New faculty profile: Kaiping Chen harnesses data science to study science communication, social media and politics

Kaiping Chen joined the Department of Life Sciences Communication as an assistant professor in August 2019.


I was born and raised in Shanghai. I moved to the United States after college.

Educational/professional background:

I obtained my Ph.D. in Communication from Stanford University in June. Before that, I earned my Master of Public Administration from Columbia University, and majored in political science and economics at Fudan University. I have also worked with local officials in New Haven, Manhattan Borough, Palo Alto, and Shanghai on policymaking and public engagement.

How did you get into your field of research?

My experience of attending Yale summer school and working at the New Haven Mayor’s Office during college sparked my interest to study political communication in both the U.S. and China. During graduate school, I developed two major research programs. One focused on political accountability in the digital age, under which I examined how policymakers in the U.S. and China manage and respond to online citizen requests on well-being. In the other program, I examined how to design effective public engagement to foster deliberation among ordinary citizens on complex and controversial policy issues. During the process of pursing these two research lines, I realized the importance of studying data science in order to embrace the great opportunity that digital media opened for scholars. I obtained a certificate in Computational Social Science from Stanford where I learned how to apply natural language processing and network analysis tools to understand people’s interaction on social media and in offline face-to-face dialogues.

Main goal(s) of your current research program:

The main focus of my research program is how we can leverage computational methods to study the exciting but not so well-established questions in science communication. For instance, I am starting three interesting research programs. In one program, I use the YouTube Data API to create a new dataset to study propaganda strategies in viral science videos and their effects on public discussion on politicized and emerging science topics. In another program, I investigate political accountability to the scientific community by studying congressional committee hearings from the late 1800s to the contemporary period to understand what type of scientists were invited to give testimonies and the political responses to these testimonies. In the third program, I collect and analyze public dialogues across social media platforms and in offline deliberation events to explore what deliberative designs can effectively engage the public in making thoughtful decisions about controversial technologies such as CRISPR and AI.

What attracted you to UW–Madison?

The intellectual atmosphere and the Wisconsin Idea drew me to UW–Madison. I feel strongly aligned with the interdisciplinary emphasis and the candid communication among scholars across departments. I also feel touched by the hospitability of my colleagues at LSC which makes a new badger feel at home.

What was your first visit to campus like?

My first visit to campus was last November, and actually it was my first visit to Midwest! I was very excited about the little bit of snow around at that time and the smiling faces I saw across campus.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?

I hope my students will know how to be a constructive online citizen and how to harness data science skills for solving social problems.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?

Yes, I use Twitter: @Chen_Kerry.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.

The Wisconsin Idea of doing research for the wellbeing of the society aligns with my continuous mission of providing policy implications through my research programs. People currently consume and learn a lot of information from social media. In this age of misinformation, propaganda and algorithmic bias, the quality of public discourse is challenged. My research aims to tackle how we can nurture a more rational online discourse and how we can hold politicians accountable in the digital age.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?

It has long been believed that science literacy is the main thing that obstructs public understanding of science. However, a growing amount of evidence in science communication shows that ideology plays a crucial role in how people process science information. For instance, people with more science literacy but more conservative ideology are more likely to doubt the human causes of climate change.

Hobbies/other interests:

I love playing piano; I started when I was 3 and gave my first solo performance at the Shanghai Concert Hall at 10. I also enjoy brewing Chinese tea and pour-over coffee for friends.