Wenlin Liu Spotlight - University of Houston
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Dr. Wenlin Liu holding hand in Coogs Sign

Dr. Wenlin Liu, Strategic Communication

Dr. Wenlin Liu graduated with distinction from Peking University in Beijing, China with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. From there, she earned a master’s in communication at the University of Washington and later a doctorate in communication at the University of Southern California.

Liu has always had a passion for research, and her research areas include interorganizational alliance, immigrant and multiethnic community building, and social network analysis.

She has authored nine journal articles and book chapters covering topics such as multiethnic community engagement and organizational alliance while also receiving several Top Paper Awards at conferences organized by International Communication Association (ICA), National Communication Association (NCA), and World Association of Public Opinion Research (WAPOR).

Interview Q&A

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How long have you been working at Valenti?
I joined the school in 2017, so now I’ll be wrapping up my third year here. 

What classes do you teach?
For undergraduate, I typically rotate between two classes: Intercultural Organization & Communication, which I’m currently teaching this semester, and Organizational Communication, which is typically offered every fall. In the graduate level, I teach Quantitative Research Methods class, and I have also taught a special topics class called Strategic Communication and Technology. That last class is not offered every semester but probably will be once I return. 

Why did you decide to become a professor? 
I have this natural passion for teaching and doing research and, as a college professor, it’s really a very nice combination of both. I thoroughly enjoy doing both.
In college I knew I wanted to work in higher education, which is why I applied for graduate school here in the U.S. I am originally from China. That led me to pursue a master’s program to a doctorate program, and it just so happens that things went as planned. I’m really happy where I am today. 

Why did you specifically choose to apply to the U.S. to continue your graduate studies? 
Mostly because, back in the day, I was interested in political communication rather than strategic communication, which is what I’m currently doing. I think that social science research, in particular, is very much advanced here in the United States. In college, I read a lot of classic works by U.S. scholars and sociologists, so I thought that this was really the place where the most rigorous scholarship takes place. 

What specific areas of teaching and research interested you the most?
For teaching, I’m really interested in teaching practical components. Although I don’t teach the internship or more practical courses, I always found that it’s important to me to have some community-based component in my class. I encourage students to go out and work with actual organizations, interviewing them and building connections with them or even do a research project about them. 

I think that making a connection between the real world and the academic world is important. A lot of my research is also about non-profits and building a close relationship with organizations, so it kind of naturally translated to my teaching with students. I’ll make assignments in my classes for students to go out and build relationships with organizations. 

My research also has a practical component, as I believe that research should have practical applications. You should be able to translate abstract ideas to practical insights. In a very similar way, I’ll work with community-based organizations by not only collecting data from them, but also talking to them and applying what I find out to the organization so they can better achieve their goals. 

Why do you think it is so important for students to have that practical experience within their classes?
Well, I think it’s because our classrooms are not really in a vacuum. They will always have very real world implications. Especially since our students will most likely graduate to become media professionals in the community, I think this is the best way to prepare them. I also found that they find this more meaningful, being able to see the impact their work leads to. 

You’ve been really involved in COVID-19 research this past year, can you tell us about some of your research?
I think this was really one of the silver linings of COVID-19. It provided the opportunity to see the vulnerability of our community and organizations. I’ve actually had a few projects focused on COVID-19 communication. 

One line of research was how government agencies, which are such important actors in the context of disaster management, were effective in communicating messages on social media. In the past year, I looked at how Texas-based government agencies like public health departments communicate COVID-19 related messages on social media and how they direct coordination. When it comes to risk messages, if different agencies are sending inconsistent messaging, it confuses the public. The study had some interesting findings at different stages of the pandemic, agencies seem to coordinate with each other on the greater levels rather than on other levels. 

A second area of research was with Dr. Yan Huang, where we looked into the public’s attitude to the COVID-19 vaccine. This was during the latter phase of the pandemic, when we had a solution to the disease. There was a lot of skepticism about the vaccine and COVID-19, and a lot of conspiracy theories and misinformation. We were interested in the type of messages from government agencies that were most helpful in terms of getting people to take the vaccine. We conducted online experiments with Houston residents and looked at individual relationships with government agencies, as the more you trust an agency the more you will be open to taking the vaccine. 

So far, we’ve been working on a couple of papers about the experiment data that we’ve just finished collection. We found some interesting results: like how there is a difference about whether an individual hears a message of losses or gains, such as whether a vaccine hurts you or benefits you. This message framing affected people’s views, as well as whether it came from a local agency or a national agency like the CDC. It was interesting to see how the framing of a message makes a difference. 

The research is still ongoing so we expect to publish a few more works, but these two are my main areas of research. 

When do you expect to finish your research projects? 
We expect to finish, hopefully later this year. One project has been published, while the project Dr. Yan Huang and I worked on will probably be published by the end of this year. Hopefully by the time the pandemic ends, too (laughs). 

Why did you and Dr. Huang decide to pursue this research project? 
We regularly talk about research ideas, even before the pandemic. It just so happens that we both found that the pandemic created an opportunity for us to explore some of our common interests, like my interest in organizational communication and social media and her interest in persuasion. They just seemed to click in this context. 

We talked about writing a grant together, and after that got funded by the Enhance Research on COVID-19 and the Pandemic grants, that just formed the basis of our collaboration. 

You have also used data from your research on COVID-19 to help Dr. Vardeman and her graduate students create the vaccine-promotion PSA for Fort Bend County, can you tell us about this partnership?
Yes, hopefully our findings help them to some degree! The PSA was created to encourage people to take the vaccine, and so we shared our experiment findings with them. Our findings regarding the frames of the message, especially the loss versus benefit messaging, was probably very helpful to them. Our findings also saw that local sources were more trusted, so they would have kept this in mind when making the PSA. 

Not only are you involved in COVID-19 research, in early 2020 you were selected for the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) 2020 Emerging Scholars Program and given a grant for your study on Houston residents affected by Hurricane Harvey. Can you talk a little more about that?
This project focused on the post-disaster recovery phase of Hurricane Harvey, as it was something I experienced myself after seeing my neighbors and I struggle to find resources and helpful information on things like disaster aid and house rebuilding. I noticed that people seemed to rely on many different sources, as well as there being racial and ethnic differences on where they find information. 

So with this information, I looked at different ethnic groups (the four main groups in Houston: white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian-American). Disasters are known to affect minority groups disproportionately, so I was curious to see whether there are ethnic group differences when it comes to the selection of their communication sources. 

I launched a survey for about 800 Houston residents, where 1/4 came from each different ethnic group, and I asked them about the types of communication resources they used after Hurricane Harvey to seek support. I called that a communication ecology, because it was akin to a web of resources that people actively constructed themselves. 

The results confirmed my hypothesis that there is a difference across different ethnic groups, and I found that interpersonal communication, like talking to neighbors, was very consistent across all groups. I also found that certain groups, specifically the Asian-American groups, trusted government agencies more than other groups — this suggested to me that government agencies should make their resources more trustworthy for certain groups, as other ethnic groups were not as trusting as their Asian-American counterparts. 

It seems like a lot of your research is focused on the community and disaster communication. What is it about this line of research that interests you? 
I think this definitely comes from my doctorate work. When I was a Ph.D. student in ELA, I was also very actively involved in community-based research. LA actually has a very similar community to Houston’s, and the issue of intergroup relationships (how different ethnic groups interact with one another) has almost equal relevance. As a community member, I was always aware of the importance of community-level resources; I believe that’s the most immediate environment where people get their information and all kinds of support. 

My current research is kind of a continuation of my doctorate work, and I find myself very lucky and rewarding to be able to live in a diverse community so similar to that in LA. I’ve always wanted to make my scholarship and teaching relatable to the community, from individual members to organizations. 

If there was something you would like the community to get out of all your research projects, what would it be?
I think it’s the simple idea that connections really matter. So not just connections as in making friends and building relationships with your neighbors, but also for organizations to build connections to better serve the community. My research seems to suggest that connections really pay off in all sorts of ways. 

What have been some of your favorite research projects you’ve done to date?
I think the post-Hurricane Harvey community storytelling was definitely one of my favorites, and also how government agencies use social media to implement disaster communication was a project I felt very proud about and something I wish to continue to do research about. 

Are there any future research projects or topics you would like to pursue or are currently pursuing?
Yes, of course! So continuing from this Hurricane Harvey research, I’m working on a project that will take a network approach to more specifically measure individuals’ communication networks. It’s kind of a continuation of that idea, but with more methodological rigor. So I think I will use the context of the Texas snowstorm. I was interested to find out how different individuals would activate their different communication ties, and how those ties might be helpful to their disaster prevention behaviors. 

I’m actually collaborating with a colleague at another university right now, writing up a grant proposal for the project and hopefully getting some funding for it soon. 

You seem like you’re really, really busy. How do you balance all these research projects?
(Laughs) I think it’s just how your passion seems to carry it through. It’s very common for me to have multiple projects at the same time but there is always a common thread that ties them all together. I feel very motivated to finish all my projects. 

Having a good team of collaborators and managing your time is important, but I think your interest is the most important as it pushes you to keep going. 

What is something that, throughout your entire career, you find yourself most proud of?
I think something about resilience or persistence. You are able to stick to things that are able to produce value, and though in the short-term it may not produce the things you intended, you work on it for the long-term and persevere to see the finished product. 

You’re really involved with your community through research, are there other ways you practice community involvement? 
So, at this point, it’s mostly through connecting classes to the community. I’m always finding ways to improve the courses and research projects. 

What advice would you give to students who are looking to get more involved in research that helps their community?
I would say to follow your interest. There is always an area of research that would tie to your interest. And also talk to professors — feel free to chat with them and get to know them, and maybe even do an independent study with them to get started with research. I think professors are always happy to talk about their research with students.