Bei Wu works toward improving health status through research and policy

If the world of academic gerontology had a rock star, it would be Bei Wu, MS ‘97, PhD ’00.

Recognized for her extensive research and pursued by top tier universities, Wu has become an international leader in the field since graduating from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Department of Gerontology. Add the years in policy work before earning her doctorate and Wu chuckles that, having spent more than half of her life in the field of gerontology, she herself is now experiencing the aging process.

“I’ve become my own study subject,” Wu says.

Today, Wu is the Director of Global Health and Aging Research at the Rory Meyers College of Nursing, and Director for Research at the Hartford Institute for Geriatric Nursing at New York University (NYU) and the inaugural co-director of NYU’s Aging Incubator, a university-wide aging initiative.

Given her considerable success in gerontology, it’s fitting she credits her grandmother — with whom she was extremely close — for nudging her into the field. Born in Shanghai, Wu’s parents left her and her brother in their grandparents’ care when the two were young. After college, Wu accepted a research position with the Shanghai Commission on Aging only after prompting by her grandmother.

“At the time, very few people thought aging would be a challenging issue in the future,” Wu says.

But writing policy briefs and launching studies on intergenerational support with the United Nations Population Fund convinced Wu to pursue graduate studies. With no options available in China, she chose UMass Boston.

“UMass Boston has had a significant impact on my career,” Wu says. “The gerontology program has a critical mass of excellent faculty.”

The skills she learned in the program remain fundamental to her career today. She cites Professor Frank Porell’s class on how to use secondary analysis — using existing, publicly available data collected by other researchers — as a key practice she employs today.

“UMass Boston was one of the few places offering this course,” she says. “I’m actually advocating for our doctorate program at NYU to offer this type of course right now. Using this research method has allowed me to receive many NIH-funded projects.”

Her advisor, the late Professor Emeritus Frank Caro, taught her the various types of research methods and how best to use them. Wu credits Caro with initiating her interest in long-term care which remains one of her primary areas of research.

After graduating, Wu spent a brief period as a senior research scientist in the private sector before launching her academic career at the University of West Virginia. After relocating to North Carolina for her husband’s career, Duke University School of Nursing soon recruited Wu for a tenured professorship and to head an international research initiative. In 2016, after considerable persuasion, she joined NYU.

Her overall research focuses on how to improve health outcomes as individuals age. Within this area, she explores dementia caregiving, cognitive health for adults, improving the quality of oral health, and improving the quality of long-term care.

As a researcher, Wu’s pace is astonishing. She has published more than 550 peer-reviewed papers, books and abstracts and served as the principle investigator for research and clinical trials conducted with colleagues across the globe. One ongoing NIH-funded trial is investigating how improving oral health for adults with cognitive impairment enhances their overall quality of life. Wu believes researchers should consider policy implications and generate empirical evidence to effect change.

“Our team has published many articles that look at oral health in relation to diabetes and cognitive function,” she says. “We hope to provide strong evidence [that improved oral health positively impacts overall health] so we can influence health policy to expand Medicare to cover dental care. As researchers, we need to provide evidence using a rigorous scientific approach. That’s how we influence policy.”

In addition to initiating her own research, mentoring is a rewarding part of Wu’s work. With current and former students working across the globe, she hopes to foster the next generation of scientists to be more successful than those at work today.

“What’s driving me to work so hard is that there’s so much need and so many challenging issues we have to tackle, especially in terms of disparity and improving the health of our vulnerable populations,” she says.

Wu’s passion is also driven by her own painful experience watching her beloved grandmother’s health deteriorate in a Shanghai nursing home. With frequent travel for research projects in China, Wu had many occasions to visit her.

“Every time I went to Shanghai, I always spent at least one afternoon with her,” says Wu.  “And, every time it made me very sad to think about the quality of care she received. I, as a long-term care researcher, know what good quality care is, but I could not improve the care my own grandma received. Sometimes I left with tears in my eyes. You feel helpless.”

At one point, Wu invited Duke colleagues to Shanghai to train long-term care providers in the nursing home. The chief nursing officer told Wu the team learned a lot from the workshops.

Her grandmother passed away last year.

“As aging researchers, this work is both personal and professional. As a profession, we need to do more to improve the health and quality of care for the current generation of our aging population as well as the next, but also for us as daughters and granddaughters, to take care of our loved ones.”

A strong proponent for global research, Wu learned the value of working with international students at UMass Boston.

“A global view broadens your own view,” she says. “It’s very narrow-minded to only look at the United States. Hopefully the U.S. still has the ability to attract global talent to this country. Listening to our colleagues across the globe helps us advance science and improve policy. I’m very pleased UMass Boston’s gerontology program has so many international students. I think this is really important. International students bring their own perspective and we can learn from these students. We can learn from each other.”