Member Profile: Andrew Willden

Andrew Willden
Andrew Willden

Working in a foreign country may seem daunting, but the rewards often outweigh the challenges. For Andrew Willden, associate director of Science Communications at the Kunming Institute of Zoology (KIZ), working and living in southeast China is a rewarding, life-changing experience.

Four years ago, Andrew began working as the only native English-language editor at the KIZ. He was the first non-Chinese national to be hired as administrative personnel instead of as a researcher or professor, and he had only one English-language colleague in a staff of about 400. Initially, he edited about 15 manuscripts weekly for approximately 40 research labs. After six months, he was promoted to communications manager and then communications director.

With a master of arts degree in history, Andrew found that his training in the humanities prepared him well to communicate science. Researchers learned that his unique perspective allows him to provide richer contexts for their work. He has a special interest in neuroscience, which often overlaps with his humanities research. “Neuroscience asks the same philosophical questions,” he said. “What is the nature of consciousness? What is the nature of being human? How do humans differ from other organisms?”

As communications director, his main focus is to implement innovative programs to communicate his institution’s research to a broader, international audience. Andrew and a colleague recently developed a fiveyear communications plan for seven institutions with about 1,500 researchers. The plan includes measures to attract more foreign researchers, empower students to write better in English, and develop a cross-institutional website that encourages collaboration for all life-science institutes in southwest China and eastern Asia.

One of Andrew’s largest challenges is negotiating communication barriers, because English-language proficiency is sometimes problematic. Also, researchers from different countries and disciplines may approach research writing in fundamentally dissimilar ways. Andrew’s chief goal is to translate the processes and procedures of Chinese research into a vehicle that’s clear to a Western audience.

Another challenge is navigating cultural expectations. Direct criticism, even when constructive, is considered extremely rude in China. As a result, it may be seen as inappropriate for Andrew to directly suggest manuscript improvements to an author—for example, if the data do not support the manuscript’s conclusions. Instead, Andrew must inform the author’s subordinate, such as a graduate student, of necessary changes. The student then navigates the required social conventions by asking the author leading, suggestive questions.

Andrew’s proudest professional achievement is helping his institution gain international recognition for its research. Last year, he compiled 10 years of data into a 300-page institutional review report, which was then evaluated by 10 scientists from international tier-one institutes. “It was like writing a book on the last 20 years of what we’ve done here,” he said. KIZ is now the first Chinese institution outside of Beijing and Shanghai to be recognized as a tier-one research institution.

With his varied roles in communications, Andrew sometimes encounters unfamiliar topics. When this occurs, he finds the CSE community extremely helpful. For example, Andrew recently needed to reinvent his institution’s flagship publication but was unsure how best to proceed. He identified CSE experts in layout and design by reading reports from annual meetings. He then contacted these members for specific advice and guidance. With their help, he rebranded his publication, which involved producing new covers, designing new article layouts, and restructuring administrative procedures for manuscript submissions.

One of Andrew’s favorite aspects of his position is the potential for rapid career advancement. “Coming out of the humanities and switching into biomedical communications, I most definitely would not have become communications director after four years; it would have been more like 20,” he said. China holds a wealth of career options for native English-language science communicators, especially multitalented individuals with interests in web design, graphic layout, and writing in varied fields. “China trains 60,000 researchers each year,” Andrew said. “That’s a lot of scientists who need help with their writing.”