Christine Keung won a Rolex Award in 2016 for her project to empower women in a rural area of north-western China to reduce water and soil pollution. Using her academic training, Keung is encouraging local people to engage with environmental and health issues – bringing about significant improvement for entire communities. 

What has happened in your project since you won the Rolex Award in 2016? 

We have completed a pilot study of the women-led, cradle-to-grave system for hazardous waste. We have trained 70 female farmers on safe methods of recycling hazardous waste and provided 80 primary school students with environmental awareness education. Getting women and children on board was very important, as they make the big household decisions. We produced picture books for them to explain how their families had been impacted by environmental degradation. The children also found it easier to pick up complex topics, and they in turn influenced their parents.

Last July,  we also completed a baseline survey of 370 village clinics in 10 counties across three prefectures, to understand the nature of the demand for antibiotics. We developed a doctor training programme, which used clinical vignettes to demonstrate proper diagnoses for the most popular illnesses in rural communities: child diarrhoea, unstable angina, asthma, hypertension and upper respiratory tract infection. My team delivered this programme to 370 village doctors in September last year and 75 village women were also trained to become health evaluators. We captured the results in a mid-term evaluation conducted in January 2018 and are currently analyzing the results. We are planning to use that data to design a new training approach that we will deliver this year.

How did you use the Rolex Awards funding? 

We used the entire Rolex grant on the hazardous waste pilot, along with funds from other organizations. The money contributed towards purchasing waste bins for the villages, stipends to student enumerators who collected the survey data, and for training materials and logistical support.

We had some positive results from the pilot study. Before the pilot, only 37 per cent of the farmers could correctly identify hazardous waste such as batteries and pesticide bottles. After the pilot, this number increased to 68 per cent. Because we provided training at the local primary school, more than 90 per cent of primary school children can now identify hazardous waste, which is a huge increase from 36 per cent before the pilot.

What have you learned on a personal level from your current projects?

I have been doing this kind of work since I was 19, so in one way things have become easier. I know how to organize projects and I know I can marry different worlds together. I am trying not to define myself as a social entrepreneur, but, at the same time, I am not a pure academic. Nevertheless, I think I bring the academic rigour that social entrepreneurs sometimes lack.  What you learn from being in academia is that you use your literature, you have to use your hypothesis, you have to have proof and you have to work with limited resources. So this marrying of the two worlds is part of my identity.

What was the impact of the Rolex Award on you personally?

One of the great things has been the opportunity for personal development, the opportunity, for example, to talk to Jury members [who select the winners of the Rolex Awards]. They see something in me that I don’t always see in myself and these are the kind of opportunities that I don’t often get. You are so much more than your project, even though it is important. You must be flexible in your ideas and think about the larger purpose. Otherwise, there is a danger in having tunnel vision.

My experience living and working in China has helped me appreciate my identity as a first-generation Chinese-American. I became just as comfortable negotiating with local Communist Party officials as I was moderating a debate with local politicians in my California home town. I was equally capable of conducting household surveys with Chinese professors as I was publishing peer-reviewed research with American academics. I was as at-home with farmers in a rural Shaanxi village [in China] as I was in the cultural melting pot of my home town. Winning the Rolex Award as a young American, to do work I care about in the country from which my family immigrated, helped me accept that I am a fusion of both worlds. I am the scholarship student who has given lectures in the same auditorium that I used to clean.

What about future plans?

I will be matriculating at Harvard Business School this fall. I was admitted to Harvard Business School during my senior year in college and have been deferring this for many years! I now think that it would be good for my personal growth to take the time to deepen my understanding of leadership and develop skills that could contribute towards solving challenges in my home country, the US. I’m proud of my work in China, but it has also put into context many of the issues we are facing in the US. Many of the problems we’re trying to solve in China – access to clean drinking water, affordable healthcare, quality education that could break the cycle of poverty – are issues prevalent in my home country as well. I strongly believe in the role women play in developing, driving and becoming the solution, and, as a 25 year-old, I’m still figuring out what’s next.

Are you interested in a political career?

I am trying to think about what really moves me in the long term. I do know that my life has been shaped by female politicians. I went to Wellesley [College, near Boston in the US], as did Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and Madame Chiang Kai-shek, First Lady of the Republic of China, before China became communist.

When my Dad left China to work as a servant in Hong Kong in the mid-1970s, he used a newspaper to sleep on inside the shipping crate he was travelling in. In that newspaper there was a big photo of Madame Chiang Kai-shek testifying in front of [the US] Congress.

I went to Wellesley on a full scholarship and, when I was accepted, it was an emotional time for my family. My Dad reflected on the fact that he, an uneducated rural farmer, was able to send his daughter to a school that taught the First Lady of China. That was a big deal for him.



Learn more about Christine Keung

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