Dennis Zhang

Undergraduate, Columbia University
  • Columbia University
  • People
  • United States of America

I am a/an:

Undergraduate Leadership & Research Scholar


Columbia University

Laidlaw Cohort Year


Research Topic

Anthropology Ethics Society & Culture Sociology

Area of Expertise

Biomedical Sciences Humanities Leadership Medicine Science Social Sciences

I am from:

United States of America

I speak:


My hobbies/interests are:

Gym Podcasts Reading Running/jogging Travelling Volunteering

I am open to participating in mentoring/buddy programmes


Influencer Of


Rooms participated in:

Columbia University

Recent Comments

Jul 27, 2022
Replying to Bryley Williams

Week 2:

My research plan has changed a bit, so interviews are no longer central to my project, but I still plan on interviewing some people. Last summer, I read an article by anthropologist Anne Guillou about the intersections of memory, religion, and powerful places in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia that really impacted how I think about conducting ethnographic research. Guillou did not ask participants directly about Democratic Kampuchea or use biographical methods; rather, she asked about significant places, which then led to people sharing other stories (partly because of the centrality of place within Khmer Buddhism). Guillou took this approach so as to "avoid the imposition of such Western categories as genocide, violence, suffering and trauma" (208). For me, this approach may look like asking about Khmer Buddhist practices in general rather than asking specific questions related to ritual during and after Democratic Kampuchea. I also want to be careful not to ask leading or forceful questions that center my own assumptions and instead follow participants' lead. I think that in general, this project is more suited toward the invisibility of the researcher, but I also know that I am always going to be present in my research, so I want to be aware of the ways in which I am visible, especially considering the dynamics of me as a non-Cambodian interviewing Cambodians or any assumptions I may hold (or, as Guillou says, biases toward frameworks of analysis that do not necessarily fit within this context) that could come through in my research process.  My summer program is also a group program, so I have been engaging a lot with fellow undergraduates from the US, Cambodia, and France. This international and multicultural environment has been so enjoyable and interesting.

Guillou article:

Hi Bryley, it's so interesting to hear about how you've grappled with your positioning as a researcher while conducting ethnographic research. In particular, I was struck by your nuanced decision to strive towards the role of an unimposing, 'invisible' researcher while acknowledging the ways that your own biases and interpretations shape meaning. In taking an open-ended approach to interviewing, you leave space for the emergence of new ideas - one that might even surprise you.

Simultaneously, I am curious if there are productive ways that you can embrace your biases and positioning (whether that be as a researcher, or a Laidlaw scholar from Columbia, etc.) that actually strengthen the insights you derive. For instance, are there interesting comparisons/juxtapositions that you can make between what you are observing in Cambodia and other religious dynamics in America, etc.? Looking forward to hearing more about your research- and your adventures in Cambodia.

Jul 01, 2022
Replying to Eleanor Campbell

Week 1:

As you set out on your research or community engagement project, do you find yourself experiencing any worries or insecurities about saying something that’s already been said? How do we as researchers and/or volunteers learn to address or set aside those insecurities or, better yet, to use them to our advantage?

I certainly have found myself facing this fear as I embark on my GLiA project. I'm in Ghana (with Victor at first though now we've been split up) working on WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene) with World Vision. I have no WASH background, aside from the brief introduction we received after being admitted, so I'm worried I won't be able to contribute anything innovative. I'll only begin to have an elementary understanding of WASH by the time we leave, so the idea of going several steps beyond that to think of where the field can move going forward while I hardly know where it stands now is daunting.

That said, I'm hoping having an outsider's perspective will bring its own strengths*. Perhaps coming from outside of the WASH establishment will help me see problems those more experienced than I simply take for granted. I haven't met any economists with World Vision yet, so perhaps that part of my background will be useful. I'm already seeing on the ground a lot of what my Economic Growth and Development professor, Xavier Sala-i-Martin, talked about in class regarding the challenges and failures of aid in the developing world. Hopefully I'll be able to draw on some of the solutions he discussed in class here in the field.

*This is a tangent, but coincidentally I downloaded Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath for the long car rides here on a whim, and its discussion of underdogs and the power of coming from outside of the establishment tie in perfectly to this question. It's interesting to feel like I might be able to live out at least a little of what I'm reading at the same time.

Hi Eleanor, your GLiA project sounds amazing! I think your nuanced take on being an "outsider" of sorts is really insightful- and I have no doubt that your unique positioning will come in handy (as suggested by Gladwell's writing). Most of all, I'm curious as to not only how your economic interests/expertise will fuel your contributions to the project, but also how your summer experience will simultaneously shape your economic beliefs/philosophy. Excited to hear new updates and other reflections in the near future!

Jul 01, 2022

Week Five:

One invaluable new skill I’ve acquired this summer is actively taking notes and reflecting at the end of each day. Heading into my experience in the Huntington's Unit at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Healthcare Center, I was intimidated by all the learning I would have to do on the spot. From remembering so many new names to handling difficult discussions, there was no online guide that would tell me what to expect or even prepare me how to respond to different scenarios. How could I understand the wants and needs of non-communicative residents? What was the best way to engage each of them? With so much going on each day, my solution to feeling overwhelmed was to keep a small notebook and pen on me at all times. I was committed to treating my volunteering experience like a college class- I would capture every detail and review them at the end of each day. X likes country music? Got it. Y only communicates by thumbs down and thumbs sideways? Got it. Z participated in a Huntington's disease therapy clinical trial? Noted.

Actively taking notes and reflecting has undoubtedly enriched my summer experience. Tying this skill back to leadership, creating and taking a few moments each day to review my small "memory bank" has enabled me to take initiative and innovate. I remember that certain residents like going onto the patio and, every chance I get, I bring them outside. I remember that certain residents are music lovers- and blast their favorite tunes on a speaker whenever I can. I remember the life stories of my residents - from their past lives working in the Met Opera to their rocket science research, little talking points that not only function as powerful conversation starters but also starting points for new ways of service that will hopefully bring them joy. In the grand scheme of things, actively engaging and reflecting is crucial for building upon the status quo. It’s a habit that I’ll take with me wherever I go moving forward.

Jun 26, 2022
Replying to Ava Sanjabi

Week Two: 

The engagement of different communities in my research is applicable both to the topics as well as to the outreach component. Within planetary research, it is necessary for people from different nations and backgrounds to come together to build technology and come to conclusions that push the field forward. In terms of outreach, this week I had my first virtual lesson with a primary school in Miami. Many of the students came from low income backgrounds, and/or speak english as a second language. Having a diverse group of students for my first community interactions was helpful in developing my outreach methodology for future classes. I have to adapt to different kinds of questions and break down the science into very simple concepts. 

I can find myself coming through my research very literally, since my name is Ava and focus on life in lava tubes. But more importantly, I see myself come through in my outreach and my day to day endeavors. The focus of my outreach is that everyone is capable of doing similar studies, with the right tools; to emphasize this, I think it is important for me to be physically and conceptually present in my project.

Hi Ava! It's really cool to hear about your experience teaching underserved primary school students! Having taught younger students myself, I'm curious what strategies you are using to keep students engaged, especially since you are teaching remotely. Perhaps music? Videos? Fun images? Teaching such a young lay audience is definitely a different ball-game than communicating with the more senior scientists you're probably used to discussing with. I can only imagine how it forces you to be creative, expect the unexpected, and adapt as you design future lessons!

Jun 26, 2022

Week 4:

Volunteering at the Terence Cardinal Cooke (TCC) Healthcare Center has been a both humbling and exciting experience. As a brief reminder, I am working in the TCC’s Recreation Department and, more specifically, in its Huntington's disease unit.

Huntington's disease causes a fatal and progressive loss of nerve cells that eventually leaves residents non-communicative. As a result, while some of the residents are able to comprehend, formulate, and verbalize coherent thoughts, many are left largely unresponsive. This has made checking in on and engaging with residents particularly challenging, and it's forced me to be more creative and resourceful.

One powerful resource that I came across were "communication books" that were made by speech therapists shortly after each resident arrived at the TCC (i.e. when they were generally very communicative). These books detail their lives, interests, passions, family, etc. Some residents were musicians, some were pediatricians, and some were even rocket scientists! When I'm lucky, mentioning some of the things they hold near and dear to their hearts (or playing a tune they are fond of) can elicit a friendly response. Sometimes that's a just thumbs up. Other times it’s a playful glance. It's not a lot, but it's enough to know I'm reaching them.

I recently learned that many newly admitted residents lack these "communication books.” This is due to a dearth of speech therapists visiting the TCC during the pandemic. It’s really a shame. Not only have the books been helpful to me as a volunteer, I’m sure they are extraordinarily meaningful to both the resident and their family alike. As a result, I’ve taken it upon myself to see what I can do to help make "communication books" for these residents! Stayed tuned.

Jun 18, 2022
Replying to Faith Andrews-O'Neal

Week three: What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!

Working at an NGO means that every single day is a little different, and all very exciting! My usual routine on a work day involves the food distributions, where we meet at Square Albert-Schweitzer (near the center of Paris) in the morning and go on different routes bringing people without homes food and coffee/tea. There are also weekly language exchanges, in which volunteers and refugees come together to improve English/French language skills, ending with a potluck dinner. However, what makes the work extra exciting is when added opportunities for engagement appear, such as getting to partner with REVERB, an organization dedicated to making tours more sustainable, and getting to see Lorde in concert after volunteering and helping conduct outreach for Serve the City as well as raise awareness about climate change. I also had the opportunity a couple weeks ago to lead a volunteer workshop on global formations of racial identity, which gave me the chance to take some of what I've learned in my CSER classes and share with volunteers from all over the world both in person and virtually (two people zoomed in from Egypt and India!).

While for some reason I can't figure out how to link images, you can see more of the work Serve the City is doing on their instagram

Hi Faith, it's incredible to see how diverse your experiences working for an NGO has been this summer! It's really cool to see how you're integrating various facets of your skillset into your day-to-day work. From leveraging language aptitude at the weekly language exchanges to exercising teaching skills at your volunteer workshop, I feel inspired by how you've managed to really personalize and own your experience!

Jun 18, 2022

Week Three:

A typical day volunteering in the Huntington's disease unit at the Terence Cardinal Cooke (TCC) Healthcare Center starts in the Recreation Department office. After arriving in the morning, I get debriefed on my hour-to-hour responsibilities. In general, I'll usually start off my day by heading over to where our Huntington's residents live and checking in! I'll then walk over to a different part of the complex to help facilitate activities ranging from word puzzles to horticulture. Throughout the day, I'll also shuttle residents to the outdoor patio area of the TCC. This is often my favorite part of the day because the residents instantly get more lively when they're outside, making the patio a fantastic space to chat with and get to know the residents! I'll usually wrap up each day by checking in one more time with the Huntington's residents and then embarking on a scenic walk back to my summer residence through Central Park, which is conveniently situated right next to the TCC.

I'm attaching a link to the TCC's Huntington's disease unit website here (which includes pictures of Huntington's patients and what the unit looks like)!

Jun 09, 2022
Replying to Anna Nuttle

Week Three:
What does a typical day of your research/community engagement look like? Aside from a narrative description, upload a photo, video and/or other media submission!

When I first started my project, I definitely focused most of my time on updating myself on current research in general, but I have now expanded my project to meeting with people with scholarly or personal background in the Marshall Islands. In the latter part of the summer, I will be helping my mentor go through a collection of items from the Marshall Islands to help create a community exhibit. 

Hi Anna! I'm really intrigued by the community exhibit you mentioned and (based on your previous post) how exactly you plan to weave together different perspectives on nuclear colonialism in the Marshall Islands. I'm also curious about the role that different forms of media (images, videos, documents, text, music) will eventually play in weaving together the different narratives you've mentioned. Excited to see the final product!