Q&A with Xi Chen, PhD from Yale University in New Haven, CT.
“An academic career is like a marathon. An enduring interest will keep our work innovative and maintain its momentum.”
Q: How long have you been a GSA member?
A: I have been a member since 2014. I joined GSA because of my interest in aging studies. The annual meetings allow me to be exposed to exciting innovative research and connect me with new friends and colleagues. Best of all, GSA has been very active organizing events outside the U.S., which benefits me as a scholar of international aging studies. Besides, the official journals of GSA, especially the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences & Social Sciences, Series B enables to see interdisciplinary cutting edge studies that are beyond the scope of economics journals.
Q: How has membership in GSA benefited you?
A: Being a GSA member has helped me keep up with developments in gerontology and expand my professional network in global aging studies. I have met many wonderful researchers at the GSA meetings overseas. For example, I was one of the members to represent GSA at the U.S.-Shanghai 2015 Conference on Public Policy, Challenges and Governance Innovation in an Aging Society held in 2015. I also presented my research and received useful feedbacks that help me to improve the studies and publish them. I’m planning to attend the GSA U.S.-Suzhou conference later this year, which I believe will be a wonderful experience for me.
Q: How did you get interested in the field of aging?
A: With lower fertility rate and longer lifespan, we are naturally faced with urgent aging challenges across countries. A few years ago, I was conducting field work in rural China. I walked from the east to the west of village; almost all people I met were senior household members. I was again impressed by how declined fertility and massive rural-urban migration may affect intergenerational relationships and old age support in a family. I also realized that aging issues are interdisciplinary; the effects are far reaching and may spill over to everyone in a family. I’m very interested in bringing my expertise of economic evaluations to join scholars from other subjects to solve some critical issues.
Q: How do you feel GSA serves the field of gerontology and aging research?
A: GSA provides a platform for scientists and practitioners to meet and inform one another with the latest advances in the field. Therefore, joining GSA and attending the annual meetings is a great way to receive helpful feedback and (re)connect with those interested in advancing gerontological and aging research.
Q: What are your key responsibilities at your job?
A: One of my primary responsibilities in my current position is to mentor graduate students in professional development and research. I have served as the primary faculty advisor and mentor to more than 20 Master’s students of Public Health (MPH) in the past three years. A few of my HPM advisees are working with me on aging and pension choices. I’m also serving as a committee member for 7 PhD students. Some of them are Yale PhD students, while others are my postgraduate fellows visiting Yale from top universities in China. Moreover, I’ve been hosting several visiting research scientists who are CEOs of public hospitals in China. My advisees have diverse backgrounds, including students from Canada, China, India, Nigeria, Germany, as well as students from the United States.
Q: What is your most memorable research/patient experience?
A: My most memorable experience in aging research has been leading a research project on old-age pension reform in China. Launched in 2009, the new pension program now covers some 400 million rural residents, making it the largest pension program in the world. This program offers a general setting for studying the aging population in developing contexts, given the rapidity of population aging, traditions of informal community and family old-age support, decreasing fertility rate, and dearth of formal social security, at a relatively low income level.
In order to make best use of several sources of datasets, this project takes advantage of two large national samples: one is unique in capturing family composition and dynamics, and the other is uniquely rich in collecting information from the elderly. Moreover, we make use of a census-type household survey we conducted between 2004 and 2012, covering both before and after the new pension reform in China, to answer our research questions. This primary survey is unique in measuring real interactions in the social networks since 1990s.
This project involves three senior faculty at Yale University and Stanford University. The project was sparked by the growing scientific evidence that intergenerational and social relationships may change in response to pension receipt among the elderly. We evaluate the effect on fundamental dimensions of elderly life, family members close to the senior members, and social interactions in the communities where they reside. The National Institute of Health recently funded our project for two years. We have presented the study in several major events in the field of economics, including the National Bureau of Economic Research, the American Economic Association, the Institute for the Study of Labor, and the RAND Corporation. The Review of Economics of the Household has published part of our recent findings in August 2015, and several other journal submissions are under way to disseminate our research findings.
Q: Do you have any tips for emerging gerontologists?
A: I would first suggest asking ourselves what our main interest is. An academic career is like a marathon. An enduring interest will keep our work innovative and maintain its momentum.
Moreover, the fast aging trend has been a global issue. I encourage emerging scholars to actively participate in GSA events to connect to peers in this field. The GSA Annual Scientific Meetings and other GSA sponsored events worldwide are informative and cover a wide range of important topics.
Further, the vibrant gerontology and aging studies are multidisciplinary, which provides scholars with various background unique opportunities to contribute. To achieve this, my advice is to bring in our own perspectives and expertise. For example, from economists’ perspective, the aging process essentially leads to a mismatch between one’s lifetime consumption and wealth. Therefore, there is a large economics literature on the design and incentives of pension programs and retirement, both aimed at correcting the mismatch. Different perspectives and expertise will complement each other in putting together the best possible solution to some of the very challenging aging issues.
Q: Tell us a little about your most recent activities/accomplishments?
A: My recent research has been recognized through numerous awards, including the Best China Paper from the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) China Sessions (2011), the George Warren Award from Cornell University (2012), the Outstanding Ph.D. Dissertation Award from the AAEA (2013), the MacMillan Faculty Research Award at Yale University (2013), and an award from the National Institute of Health / National Institute of Aging (NIH/NIA). My work has attracted public media attention, including the Macmillan Report, the Economist, the New York Times, and various newspapers and magazines. The most recent NIH/NIA grant supports me in the study of pension reform on the health of the elderly and intra-household arrangements.
Recently, I have been working with a group of social scientists from Peking University to study the impact of air quality on hedonic happiness, mental health, and life satisfaction of the elderly. We match an U.S. monitored air quality data with a Chinese longitudinal national sample by the exact time of interview. We also compare the heterogeneous impact between the senior population, the middle age, and the young. Based on a number of methodology innovations, we provide the first evidence of the impact of air quality on subjective well-being among the elderly in a developing country setting where air pollution can be very severe.
I have also been working with my Yale colleagues to understand the enrollment decisions in old-age pension programs in China. It is puzzling that a large proportion of senior people are not enrolled the non-contributory pension programs. We ask why senior people leave money on the table, and compare with the social programs in the U.S. that have similar issues, such as the employer-based pension programs and food stamp.
Finally, serving as an associate editor of China Health Review, in the planning committee of the China Health Policy and Management Society (CHPAMS), and a host of more than 20 visiting scholars and research scientists from developing countries, I have been devoted to bridging the gap in gerontology and aging studies between the West and the East and facilitating their academic exchanges.
Q: Have you had an important mentor in your career? If so, how did it make a difference?
A: I am indebted to numerous mentors who have believed in me and truly invested in my educational and career development. My professional development and scholarship have been enriched by many prominent scholars in the fields of gerontology and aging studies, development economics, labor economics, health and social policy, and health economics. They mostly come from Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and several other major universities and research institutions in the United States.
My PhD committee chair at Cornell, Ravi Kanbur, has been guiding me and encouraging me to try my best to pursue my academic career. My faculty mentor at Yale, Jody Sindelar, has also been an excellent role model as a compassionate mentor. She has encouraged me to explore the way the real world works and think critically about the existing theories. I have also been fortunate to know many other outstanding mentors who have shaped me in important ways, including Karen Eggleston, Jason Fletcher, Robert Frank, and Xiaobo Zhang.