Now what is it that you do?

Joseph Tucker’s parents back in western North Carolina understood why their son wanted to be a doctor. They got it when he decided to specialize in infectious diseases in far-off China. But now they aren’t quite sure what he’s doing, he said. Neither is the National Institutes of Health. But they like it.

Now what is it that you do? click to enlarge Joseph Tucker, Photo by Jon Gardiner

“We actually have no idea what you’re doing,” one NIH grant reviewer told him on a recent grant application, “but we think this is absolutely fantastic, and we really hope it gets funded.”

Tucker, in Chapel Hill recently to touch base with his Carolina colleagues, chuckled at the recollection. “That was really a funny review.”

Tucker is director of UNC Project-China, a collaboration of Carolina faculty, students and trainees with Chinese partner organizations to conduct research on HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, maternal and child health, non-communicable diseases and other global health concerns.

Tucker started sexual health research in China 17 years ago. He is located in South China, in Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), the capital of Guangdong province. Guangzhou is centered in the Pearl River Delta, which is not only the largest urban area in the world in both size and population but also a hub for technology and entrepreneurship, similar to Silicon Valley.

That similarity made Tucker rethink how to promote sexual health in the region. “Why not use enterprise and innovation as a way to combat sexual health problems and to promote syphilis testing and HIV testing?” he thought.

In 2011, he co-founded Social Entrepreneurship for Sexual Health (SESH). The “sexual health” goal is to get more people tested for HIV and using condoms. It’s the “social entrepreneurship” part of the project that confuses people. Instead of using experts, consultants or agencies to produce the public service announcements, Tucker’s group organizes “creative contributory contests” open to the public.

This tapping into the collective public mind to get ideas is called crowdsourcing. And it seems to be working. A randomized control trial UNC Project-China did in 2014 to evaluate the crowdsourced video campaign versus one done by health marketing professionals showed promising results.

Read the full story in the University Gazette.

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