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How teaching off the farm leads to joint research collaborations

December 18, 2017
Images: courtesy of Judith Prochaska (from left to right: John Maa, UCSF, Judith Prochaska, Stanford University, Mark Martini, Lila Martini, Drew Martini, Xiaohan Yang, Dr. Yi Xing, Dr. Jun Ma, Dr. Yi Song, Dr. Liubai Li, Peking University)

As a recipient of a Stanford Center at Peking University (SCPKU) team innovation fellowship, Judith Prochaska, an associate professor of medicine, and her colleagues from the Stanford Prevention Research Center had an opportunity to teach the graduate seminar, Cancer and Cardiovascular Disease Prevention in China: A Multi-disciplinary and Cross-national Approach, during the summer of 2016 in Beijing. In addition to teaching, the fellowship would allow her to connect with in-country scholars and explore new research opportunities. Originally hesitant to go to China, which had closed schools for several days due to bad air quality, she realized this was a unique opportunity. The trip proved to be successful; in addition to gaining teaching experience in China, she made invaluable contacts with faculty at the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health at Peking University (PKU), initiated several joint projects and recently co-authored a paper that appeared in the November 2017 issue of the journal Hypertension.

OIA had a chance to meet with Professor Prochaska to learn more about this new international collaboration, the value of in-country partners and the advances the team is making in population health research.

Q: Could you describe the nature of how your collaboration developed from the time you arrived in China to your first co-authored publication with your colleagues from PKU?

JP: During my time in Beijing, I had the pleasure of meeting with Professors Yi Song, Yi Xing, and Liubai Li. Initially over a delicious and artistic vegan lunch, we identified common interests in population health and disease prevention. Excitement grew with the great possibilities of collaborating on questions concerning child and adolescent health, spanning health risk behaviors (smoking, diet, exercise), mental health factors (stress, depression, suicide), and biometrics (blood pressure, body mass index). It was a lively lunch that was followed by further discussion during a research symposium held at the Stanford Center on Peking University. Soon thereafter, we started planning for how the PKU colleagues could come spend time at Stanford to further develop our collaboration into definable projects and publications.

Q: After having great meetings in China, how did you decide to continue working with your new found colleagues in a deeper, more meaningful way?

JP: I learned that my PKU colleagues had a fellowship opportunity that would fund their coming to Stanford as visiting scholars for 6 months so that we could continue the work that we had started a year earlier. In addition to working together, they made connections with other researchers on campus and used Stanford materials to further their research.

Q: The course was unique in that Stanford University and PKU students jointly enrolled in the course. Aside from the benefits of making new friends, the PKU students were able to provide context and clarity to the healthcare environment that was a bit foreign to the Stanford students. What was valuable about working with colleagues from the Institute of Child and Adolescent Health that you couldn’t replace with other resources in the United States?

JP: The collaboration brought a valuable global perspective that highlighted key cultural and geographic features relevant to child health. Chiefly, our first project, now published in Hypertension, identified the need for a national blood pressure reference for Chinese children and adolescents. The 2010 Chinese National Survey on Students’ Constitution and Health that the team had access to with data on nearly 200,000 children aged 7 to 17 was unique and ideal for yielding a new blood pressure standard for the nation. The findings have direct relevance to future research and clinical practice in China.

Q: What is the significance of developing a blood pressure standard for children? Isn’t hypertension an adult problem?

JP: While hypertension is often thought of as a problem of adulthood, it can be progressive throughout childhood into adulthood, and elevated blood pressure in childhood is the strongest predictor of hypertension in adulthood. It is important to recognize blood pressure abnormalities in young people for improving and streamlining pediatric primary care.

Q: The time it took for you and collaborators to co-publish seemed quite short. What are key characteristics that you look for when assessing potential collaborators?

JP: When assessing potential collaborators, I look for shared interests, genuine enthusiasm, the potential for new learning, and research objectives with a high likelihood of making a difference. That is, I seek out collaborations that will yield findings with the potential for real world implications.

Q: Faculty often mention the desire to build bi-lateral reciprocity with their international partners. Do you think you would have co-published so quickly if you didn’t invite your research partners to Stanford, and why?

JP: Spending time at both institutions - the reciprocity - was essential. The SCPKU summer faculty fellowship was key to developing my understanding of population health research in China and for forming connections with the PKU research team, which developed greatly through their 6 month visit to Stanford. The Hypertension paper is only one of several studies that we have in the works. I anticipate that our collaborations will continue for years going forward.

Q: How does this collaboration strengthen your own research?

JP: My research centers on cardiovascular disease and cancer prevention, spanning epidemiologic methods to clinical trials, to study of health policy. Through this experience, I have gained a greater appreciation of cultural, geographic, and sociopolitical factors that influence health. The fellowship with SCPKU and the ongoing collaboration with PKU colleagues has broadened the perspective, reach, and scale of my research program. I am grateful for the experience and eager to return in the future.