Q&A with Lijing Yan, professor of global health at Duke Kunshan University

Could you tell me a little about your early life/childhood?  

I was born in Handan, a historic city in southern Hebei province and grew up in my grandparents’ home in the countryside. I have vivid memories of a care-free country life before I returned to Handan to begin school at six years old: playing with my friends and herding goats with my grandpa in the fields, picking bean pods with wicker baskets and watching my grandpa cook with hay and twigs, catching cicadas and dragonflies in summer evenings, and the pomegranate tree with blooming red flowers in the yard of my grandparents’ mud house with paper windows. 

What attracted you to a career in academia?  

It is hard to say, but I guess it is mostly due to my curiosity. I am curious to discover more about the world around me. After I graduated from college, my interests focused on health-related issues. I was motivated by a desire to learn more about determinants of health and ways to improve our health.

When did you join Duke Kunshan University and how did the move come about? 

It is a long story. To make it short, I joined Duke Kunshan on July 1, 2014, before our first cohort of graduate students and Global Learning Semester students arrived in mid-August that year. The move from Beijing to Kunshan was challenging but also a natural one. While working in Beijing in the George Institute for Global Health, I had been collaborating with the Duke Global Health Institute (DGHI) since 2009. In the Spring of 2013, before the official launch of Duke Kunshan University, the founding director of the DGHI, Dr. Michael Merson, invited me to apply for a job at the Global Health Research Center that was soon to be established. I was attracted by the opportunity to be a trailblazer establishing something new in the field of non-communicable disease research, by the reputation of Duke University, and by the unique cultural, culinary, and historical appeal of Kunshan. I gave a career talk in August 2013 at Duke, visited the campus in Kunshan (then a construction site) with a yellow safety hat in September 2013, signed the contract in November 2013, and formally began a new chapter in my life in July 2014 (this version is not short, after all, haha).    

How have you found the experience of working in Duke Kunshan’s multidisciplinary environment?  

Definitely invigorating. We have a vibrant community and unique environment with faculty of international caliber, students with inquisitive minds, and staff who are also globally oriented. There are challenges for our university as it is small and new with many policies and procedures under development. Overall, I enjoy our multidisciplinary environment very much. 

Lijing Yan (front row, center) with DKU students

How has Duke Kunshan changed since you joined the university?  

The most obvious thing is that it has grown so much. When I first joined, there were only a dozen or so faculty, a few dozen administrative staff, and a small student body with half of the graduate students beginning their semester at Duke and more than half of all students coming from other universities for our Global Learning Semester program. We opened the doors to the first cohort in the Swiss Hotel in downtown Kunshan as the campus was not ready for us to move in. The growth in number, size, and complexity has been phenomenal. The Phase II campus fully opening its doors epitomized not only our growth physically but also in all other areas too.

What are your main research interests and how have you been able to pursue them at Duke Kunshan?  

My research focuses on non-communicable disease (NCD) prevention and management, especially hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. Later it expanded into healthy aging. I find Duke Kunshan to be highly supportive. The Global Health Program, now co-led by professors Shenglan Tang and Yunguo Liu, has provided a lot of guidance and support for our research and helped us flourish in what we do. Many other units at Duke Kunshan, such as the research support office, human resources, and the finance office also provide essential services and support, let alone the library and IT.

How has research at DKU’s Global Health Center helped to address health challenges? 

This is a big question. I will be brief to say that our research collectively as a group has contributed to addressing challenges in non-communicable and infectious diseases, in improving the health of children, women and older adults, and in developing health systems and addressing global issues. We also work in Kunshan and other places in China. “Health is global; Global health is local.”

Could you describe your average day working at Duke Kunshan.  

There are no two days alike at Duke Kunshan. This variety is one reason why I like working here. Simply speaking, my typical day – if I am not travelling or doing fieldwork — has two parts: doing desk work in front of my computer (often revising manuscripts, writing new pieces, or sending emails) and interacting with other people (in the classroom or meetings). 

What are your interests outside of work?  

I love plants, although I do not have a green thumb. I also love to travel, listening to podcasts, audio books, and radio dramas (in place of reading nowadays, unfortunately). I also love movies, good movies in the movie theater of course.

What do you think DKU is capable of in the next 10 years and beyond?  

The sky is the limit. If this is too shrewd or ambitious an answer, hahaha, then I’ll end by saying: I would love to see Duke Kunshan become a leader in Sino-foreign cooperative higher education and cutting-edge cross-cutting research – both theoretical and practical, to shine brightly like a star not only under the sky of southwest Kunshan but also in the firmament for all to see.     

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