Researcher Profile: Dr. Harry Zhang

Researcher Profile: Dr. Harry Zhang

zhangHarry Zhang is an Associate Professor of Community & Environmental Health at Old Dominion University. He is a recipient of BECR’s 2015 WIC Conceptual White Papers and our Healthy Food Behavior Grant. This is the first in our new series of researcher profiles for people interested in this field. If you would like to suggest a researcher for our series, please feel free to send us a note.

Can you describe for our readers a time you successfully built a research partnership?

HZ: We are very fortunate to have built a productive research partnership with Virginia Department of Health, including Division of Community Nutrition, which manages the WIC program in Virginia. Since I’m interested in nutritional outcomes among low-income populations, I have reached out to several state and local agencies that share the common interests. I’m very fortunate to have identified several key partners in Virginia Department of Health who are very supportive to my research. With several rounds of collaborations on grant proposals, even if not successful, we established the mutual trust and collaborative relationships to continue the partnership.

What are some of the key challenges you faced, and how did you navigate them? 

HZ: The most significant challenge is to answer the question “Why should they care?” Since government agencies or other potential partners are very busy and have their own priorities, things on the top of my list may be trivial to them. When I communicate with [government agencies], I always try to think the issues from their perspectives and address their concerns. Be humble and put myself in others’ shoes are good approaches to initiate the conversation.

Another challenge is the high rejection rates. 🙂 At the initial stage, many potential partners, in academia or in public sectors, said sorry since they were too busy or they thought collaborations with me would not be mutually beneficial. It takes a while to get used to this kind of frustration after repeated rejections. Retrospectively, I realize that it is a very normal learning curve just like training a marketing person. With those failures, I learned how to catch attention immediately, how to leverage their interests in the shortest times, and how to kick the first stone, and ultimately get things rolling. Actually, I learned this from observing my son, who was so shy to sell Boy Scout popcorn initially and now he is so confident to approach any strangers even if they said no. He taught me something I didn’t learn from my Ph.D. training. J

How do you go about selecting a research partner? Presumably they have data you need, and similar goals, but are there other more qualitative or work style-related signs you would look for? 

HZ: It is just like dating and I would highly recommend not only looking for someone with resources or attractive appearance but with a decent personality. People are smart and if they know you are only looking for something you care about, e.g. data, they will be shut down pretty quickly. In another word, if you treat the dating or marriage just as an exchange of capital, that relationship won’t last long and perhaps ending up with tragedy. At the beginning of my career, I made a mistake like most junior persons, anxiously looking for research partners like treasure hunter. Even if sometimes I assembled a panel of experts for one proposal, the team fell apart quickly after the proposal got rejected. Now, I’m looking for research partners with similar vision, values, or interests, i.e., the “same animal”. These things can quickly be self-evident after a couple of email exchanges, phone calls, or meetings, like after the first dating. If you are sure that these partners could be workable, then you can discuss about some specific tasks, such as data or other topics, both parties can work together. In the whole process, I never think that the only purpose is to get something I want. It is poisonous in the relationship build-up. Even if people do not admit it, the eyes or the body languages will tell their hearts easily.

 Once you establish a partnership, did you have to do any tweaking to your own management style? I’m interested in any thoughts you have on that growth process. 

HZ: It really depends on what kind of communications and who is the partner. If this communication is more routine or administrative, more likely I can delegate this to my research assistant or grant managers. However, if this communication is sensitive to the partners’ interests, as little as adjusting a meeting time, I will try to communicate with them personally. If needed, phone calls are preferred. If the partners have more than five years’ working relationship, I feel more comfortable to delegate the communication if the content is not that important.

If I can, I always try to communicate personally with partners even I’m very busy. They will know I’m respecting them and caring them and they will respect and care about me as well. Regardless of their positions or resources they have, I try to respect every partner and appreciate any support, even very tiny, they can provide.

Can you share any upcoming projects you’re particularly excited about? 

HZ: We are very excited about the grant award from BECR to experiment with text messages to promote WIC participants’ fruit and vegetable redemptions. This will be the first field experiment based on behavioral economics among WIC participants in Virginia and we are working on the IRB approval so that we can kick off the project officially next year.

Moreover, I’m communicating with some other WIC state agencies to initiate new collaborations on changing WIC participants’ under-redemption behaviors. Thanks BECR so much for providing this excellent platform to nurture productive and health relationship between members from different institutes, agencies, and backgrounds.

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