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May 2023   |   Volume 24 No. 2

Levelling up

The new Dean of Social Sciences brings a strong quantitative background and an air of cheery decisiveness, after joining HKU sight unseen.

It takes someone skilled in weighing multiple variables to take the decision made by Professor Ming Wen last summer. She agreed to become the new Dean of Social Sciences, having never been to HKU or even Hong Kong Island.

Professor Wen was headhunted for the position and initially hesitated, having enjoyed 19 years as a professor at the University of Utah where she produced a substantial body of research on the social determinants of health and well-being and enjoyed the lifestyle there.

“I never expected to get this opportunity, but after talking to people and starting the interview process, I became truly interested,” she said. “I saw that I could meet lots of interesting people, design or revamp existing programmes, and hire new people. I could also have broader, positive societal impact, particularly in this region. Hong Kong is also a good fit for me because lots of cultures come together here. So when I got the offer, I made my decision pretty quickly.”

Professor Wen is originally from China herself, and her research has increasingly focussed on bringing new insights into social and human developments in the country. For instance, a study of left-behind children found that separation from their parents was not uniformly bad because they had more economic stability due to remittances from their parents and higher life aspirations due to exposure to the outside world.

Similarly, a study on the effect of living arrangements on older people’s mental and cognitive health found that while those over 80 and living alone were lonelier, they had cognitive benefits from having to do everything for themselves and were more motivated to seek social interactions outside the home.

“My research basically is figuring out what kind of nongenetic multi-level factors contribute to health and human development, defined by different outcomes such as health status, lifestyles, and longevity and mortality,” she said.

Consolidating resources

In doing research, she uses both interdisciplinary and quantitative approaches (she has a PhD in sociology and Master’s in statistics from the University of Chicago and a BS in Information Science from Peking University), all of which she is promoting as Dean.

One goal is to establish an Institute of Population Studies to build on the Faculty’s existing strengths. This is now going through the internal approval process at the University.

“We already have very successful scholarship and people working on health and well-being, migration, gender equality, and social inequalities – all demographic topics. By creating a new institute, I think we can enhance interdisciplinary collaborations and do a better job in global outreach and more effective branding. When people see this name, HKU Faculty of Social Sciences, I want them to think of our institute. It’s a way of reframing or consolidating our resources,” she said.

Professor Wen is also working to rejuvenate the Social Sciences Research Centre, which used to be very active. Much of its work consisted of surveys conducted by phone, but nowadays, people rarely answer unknown numbers. “I want us to think about how to reform or revamp some of these previous activities to provide effective and affordable services,” she said.

She has also given a boost to researchers with a new seed grant for interdisciplinary collaboration and started a Professional Development Forum to provide informational support on topics such as tenure promotion and managing online publication references to properly reflect and present research accomplishments in UGC (University Grants Committee) activities.

Faculty of Social Sciences’ Student Prize Ceremony 2022–23

Professor Wen at the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Student Prize Ceremony 2022–23.

Quantitative expertise

Recruiting is inevitably a high priority as the University seeks to hire top talents from around the world. Professor Wen started reaching out to prospective candidates even before she took up her post last October and several are close to confirmation. Quantitative research method expertise will be valued in both recruitment and training – a new taught master’s degree in social data analytics is being launched – but Professor Wen sees this more as a levelling up.

“HKU Social Sciences are well known for their strength in qualitative research methods and output. We’re now catching up by hiring top quantitative researchers. But qualitative research still remains strong,” she said.

As she implements these plans, Professor Wen will continue her own scholarly work. She is involved in a major project in the US to examine the effects of place-based structural, social, built, and natural environments and individual factors in mid-life health and lifestyle outcomes. She is also keen to do Hong Kong research and has formed multidisciplinary teams and submitted two large-scale research grant applications on early childhood development and on Hong Kong children with autism and their families.

“I hope more people will realise this is a great place to work and join us, especially from outside Hong Kong. And I hope our Faculty of Social Sciences can become a leading social science research hub worldwide,” she added.

I never expected to get this opportunity, but after talking to people and starting the interview process, I became truly interested.