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Shen on AAPI Month and Representation in Public Health

Gordon Shen, PhD, SM speaks on his experience and importance of AAPI in the field of Public Health

Assistant Professor, Gordon Shen, PhD, SM, Discusses his experience and importance of AAPI Heritage Month
Gordon Shen, PhD, SM, Assistant Professor of Management, Policy, and Community Health shares his experiences and the importance of AAPI Heritage Month

How has your race & ethnicity impacted your academic career as a faculty & student?
GS: I am a 1.5 generation immigrant from Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China. I consider both Hong Kong and the United States to be my homesteads. I bring up that part of my identity because it mutually informed my development as a student, later faculty. The field of public health developed significantly in my lifetime. My family and I gained a deeper understanding of public health owing to SARS, which had a deep impact on Hong Kong in 2003. Witnessing that epidemic and health disparities inspired me to enter the field, and I was among the first class to minor in public health as an undergraduate student at UCLA. I learned about the COVID-19 pandemic from reading Chinese news in late 2019. I understand the logic of China's current Zero-COVID Policy owing to my upbringing, knowledge about the Chinese health reform, and the year I spent in Beijing as a Fulbright-Fogarty Fellow. I see my academic career as a bridge between cultures and contexts.

Does race/ethnicity play a role in your research? If so, how?
GS: It does. I wrote my master's thesis on failure to initiate treatment after the first onset of depression among AAPI immigrants in the U.S.. This is a statistically significant relationship I found from an analysis of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions. In the wake of recent attacks on Asian Americans, several collaborators and I looked at the USC Understanding American Study to examine how the relationship between coronavirus stigmatization is associated with psychological distress amongst Asians in the U.S.. The research showed there was a disproportionate effect on females in the nationally representative sample (article). Research has and continues to be my way of addressing matters of lived experience and reacting to societal issues that are palpable to the AAPI community.

In the intervening years, I've taken an active interest in researching China's health system reform. I would highlight the tremendous progress the Chinese government has made in strengthening its national health system since the contemporary reform launched in 2009 and compare it to the Affordable Care Act in my seminar course "Comparative Health Systems". I have an ongoing study with Yijiong Yang and Yiqun Wang, two of our doctoral students, on Chinese hospitals. Lastly, I make these important tie-ins as a Board of Advisor member of the George H.W. Bush China Foundation for U.S.-China Foundation.

How do you overcome adversity?
GS: Here, I want to bring up the African notion of ubuntu (“I am who I am through others”) and the Chinese notion of guanxi, or a system of relationships and social networks which facilitate dealings because I simply cannot overcome adversity alone, especially in the last two years. Like other junior faculty, we juggle research, teaching, and service commitments. We have also been collectively dealing with sickness, deaths, and social movements (i.e. Black Lives Matter). I could not have overcome adversity on the respective professional and personal fronts without the social support from my mentor Dr. Rebecca Wells, and my wonderful colleagues at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health.

On a lighter note, boxing helps! During advising sessions with students, I bring up when appropriate, is the quadfecta to wellness: exercise, diet, sleep, and stress management.

What motivates & inspires you?
GS: I was trained in management and organization theory as a doctoral student and recall fondly the first time I read the seminal papers in the canon. Reading research (really high-quality research) still motivates me to continue to apply and extend sociological theory in the health care and public health sector. For example, I followed the controversy surrounding the hypothesis that employee mobility is a driver of mental disorder contagion across organizations closely (article).

I also draw inspiration from luminaries who work in different mediums in other fields. For the purpose of this profile, the names that come to mind are I. M. Pei (architect), Ocean Vuong (poet), Anish Kapoor (sculptor), Chloe Zhao (director), and Danny Bowien (chef).

What can students, faculty, & staff do to celebrate Asian Pacific American heritage month?
GS: Asian Americans are celebrated as indispensable threads in the American social fabric. Their invaluable, manifold contributions deserve to be highlighted. There is also a charge to concurrently address other month-long observances and important equity, and inclusion calendar dates. For instance, the month of May also happens to be Mental Health Awareness Month, so increased attention should be paid to addressing mental health within the AAPI community.

Can you speak to the importance of having Asian & Pacific Islander representation in public health?
GS: It is so important. There was no road map for a scholar like me, someone whose interests lie at the intersection of management, mental health, and global health. I didn't have a reference point early in my career even though I am fortunate enough to have mentors who guided me in every stage of my training. I realized as I was rising through the ranks that I had to carve out that role in academia.

I would invite not only Asian and Pacific Islanders, but people of color to be a part of this generation of public health researchers and practitioners, especially those who have a population focus.

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