Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers: Jenny Su

For Professor Jenny Su, president of Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, universities have a social responsibility to respond to national and global crises.

Jenny Su Huey-Jen
National Cheng Kung university (NCKU)

AsianScientist (May 25, 2018) – To Professor Jenny Su, the measure of a university is its ability to rise to the call of social responsibility in times of need. The veteran researcher-turned-president of the National Cheng Kung university (NCKU) in Taiwan has led the university’s response to two of the nation’s most pressing public health emergencies since she took office in 2015—a dengue fever outbreak in Tainan in 2015, and a magnitude 6.4 earthquake that shook Taiwan the year after.

In both cases, she coordinated relief efforts and mobilized university assets to reduce the number of casualties. NCKU faculty contributed their expertise to rescue missions, and even students volunteered to assist in data collection and emergency monitoring activities. Rather than shield students from the challenges of the world, Su believes that the process of higher education should challenge students to tackle the world’s problems with enthusiasm.

Acknowledging Su’s strong stewardship of the public health response of her home country, her alma mater—the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health—conferred her with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership Award in Public Health Practice in October 2017. In this interview with Asian Scientist Magazine, Su shares about her values, research interests and experiences in handling public health crises.

  1. Who or what inspired you to become a scientist?

    There wasn’t a specific person or incident that inspired me to do research. Rather, my interest in science was developed gradually, during my education. Through the different phases of my education, the people around me and my own inner search for meaning—how I envisioned that I would be most comfortable in leading my adult life—led me to become interested in exploring the world of the natural sciences.

    Back then, I felt that I could readily access information and resources relating to the humanities and social sciences, whereas my impression was that studying the natural sciences required some external support, infrastructure-wise and in terms of needing experimental facilities. So, for my formal schooling, I chose the natural sciences.

    There was, however, a time when I was contemplating whether or not to become a professional musician. I did alright as a pianist, I suppose. I had encouragement from my music instructor and I received some awards. Playing the piano was something I enjoyed, but I did not have the confidence to become a top tier professional musician. Hence, I decided that I continue to play the piano as a hobby, something that adds to my work-life balance, and I left it as it is.

  2. How did you become interested in public health, air pollution and airborne microbial hazards?

    That was something very clear to me by the time I had completed my master’s degree. I’ve always been empathetic to people, being sensitive to people’s feelings and responses. I was also familiar with the concepts of justice and philanthropy—my father studied law, and my grandmother spent most of her life dedicated to some community or religious service. I thought: I would like to dedicate my professional study to public health, to explore the interactions or correlations between environment and the people.

    I felt that public health offers the broadest domain as it looks at entire populations, compared to clinical medicine where you treat one individual at one time. One core belief in the public health domain particularly resonated with me—that everyone is equal; every life is equal regardless of their race, social background or qualifications.

    With regards to air pollution and airborne microbial hazards, I became interested in these issues because with air, there is no boundary separating one location from another. This means that problems with air quality are global public health problems.

    It so happened that when I began my thesis research at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, there was a new frontier in exploring how airborne microbials affect the general population. I had a background in botany and biology, so I felt that my knowledge was very relevant to this research domain. All that I had learnt as an undergrad, from morphology to basic physiology all came to bear.

    Most of my other classmates at the time either came from engineering, physics or chemistry backgrounds. Very few of them had any direct link to the field of botany or microbes. So I was a natural candidate for doing airborne microbial research and I enjoyed it.

  3. What would you say is your most significant research contribution?

    It was when we characterized the various levels of impact that microbes had on the general population. We tried to draw the attention of the general public to the microbes in their general living environment and their occupational environment.

    With that knowledge, they can examine their own predispositions and their characteristics to respond to the challenges in their environment. If they can be more aware of their own conditions, they can then think of better ways to prevent themselves from becoming exposed or sensitized, or to present their cases to the clinicians more clearly. This is especially important if their exposure is coming from their occupational environment.

    Prior to our work, indoor microbial hazards or pollution had not been systematically characterized. Most people were only aware of chemical or physical pollutants. They were less likely to be aware that plants, biological residues or contaminated spots in the house can easily become a source of sensitization to negatively impact health. Therefore, our background work helped educate people on how to examine and improve their own living and working environments.

  4. What are some important tips for raising awareness on issues of public health?

    First, you need to have very systematically-accumulated and peer-reviewed scientific information as a foundation. Then you need to distil that into a simple, clear public campaign message. Usually when you go to the media, the message has to be simple and clear. But before any scientist or public health worker can go out and strongly recommend certain specific actions to the public, he or she needs to make sure that all the scientific information has already been prepared.

    Finally, engagement with the public is also important. I remember there were times when I went out to the rural villages—to the farmers and the people living along the coastline. I learnt that because the indoor factors and profiles are different for each of these groups of people, you have to be able to translate your critical information for them so that they may then adopt some practices to avoid hazardous situations.

    What I’m saying is that you have to be willing to spend hours in the lab to gather the evidence, then be willing to go to the front line and take that message to the individual or different sectors of the population. You need to understand their background, be sensitive and appreciative of their constraints, and come up with a strategy that would be feasible for them to adopt.

    If we use just one blanket approach, it’s difficult to reach out to people of different educational or socio-economic backgrounds. Sometimes, some of the solutions that we come up with easily in the labs may never be affordable to some members of the population. You must be willing to spend time designing different sets of metrics and best practices for the people you are concerned with.

  5. Could you tell us about the dengue fever outbreak in 2015 and what was your role in managing it?

    The problem first came to my attention when the number of dengue cases spiked in the city. I was alerted to the scale of the infections and the speed at which it was spreading. When we looked at these cases, I noticed that some of the information being sent out to the community may not have been synchronized or clearly integrated.

    Secondly, I found out that advances in modern technology were not being properly or effectively adopted in the civil or government sector to address this public health issue.

    Thirdly, we realized that while real-time information and open data platforms were already widely available in other sectors, they were lacking in the healthcare sector, and were not being effectively or properly used in the field of epidemic control.

    So I formed a task force—we met every day for discussions on how best to handle the situation. We had our information engineering experts either participate in collecting data on a real-time basis, or join the city government’s task force, where they provided the most updated daily information to public health officials to facilitate the decision making processes.

    All our clinicians and lab technicians were also testing and evaluating the detailed portfolio of patients coming to the hospitals every day. We noticed that this was the first time, not just in Taiwan but also the rest of the world, that we had a large number of elderly people being infected. This is in contrast to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, where historically, most of the infected cohorts consisted of young people. So the treatment practices are much better established for the younger population, but not for the senior population.

    Essentially, we worked as a central office coordinating public health efforts with our central government in Taipei. We assisted by providing detailed information so that health officials could decide on how best to deploy healthcare resources. Our students in health-related courses even provided voluntary services by manning the phones or mobile app service so that we could respond to citizens’ requests for help during the crisis. With the data and information systems we created, we helped gain control of the dengue situation within two weeks.

  6. Have these measures developed by your team at NCKU been implemented elsewhere as well?

    The central government is using our SOP to train other city governments in Taiwan to adopt similar measures. Furthermore, many of the scientific discoveries made at that time have been published in peer reviewed journals and shared with other communities. Some prototypes or gadgets that we invented are now also becoming business opportunities for us, and we strive to design even more affordable and sensitive gadgets to be deployed in other Southeast Asian countries or Africa.

    One example of such a device is a mosquito-catching lamp that is connected to a sensor, which sends information directly to the central office. This alerts us to the mosquito populations in areas at risk, and we can then deploy the necessary clinical or public hygiene professionals to take control of the situation before an epidemic arises.

    For the past two years now, we have successfully protected our city from outbreaks of dengue infection. This, to me, is very satisfying.

  7. You also played an important role during an earthquake that hit Taiwan in 2016. Could you tell us more about what transpired?

    Regarding these two emergencies—dengue outbreaks and the earthquake—what I’ve shared with my colleagues and our students is that the best way to test a university is to observe whether it can respond to the calling of social responsibility. So often, the process of higher education tends to be protected or shielded from society’s challenges or catastrophes.

    Throughout the history of humanity, universities, especially those qualified, competent ones, are expected to lead society into the next phase of civilization. So when the earthquake hit us, our architecture department, our civil engineering and material sciences faculty immediately formed a team and moved out into the field to support the identification of damaged structures.

    In the 3D-imaging lab, they produced, overnight, clear 3D images to guide rescue teams, helping them identify the best entrances and exits to damaged sites. This improved the rescue teams’ chances of successfully extricating victims of the earthquake.

    Our nurses and physicians, without any other reward, voluntarily went out and formed the first emergency rescue tent, and medical resources were provided freely by our institution. At the same time, I had my general affairs office identify a few blocks of rooms and stocked them with new blankets and heaters, with the view that if we are going to welcome these people onto our campus, they need to have a place where they can feel safe, a place that belongs to them.

    I think the earthquake took place at 3:57 am in the morning. Before 6 am, our university teams were already in different locations, deployed according to their expertise, to support disaster relief operations, from the front lines of the rescue to the back end of providing support to families. The entire system was built in that short time frame, and our students were involved as well.

    What I am most proud of is that the university has claimed social responsibility as a core value, which is upheld by all its stakeholders. This is something we hope to continue to inspire in the next generation, and something that sets us apart. The university has proven that it can become a role model for society in times of need.

  8. What it was like to transition from being a researcher to becoming the president of a university?

    This was not something I had planned, but I’ve always had this hopelessly romantic dream of what a university could be. I feel that it is a blessing and a privilege to have been appointed to this position.

    Three quarters of NCKU’s faculty members are male, and predominantly from engineering backgrounds. By being the first female president, and coming from a biology background, I hope that I can in some way encourage many of the young, capable and enthusiastic female students and faculty to aspire to more and serve the community better.

    But as president, I have to significantly limit and focus my research activity. I still do some research, but I have to humbly and honestly admit I have to be very careful with my commitments. Some areas that I continue to be interested and involved in are global climate change and its impacts on the world’s populations.

    For neglected populations and areas, especially underprivileged segments of society, I feel that scientific information can serve as the most powerful argument for us to come in with better adaptation programs so that everyone on this planet will have an equal chance to survive and continue to evolve and develop. This will be the focus of my research and academic activities now.

  9. What is your vision for NKCU for the rest of your tenure as president?
  10. In the past couple of years, we have vigorously identified our regional hub. We have collaborations in Southeast Asia, North America and Africa, and we will soon be engaging with Europe. I would like for NCKU to continue to be an institution that is respected globally and is valued by society. I also hope that all the discoveries, inventions and contributions of our university will serve the disadvantaged, bringing them more effective and affordable solutions.

    This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.


    Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: National Cheng Kung University
    Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

Jeremy received his PhD from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, where he studied the role of the tumor microenvironment in cancer progression.

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