Class of 2014: Kai Kuang

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Kai Kuang has always been drawn to interdisciplinary problems, so the ELISS mission immediately resonated with her. When she applied for ELISS, she was a graduate student in communication at Purdue University. Fast forward three years to today, and Kai is finishing her 1st year as a tenure-track professor at Bloomsburg University, a comprehensive public university in Pennsylvania, where her research and teaching focus on health and risk communication.

For her ELISS project, Kai joined a cross-campus team that also included a biologist, an urban planner, and a food scientist to examine how food labeling help consumers to make more healthful food choices. The team’s diverse backgrounds all contributed important perspectives to the issue, but as Kai describes, it also presented challenges.

“When our team first started working on our ELISS project, we needed to propose a central question to guide the project. Disagreements emerged when we discussed our own individually constructed questions. The questions that I wrote were primarily based on my training in social science. Eventually I realized what I considered “valid” from a social scientific scholar’s background was not necessarily valued, or even well understood, from disciplines outside social science. To work on the same team, first we needed to equip ourselves with a good understanding of one another’s disciplinary perspectives – why did we ask questions in the ways we did? Discussing those at the early stages of the project was helpful in breaking the disciplinary boundaries and starting to get on the same page for our interdisciplinary collaboration.”

This past year, Kai drew on her ELISS experience when presented with the opportunity to apply for a grant from her institution. This grant is rarely awarded to young faculty, and the review committee was composed of faculty from outside of her field. Kai was initially very hesitant to apply.  Would they be see the value of her work? Thinking about her ELISS experience, she knew that a successful application would need “to communicate in a way that anyone, in any discipline, could understand the project proposal and its significance.” The approach worked, and she recently she received the grant!

Kai says that many of the skills ELISS builds – working across differences, organizing effective meetings, and networking – are foundational for success in a professional environment. “Grad school is a bubble, so only now can I really see how relevant the experience was. My ELISS experience came at right time to prepare me for my next step.” Moreover, she values the friendships she made with other ELISS fellows, who still reach out to one another for support and advice as they navigate careers at the intersection of science and society.