This week, we want to properly introduce our newest members of the VT Marketing Department: Professor Dr. Jian Ni and Professor Dr. Meng Zhu! We discussed how life led them to Virginia Tech, their focus on interdisciplinary research, their refreshing perspective on maintaining a growth mindset, and the potential for innovative marketing at Virginia Tech. 

How did your life experience and education bring you to researching American markets?

Ni:  I have always been interested in human behavior, which (in my humble opinion) is naturally connected to marketing. Specifically, I'm interested in the market and marketing in terms of how businesses are run by humans (as the decision-makers).

I started in science and engineering and wanted to study economics because of all of the interesting phenomena through mathematical and statistical models. Originally, I thought I would study monetary policy and interest rates, but what’s more interesting is human behavior. I found the marketing field fits this intersection and is quite interesting.

Zhu: Marketing was not something I dreamed of doing when I was younger (my parents are both medical doctors and I grew up around hospitals). I wanted to be a journalist as a kid and studied literature and philosophy in college. Doing a PhD seemed to be a natural fit as that allowed me to keep exploring. I wish I could say choosing marketing was planned. It was not and happened only after a series of random events. What I can say is I am forever grateful I ended up here, as marketing is truly an open field that embraces and celebrates different backgrounds. Literature, philosophy, psychology, economics, chemistry, physics, engineering… We all come together to shape today's marketing.

What has your greatest challenge been throughout your time in market research?

Ni: My greatest challenge in my mind is always the next question and the next big research because once we accomplish something, we get through it. So, it is not a challenge anymore.

Zhu: The one challenge in any university or academic research is to find the right place to publish interdisciplinary work. For example, if one does healthcare research, one would want to disseminate the knowledge through a high-impact, premier journal. One would need to advocate for that to be incorporated into their discipline as a mainstream topic. It is challenging and exciting, and can be done.

Ni: We always find that figuring out how to make our research relevant is challenging and rewarding. On one hand, our research is based on real-world phenomena. On the other hand, we want to stay ahead of the curve and inform the business leaders of what we can offer to them. We want to create societal good. It is challenging, but it's always rewarding. That is what a good marketer should do. 

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment thus far? 

Zhu: I don't look back and think about what I’ve accomplished; I try to learn from past pursuits and find what's next. I was recently talking to our three kids about how in our ever-changing environment, adaptability is an essential skill. Uncertainty is the only thing that is certain, and change is always a chance to be better. It is important to practice being adaptable to make ourselves relevant.

Ni: I completely agree. Always be forward-thinking. Think about the big picture and societal good. John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” I think the same thing applies to us. Of course, we're not JFK, but that's the fundamental thing the market and today’s world need to do. I'm glad that both of us contribute our small part.

Zhu: We have a growth mindset. We try to learn from the people around us and take small steps consistently so that we can make a difference together in the longer term. It is important to look forward and have an end goal. At the end of the day, we want to do something meaningful to society.

As accomplished as you are in research and academics, how do you maintain a work/life balance? 

Ni: The term work/life balance tends to mean that work and life are imbalanced, but we (as many) might want both and may not like to trade one for the other.  Work and life can be integrated (in many cases at least in our experience) and should not be a trade-off.

Zhu: Once an accomplished industry professional answered this question in a distinguished speaker series: her words resonated deeply- the goal is not to have a work-life balance, but a work-life blend. We all have different work styles and lifestyles and at the end of the day, it’s about what we want and however we want it. I'm not going to work at the cost of everything else I cherish in my life; at the same time, I'm not going to live without the work and the people I work with. At the equilibrium, it should be a win-win situation for me and for wherever I work and where I contribute.

How did life bring you to Virginia Tech? 

Zhu: It was meant to be, in a certain way. I have known people from here for over ten years! Some of them have been my mentors since I was a Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon; some of them I first met when I gave seminar talks at the institutions where they completed their studies; some of them sat in my class and were my research assistants before joining the Ph.D. program here. So, VT has always felt like home. There are so many possibilities here, and we can contribute to building something exciting together. And do that with the people we trust, share the same value system with, and enjoy spending time with. 

Ni: The first time I visited Virginia Tech was roughly 20 years ago. I don’t remember much about the specifics, but I remember having the feeling this is a calm and charming place of substance. At the time, I had a friend who had just got a job in the IT department here and he was so excited. It’s a perfect place!

Zhu: The places we end up loving the most are often those places we had no expectation of what they would be. Blacksburg is such a place, understated, a kind of irresistible beauty. There's so much to be done here. Imagine when people who are doing the best work of engineering also master business and the subtlety of our own being - we can create human-centered design and then market it to people in a lasting way. That I may serve.