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In Conversation with the Djokovic Fellows: Linda Zhao

by , 30th Aug 2017

The Global CEO of the Novak Djokovic Foundation, Alberto Lidji, sat down with the Fellows to discuss their current research focus and thoughts on the Djokovic Fellowship. Today we hear from Linda Zhao.

The Novak Djokovic Foundation and the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University have awarded four Harvard advanced doctoral students the inaugural Djokovic Science and Innovation Fellowship. Sonia Alves, Joshua Jeong, Rebecca Lebowitz, and Linda Zhao are all in the advanced stages of doctoral programs across the university, and will each receive a grant during the 2017-18 academic year to support their groundbreaking research.

— I have to start, as I have when speaking to the other Fellows, by congratulating you on being awarded the inaugural Djokovic Science and Innovation Fellowship. Tell us a bit about how you got here and your current academic interests.

— I am currently doing a PhD in sociology while also undertaking a Masters degree in statistics. Before this, I did my undergraduate degree in economics at Princeton. For me, I am interested in finding out how the pieces fit together and working out a coherent story. So very broadly, I am interested in looking at the social determinants of health, especially in social networks. One project I am working on is pretty theoretical but I am looking for ways to apply it empirically – so taking a look at different behaviours, and how a social network can have an effect on the diffusion of behaviour through a social network, or not as the case may be.

— That’s great. Now, if that’s just ‘one project’, what other research are you working on now?

— Another side of my work revolves around substantive health applications, focused on smoking and preterm birth. Preterm birth is an area which is becoming a real area of interest for academics. What I find fascinating in the US, a developed nation, is the high number of preterm births and there has been some speculation as to whether this is down to inequality in neighbourhoods across the country.

This is something I really want to get to the bottom of, but a lot of the research which currently exists, particularly on the social sciences side, is data in the form of cohort level cross sectional comparisons. I want to expand on the data which is currently out there and I’ve developed something which I think is really cool. I am working on a prospective study, which looks at pregnant women and has both biomarker data and the social context data. So my research will be able to provide time sensitive analysis of what outcomes matter and when over the course of a pregnancy.

— That sounds fascinating. And how did your interests lead to you applying for the Djokovic Science and Innovation Fellowship?

— Sometimes I think there is tension between different academic disciplines. Certainly, in the areas my research is focused on – economics and sociology – there is some tension and I think a lot of it is justified. What attracted me to the Fellowship was being able to really focus on substantive issues rather than disciplinary boundaries. It is clear that there are a number of gaps which exist in research on early childhood development and whether a child’s development is influenced by economic or social factors, so I am very excited to be able to work with people from different backgrounds and interdisciplinary subjects to try and get to the bottom of it all!

— Looking forward, I sense that you probably see yourself perusing a career in academia instead of being a practitioner.  Would that be an accurate assessment?

— I think it is safe to say that research is probably going to be 80% of my career. However, I have a real interest in clinical medicine, particularly linked to children, and would love to be able to work a few hours a week perhaps as a physician in emergency paediatrics. I have a number of the qualifications required to become a doctor, so this is something I have not completely ruled out given my passion for medicine. This might be a little bit ambitious however as there are not many people who are able to have a dual career!

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