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New faculty profile: Nan Li investigates how visuals impact public understanding of science

Nan Li joined the UW–Madison faculty in August 2020 as an assistant professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communucation.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up? I grew up in Shenyang, a metropolitan city in Northeast China.

What is your educational/professional background (including your previous position)? I have a B.A. in journalism from Fudan University and a Ph.D. in mass communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was the Joan Bossert postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania and an assistant professor of agricultural communications at Texas Tech University.

How did you get into your field of research? I have always been curious about science and news media since I was little. I won the China National Biology Olympiad when I was in high school and dreamed to be the legendary Oriana Fallaci when I was in college. However, I never thought I would be able to use my journalistic background and enthusiasm in nature to explore science communication until I came to the U.S. The education that I received from the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison broadened my perspective and motivated me to pursue a scholarly career in this field.

What are the main goals of your current research program? My research has been focused on the changing nature of media discourse and public opinion regarding food, sustainable energy, and climate. I am also interested in how scientists’ inputs have shaped policy outcomes in such contexts. The primary goal of my current research program is to investigate the role of visual devices, ranging from food labels to popular science images and data visualizations, in shaping public understanding of science. For instance, one of my most recent projects examines how the scientific illustrations of the coronavirus may influence individuals’ emotional reactions and risk perceptions of the disease. I hope my research will inform the development of evidence-based strategies that ultimately facilitate the knowledge exchange and mutual understanding between scientists, policymakers, and concerned citizens.

What attracted you to UW-Madison? The internationally reputed academic programs in my discipline; the established platform for interdisciplinary collaboration; the intellectual student body; and the diverse and inclusive culture on campus.

What was your first visit to campus like? My first visit to UW was nearly a decade ago – I remembered sitting in front of the Washburn Observatory, and Lake Mendota was such a breathtaking beauty.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with? How to listen and how to be listened to.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use? I do occasionally; my twitter account is @_nan_li.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how. Absolutely. The Wisconsin Idea emphasizes improving health, quality of life, the environment, and agriculture for the state’s citizens, which overlaps the focus area of my research. I look forward to conducting projects directly applied to the state citizens in near future; I also believe that my research on the scientist-public interaction will help fellow researchers at UW enhance the effectiveness of their public outreach efforts.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties? Leveraging one’s credibility to convince can be futile; instead, one should talk about facts in a way that is relatable to others’ values and beliefs, then she will be deemed credible.

What are your hobbies and other interests? Reading and writing fiction, sketching, crafting, and sightseeing at the UW Arboretum.