Finding a Way
UNC is one of the top research universities in the country, and that research extends all over the world. Dr. Joseph Tucker is the director of UNC Project-China, a research and service collaboration between the University and Chinese partners. However, due to pandemic measures like physical distancing and remote work, Tucker said there have been some changes.
“We have to put in new protocols to make sure that the participants in our labs are safe. We used to do a fair amount of testing for HIV and syphilis, but because of COVID those clinics are closed or operating at 50% capacity so those projects have to be rerouted or reconsidered,” said Tucker, associate professor in the UNC School of Medicine’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
As director of UNC Project-China, Tucker overseas service projects, grants and crowdsourcing for public health research topics and solutions. Before stay-at-home orders, he traveled to China every two to three months for a couple of weeks.
“In some ways, that travel is just irreplaceable,” he said. “It’s going to study sites and brainstorming ideas for new projects, meeting supporters. It’s fun, and I definitely miss being there in person and seeing my friends in Guangzhou.”
Now, Tucker is home in London working over Zoom and email, but he said the transition wasn’t that difficult. When working between two different countries, a lot of communication happens online anyway.
“We were doing a lot of digital stuff before this, like digital randomized control trials, digital health interventions, where you’d send text messages or videos through a phone, but now there’s a bigger demand for it,” Tucker said.
Like many, Tucker first believed COVID-19 was bad influenza. However, once he saw the significant response from China, he knew that COVID-19 was a serious social and medical public health crisis. Tucker studies HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and also has knowledge of other global health viruses. During the 2003 SARS outbreak in Beijing, Tucker’s research in China was affected, and that taught him to be flexible. The most frustrating aspect now for Tucker is the lack of communication between countries trying to combat COVID-19.
“I think the Chinese public health infrastructure has huge opportunities for research, and at its core, there is still a huge value in global health collaboration to end infectious diseases.”
Even though Tucker can’t physically be in China, he and his team are still working on new projects with a special interest in youth.
“We’re working on a partnership with the World Health Organization in China and the Philippines to have an open-call for ideas from youth about what the world will look like in 2032. We’re interested in the many young people who have developed new social innovations related to COVID, like apps and social media campaigns.”
Tucker also worked on the Carolina Collective Initiative, an open call for the University community’s ideas for the fall semester.
From London to China to Chapel Hill, Tucker said he loves his work and public engagement in science.
“I’ve been very grateful to have this flexibility,” he said. “It’s a strength that allows me to gain connections all over the world and work with the World Health Organization. It’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to go back to Chapel Hill and do clinical work and mentor UNC students.”