples. You have your teeth for a long period of time. In old age they fall off. I'm trying to measure what is in their teeth including heavy metals to try to chart out a lifetime exposure of various adverse chemicals to see if that's related to lower cognitive function in old age.

That means you can understand a person's long-term exposure of a variety of chemicals by looking at one tooth?

Yeah, that's the goal. Usually people take blood samples to measure what kind of pollution you have in your body. However, you have a liver and you have a kidney and what those things do is they clear out whatever is in your body over a period of time. You have these half-lives of various chemicals because your body gets rid of them. When you take a blood sample you can measure currently what you have, maybe in the past 30 days what you have or in the past year what you have but not over long period of time, so that's one challenge in exposure assessment. These harder minerals and bone samples in the body could answer some of these questions. In graduate school I used a data set with x ray (k-shell x ray fluorescence) imaging technique to find out accumulative exposure so now I'm trying to see if using dental samples could be good too.

What are you most passionate about in research?

The most amazing part of research is the freedom of doing anything you want.

Does that mean you can follow your thought with no limitations?

You can follow your thoughts and it's not a systematic. I mean the research methodology is systematic but is not a step by step thing that you do. It's really amazing that you can find something by accident that deviates from your original idea but the new idea that you found by accident actually it is more interesting.  I have several research ideas that I told you about, along the way sometimes if you find results that are unexpected or you find a new direction, that's really cool.

With your experiences and reflections, what’s your current understanding of research?

I haven't done many reflections and I’m considered a new researcher, so I don't think I have any deep insight.

It doesn’t matter. You can just talk about your current thoughts.

Well, I was trained in the scientific method. There is null hypothesis. You have the alternative hypothesis. That's the most traditional form of research. You have a verifiable and refutable hypothesis and then you gather data to try to disprove your hypothesis. A lot of times we will use statistical models in numbers to measure things. If you achieve statistical significance then you can prove the alternative is different from the null. You can argue A and B are different and you can show how they are different. That's a traditional form of research.

I think because of that people chase these big and novel findings a little bit too much. By chance some people find things that are just not there and everyone in research are trying to be the first to do something. That kind of creates issue where you have some false positives and overtime they're becoming harder and harder to replicate and prove. Therefore, research results as a whole tends to be wrong, sometimes. They tend to be more wrong than people realize because of the way the entire science research is set up.    

In your training you have heard of a p-value 0.5, yes? If we use that p-value, then if you're doing something by chance then there is nothing there. One out of twenty times, you would find something there by chance. When we look at research overall, we obviously want to find things, but a lot of times we find things by chance. We just have to keep that in mind.

Research is something you spend a lot of your lifetime on. What’s its meaning to you? I feel it means different things to different people. Like running, some people run for a strong body, some people run for prizes, some people consider running a way of meditation.

I see.  I think at the core of it, there's many complicated ways of doing things are that you pick up along the way of research. These are skills that you have. But at the end of the day, it is asking some very simple questions that currently people don't have answers to. Why do people get drunk when they drink alcohol? We know people get drunk but believe it or not, neuroscience currently can't really answer the exact mechanism of how alcohol makes people drunk. Questions like that and a lot of it you don't know. Thus, for some of my studies I'm using data to find connections between A and B that I feel exist but they may or may not be there, so I need to do these kinds of research to find out. They are just based on my knowledge of this field. These are questions that come up.

The first step of research that a lot of people employ is, if you have a question, you do a literature review on what is currently out there. Maybe it's already answered and you just don't know about it. If it's not, then it may be something that people pursue an answer and hopefully it's meaningful. Some research is very meaningful in the short-run. Some research is meaningful in the long-run. In fact, most are just not useful at all, but they are efforts of trying to be meaningful, that’s important.  (The process) It is really fun. It's really fun, if it's a question that you are genuinely curious about. Genuinely curious.

Is genuinely the keyword?

Yes, genuinely is the keyword.

Do you want to talk about your short-term and long-term research plan?

The short-term plan in the next couple of years would be to complete the Sustainable Development Goal research and then trying to find new ways to measure what environmental pollution experiences people have in their bodies and how these environmental pollutions can interact with their body for better or worse health.  

The long-term plan is how you can use this information collectively. With information of the modifiable environmental components and the unmodifiable genetic components how you can use all of this information and extend your life by preventing things that would make you die. I'm currently actively looking for new technology that are able to measure environmental or biological samples. The long-term research topic is how you can live longer (laugh).

Let’s talk about teaching.  If you choose to open a course at DKU, what would you like to teach most?

I would develop a course on planetary health.  I will bring in the experts from each topic. I would teach tangible skills from that course, so I would probably bring in some econometrics models, some study design, some statistics, some kind of a mapping tool like GIS, and layered on top of these analytical skills, the various issues related to the planetary health, like pollution, climate change, water scarcity or atmospheric processes.

What would be the most important thing you want to give to the students through your course?

Hopefully something that helps them in their next job, because they still have to find a job.

What are you most passionate about in teaching?

I feel very good when I don't teach from a textbook. I have given some lectures at this school when I just came back from a conference or when I just came back from a big research meeting and it's almost like a report of what happened and where. Through this I feel it generates a lot of interests and inquiries because it is very current information. Students also get to learn because to be able to analyze and keep up with this body of knowledge they need to understand what happened before, so they get to pick up knowledge along the way but with a focus on answering current questions. Whenever I could do that successfully, it's one of the more fulfilling moments.

You said whenever you could do that, so that means…

Taking a very current issue and teaching from that issue instead from a body of knowledge from the textbook. I know both are important, because sometimes you need to have fundamental knowledge, but teaching from a current issue (is what I enjoy most).

Is current the keyword here?

Current is a keyword and also with current often are unresolved or unanswered questions. Things that I don't have an answer to and most people don't have answers to.   

The way you teach something that people don't have answers to is…

Most of the time is how they could think about a certain issue. If something changes the way people have thought about an issue previously or they coming with a preconceived notion of something and it changes their bias. If something's counter intuitive, if it's a paradox or contradiction, I love it.

Is that the passionate part of teaching?

Yes.

At the beginning of our conversation, you mentioned marketable skills that students can pick up from iMEP program. What are your thoughts on that?

In terms of the marketable skills, I see it as two major pillars. One is analytical ability and two is communication skills. For analytical skills, I find it increasingly important that students can manipulate data. A lot of newer job opportunities out there involve looking at information in ways we haven't before. If a student knows beyond what you can do with an excel form, if they learn statistical programming language, like STATA, R or SPSS. It would greatly improve their marketability in jobs that involve analysis.

The second pillar is communication skill. Being able to write efficiently and write without spending a lot of time. Depending on the job, for example, how to write a policy memo or how to write a report. How to read and dissect from a large amount of information given to you. Where can you pick out the important points so you can save time in your future to get the information that you truly need. It also includes being able to communicate what you found and what the news are with people in your organization and being able to disseminate the information properly.

Does that mean communication has two directions? It includes getting the information and giving the information.

Absolutely! It's very important not only to communicate information to other people, but getting the information you need is essential. That is a skill that a lot of people lack. I feel from the first semester of our iMEP program, some students were just overwhelmed by the amount of information given to them. There was too much. There were reading materials, entire books, several chapters, or several pieces of journal articles. If you have to spend a lot of time on each piece of reading material, anyone would be overwhelmed. Therefore, the skill of getting information you need is important.

In your opinion, how can the students maximize the time or make the most of their time in the master program?

I think, first, become up to speed in attaining the analytical skills and communication skills I mentioned, right away. Don't wait until the end of the program to really master these important skills that they need for whatever it is that they do in the future.  Second, use this opportunity and take for what they want to do in the future and find what skills they are missing to be able to do these jobs and attain those skills immediately in our program. Third, utilize their professional network, both in China and in the U.S. This is extremely unique because they actually get to spend time in both countries in a very structured format. So, get to know people.

Where do you see the students can make impacts after they graduate?

When I was a student I always felt that because I'm a student, I'm learning and I can't make an impact. But I feel completely the opposite now. I feel our students are able to make an impact. The reason is   my cognitive ability now is not better than ten years ago. In fact, I think it's a little bit worse than ten years ago (laugh). So that being the reason, whatever I could do now, I could have done ten years ago.   I just needed the confidence and guidance to be able to do it ten years ago. I try to do that with students that I come across. I let them know what the process is to try to achieve what they want to achieve. All they need are the experience that we can give them. Because we have a low student-faculty ratio, we're able to do that.

So that's something you're trying to give the students through this program?

Absolutely. Be able to participate in the most up-to-date policy dialogue and the cutting-edge research.

I mean the courage and guidance you just mentioned.

The courage and guidance. Let them know that they can. They just don't know how, but they're completely capable of doing these things. I have an undergraduate student who is completely capable and I try to mentor that student into taking the lead on research projects and being the first author on the publication.

As the Director of Graduate Studies of the iMEP program, what do you envision the program and its graduates in five years?

I think coming into this role was a new challenge for me. I think internally we will have more of a systematic way of approaching issues because we get new issues that pop up and we have to have the first-time responses to lots of things. I think by then we would build a successful and extremely close knit-alumni network. Looking back in my undergraduate and graduate experiences -- I also was a master student at some point--there was no program that I know of where the entire school and program resources are dedicated to the success of each individual student.

But you think iMEP is doing that?

I think at our inception stage right now, everybody is doing that for every student. Whether it be hunting for jobs or other things. I feel personally responsible to grab some employment opportunities for our students. I find myself knowingly or unknowingly lobbying for our students through my own professional network whenever I see opportunities.  All of our faculty know the issues of every student that they face, so there's no secret and everybody keeps an eye on our students. I think that actually give some pressure to students from what I heard, because they always feel like they have to live up to expectations and they feel like they're being watched all the time. I think in five years we would have graduated four cohorts, so hopefully by then, it'll be somewhere between 50 to 100 students, and they will be extremely, extremely close to each other.

How about the program in five years?

We would adapt our curriculum to new issues that emerged, so learning what happens outside of the classroom. You can learn in a classroom anywhere but because we are uniquely positioned in this geographical area so we are able to have more experience learning and to develop a curriculum that is unique, one that nobody else as ever done before. Junjie wants to do to these cases and I think that's a good idea. Everyone writes a case study and these are very new stuff. We can use these case studies in a class then we could see what will happen.

It sounds very exciting because what you've described is a program that is alive and keeps growing.

Yeah. I think we did do a pretty good job of getting top decision makers here. We're more integrated into the global community, being closer to people who decide things and they can come to interact with our students.  

Do you want to talk about your understanding of education?

I think my understanding of education is not knowledge-based, because knowledge is free and the internet has made knowledge more free and more accessible. A former understanding of education is that some deliveries of knowledge are better than others so you have access to all of the knowledge. I think a hundred years ago, education is having access to the knowledge. If you don't go to a school, there's a library, if you don't go there, there's no knowledge that you can easily access. Then maybe fifty years ago, it was getting someone to deliver the knowledge to you, so you have the same books but some people can make it easier to understand and easier for you to remember things. But that's not true anymore, because if you log onto Coursera or edX, you have the best courses from around the globe that are just recognized as the best form of knowledge delivery online, so that's not exactly the bottleneck of education anymore either because of the internet.   

My current and newly evolved understanding of education is the community of people around you that you can talk your ideas with, help you resolve issues and make you aware of something that you were not aware of before. You may walk into some class by accident or get to know something purposefully if that person is your mentor and they're trying to tell you something that they feel you should know. It is the people around you that is the real value of education, not the access to information, nor is it the pedagogy of classrooms because those are online too.

Does that mean people around you can provide something that the internet or simple knowledge cannot provide?

 I would say that's where the value is but not necessarily that without people around you don't have access to education. Everybody has access to education. There's no barrier to education but being part of the group, being part of a community is important.

Do you think Duke Kunshan University is becoming a place like that?

I think we are. Absolutely.   

Because you grew up in the U.S., I have this last question for you. There are some American students who are interested in coming to Duke Kunshan University. In your opinion, what is the value for an American student coming to a place like this?

I think the value is, if you think this region of the world is going to significantly change the way things are in the future and you think about coming and you're interested but you do not (come eventually), it could be something that you deeply regret in the future. Also, you don't have to pay for classes to learn Mandarin. Coming here for one month is probably equivalent to a year in a foreign language classroom. Ultimately, why not? What marginal value can you have by staying where you are versus coming here? Why not? (smile)

Thank you, John.

Thank you.