Nanotechnology, geoengineering and vaccines. These daunting topics may seem foreign to the average person, but for Assistant Professor Christopher Cummings, these are issues that he delves deep into on a daily basis.
Make no mistake, he’s no scientist – what he does is to uncover why people are concerned about these issues, or why they aren’t. While his research field of risk communication may seem abstract to some, Professor Cummings’ dedication to his work is clear.
“So many people approach learning at university as just checking the boxes … You shouldn’t just check the boxes, there are greater lessons to uncover and to think about.”
Assistant Professor Christopher Cummings
In March, Professor Cummings was honoured with the Nanyang Education Award (School Level) a testament to his exceptional efforts in educating his students.
Passion shines through as he describes the work he does, in both research and teaching. “As a research professor, my job is literally to create knowledge – how cool is that?" said Professor Cummings, who hails from Santa Rosa, California. The 35-year-old assumed his role as a full-time faculty at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information in 2014.
"I study things that are highly uncertain for the public – science and tech issues like nanotechnology, synthetic biology, and geoengineering. These are things that most people are unfamiliar with, and have high levels of uncertainty even for experts,” he said.
He is currently working on a research paper, which analyses the factors that influence decision-making among the public to improve future communication about vaccines. Separately, he worked on a Final Year Project last year that dealt with secondary risks of vaccines. The project looked at how people’s responses to vaccines can change how people feel about them.
The passion he has for his research work also translates into his teaching. From 2008 to 2014, Professor Cummings was a grant researcher with the National Science Foundation, as well as the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, both in the United States.
When he took up the offer to work in WKWSCI, he was set on changing the way his students learned. “So many people approach learning at university as just checking the boxes,” said Professor Cummings. “You shouldn’t just check the boxes, there are greater lessons to uncover and to think about.”
And checking boxes is the last thing that Professor Cummings teaches in his classes. During lessons, he enjoys challenging his students’ assumptions and getting them to see concepts beyond mere lecture slides.
Professor Cummings also hopes that students will gain knowledge and skill sets beyond the classroom, and approach learning as more than a grade in class.
“It’s not just about concepts I’m teaching. I want them to challenge the way they see the world and leave my class with new eyes,” he said.
His unconventional but upbeat approach to teaching has certainly paid off. Aside from winning the Nanyang Education Award, Professor Cummings was also invited to give a speech on the artistry of communication at last year’s TEDxNTU collaboration in October.
“If you want to be a fun teacher, you have to enjoy teaching,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to be a professor because I love teaching, and I wanted to teach people who really wanted to learn.”
Passion for teaching and learning runs in his family, as Professor Cummings’ mother had worked for the library of the Santa Rosa Junior College in California and his sister became a teacher. He grew up surrounded by books and academics as he hung out a lot at the library. There, a young Professor Cummings would often run through shelves, picking out new books and checking out material for students.
“College students used to have a surprised chuckle when they'd come to check out an item for loan and were greeted by a smiley ten-year-old boy who could barely see over the counter,” Professor Cummings said.
He also shared that when his sister became a kindergarten teacher, he would volunteer to teach in her class as often as he could.
He added: “When I started teaching at the university level, we laughed about how amazing it might be to have one of her former students in one of my classes.’’
With his work in risk communication, Professor Cummings also gets to bring the insights from his research to the classroom and beyond. As the chair of the International Strategic Communication Management Program, Professor Cummings often brings WKWSCI undergraduates on immersive research projects overseas to broaden their learning experience and make a positive impact in the country’s public health they visit.
In 2015, a group of twelve students went to Sri Lanka to improve health communication about dengue fever. And just last year, Professor Cummings brought another twelve undergraduates to the North Island of New Zealand to work with a local health outreach center that serves the mostly Maori population to tackle the issue of obesity. There, students got the chance to develop their own health communication campaigns to combat obesity among the population.
“Students got hands-on experience working with real clients, on serious issues, with the opportunity to have their work make a positive impact on the health and well-being of real people,” said Professor Cummings. “It doesn't get any better than this.”
The only way it could “get any better than this” for Professor Cummings was if he could incorporate his favourite hobby – basketball –into his work.
“(Being a basketball coach) is kind of similar to what I do here. I oversee teams of research, in basketball I oversee basketball teams. As a professor I strategise to achieve goals, as a coach, I strategise to score more points against the other team,” he said. “Team sports like basketball stress trust and cooperation, strategy, execution, and of course, communication.”
Despite juggling multiple classes, grants, overseeing graduate students, Professor Cummings continues to take his work in his stride.
“When I do retire someday, hopefully I’ll be able to look back and see that my life’s work really helped to improve society, even if it’s in a small way,” he said.