A growing alliance aims to give University researchers global reach

David Pacchioli
September 01, 2003
man in scuba gear by tank
James Collins

To geoscientist and oceanographer Lee Kump, collaborating with partners in the Worldwide Universities Network immediately made sense: "We're all able to contribute different components."

For a moment, the image of Richard Alley was dark. The chart projected beside him, clearly visible, showed the ice-core record from Lake Vostok, in central East Antarctica, a powerful signature of Earth's climate over the last 400,000 years. Then the overhead lights came on, and Alley, Evan Pugh professor of geosciences at Penn State, appeared in full color on the video screen. Now, however, the chart of data was bleached white.

"Could we interrupt?" The image on the screen shifted to the source of the question: a crowded classroom at the University of Southampton, in England. "We do not see the pictures."

A similar complaint, and a momentary glimpse of people gathered around a conference table at Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, California. Then the feed was back to Alley in University Park. Without skipping a beat, Alley moved from behind the podium to in front of the chart, and directed the camera operator to zoom in. The contrast problem quickly resolved, Alley was off and running, leading the first in a series of international web-video conference seminars, sponsored by the Worldwide Universities Network, in the area of oceanography and climate.

The WUN, an international alliance that now includes 14 leading research universities in the United States, Britain, Europe, and China, began when the vice chancellors of four major British institutions—the universities of Leeds, Sheffield, Southampton, and York—attended a conference at Harvard on the globalization of higher education.

"At a post-conference de-briefing at a burger bar—I'm not sure which chain—they decided that globalization was a real phenomenon," says the WUN's chief executive, David Pilsbury, "and that it was crucial to respond to it by fostering collaborations not just in the U.K., but across the Atlantic. They felt that the best way to do this was to create an entity that could work directly with faculty members interested in research in a handful of key areas from public policy to smart materials."

In Pilsbury's telling, the four chancellors decided to each select an American counterpart, a president of a major U.S. university whom he knew personally, and to invite that person, and that university, into an alliance. "Everyone invited said ëyes.'" And with the subsequent addition of three more schools, the WUN was born.

"The first meeting was in September 2000, in San Diego," Pilsbury says. In addition to Leeds, Sheffield, Southampton, and York, the founding members present from the United States were the University of California at San Diego, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Washington, and Penn State. Since that day, the alliance has become more international, adding the universities of Nanjing and Zhejiang in China, and most recently the University of Bergen in Norway, as well as expanding membership in the U.S. to include the University of Illinois, and in the U.K, the universities of Bristol and Manchester.

"What's unique about this partnership," says Penn State president and WUN vice chair Graham Spanier, "is that it's focused on research." The driving idea is to bring together teams of experts with the collective know-how to tackle major global issues in ways that individual institutions can't. In addition to faculty collaborations, the alliance includes a graduate-student exchange program. A third element is the shared development of online courses and degree programs for distance education.

Soon after organizing the WUN, the chancellors and presidents identified a handful of rapidly developing areas of global significance and shared research strength, including bioinformatics (the application of information science to biology, particularly genome sequencing), the geography of the global economy, and nanotechnology. From that point on, it has been more a case of responding to the ideas of individual faculty members who have taken the initiative, finding out about each other and forming themselves into what Pilsbury calls "communities of interest." He adds: "WUN acts as a broker and an agent," facilitating contacts and exchanges and providing funds for travel, web-video conferencing, and other startup costs. As the alliance evolves, new points of interest have emerged, and the original "exemplar areas," as they were dubbed, have come into clearer focus.

This flexible, minimalist approach, says Spanier, separates WUN from other alliances that have not fared well. "We decided to start out slowly, not to hype the expectations, and to be very careful to have this be essentially self-supporting," he says. The idea is to generate solid collaborations and nurse them to the point where they are capable of attracting external funding.

The partnership's first two years have been a period for gradual growth: developing contacts, laying groundwork, "identifying opportunities," as Pilsbury says. As Amy Glasmeier, Penn State professor of geography, puts it: "It depends on the interest and activity of individual people. What the University has said is: ëHere's some seed money. Now go out and do good things.'"

The seeds are beginning to sprout.

Starting from Scratch

The idea was for all of us to get to know one another," says Lee Kump, Penn State professor of geosciences, referring to that first video conference on Antarctic ice cores and global climate. "Some of the other areas already had collaborations going, but for us, it was pretty much starting from scratch." The video seminars, allowing instant communication among researchers from 13 schools across nine time zones, were the perfect vehicle.

When Kump first heard about the WUN óin an e-mail froma geosciences colleague at Southampton—he quickly saw its potential value. "Penn State is very strong in climate modeling," he says, "and we have a considerable research effort in oceanography. But we are not an oceanographic institution." Being landlocked, Penn State has no ocean-going vessels, no submersibles, no large seawater research facilities, as have WUN partners Southampton and Scripps, at the University of California at San Diego.

The introductory seminars have revealed topics of mutual interest. One is abrupt climate change, "both putting together the past and predicting the future," Kump says. "We're a leader in this area, mostly because of Richard Alley. In particular, we're strong on data and data analysis, because of Richard's work reconstructing past climates from the ice-core record.

"Scripps, Southampton, and Washington are good on the ocean record, both observations of modern ocean circulations and of ancient oceans, from the sedimentary record. So we're all able to contribute different components."

On the modeling side, Kump and Penn State colleague Tim Bralower are using computer simulations of ocean-circulation patterns and coupled ocean-atmosphere models to look at a sudden warming that occurred between the Paleocene and the Eocene epochs 55 million years ago—a possible analog for today's global warming. "Colleagues at Southampton are working on this time interval from other types of data, and modeling groups there are developing fully coupled Earth-system models that are a bit ahead of ours," Kump says. "There's an interest here in developing such models."

Another common interest is the biological and geochemical processes that characterize mid-ocean ridges, volcanic mountain chains that rise from the sea floor. Charles Fisher, Penn State professor of biology, has been a leader in exploring the exotic life forms that populate hydrothermal vents, and heads the steering committee for RIDGE 2000, a National Science Foundation program for study of deep-ocean processes. [See "Going Deep," in the January 2003 Research/Penn State.]

A colleague at Southampton, Chris German, has written a proposal involving Southampton, Penn State, Scripps, and several other WUN partners in a planned exploration of the East Chile Rise, off the western coast of South America&39;s unique ridge environment that has scarcely been studied because of its remoteness. "The proposal suggests a pooling of effort and resources to conduct the first sustained survey in this area," David Pilsbury says. Not least among those resources would be Southampton's remote-controlled exploratory vehicle, Isis, one of only two such deep-sea craft in the world. "It's the sort of study that could provide a transformational understanding of the world's oceans," Pilsbury says, "and it couldn't be accomplished by one university alone."

Renewing Old Ties

man sits in silver box
James Collins

Gary Koopmann began his career in acoustics at the University of Southampton, now a WUN partner. Today he sends his students there.

Gary Koopmann spent the first eight years of his career at the University of Southampton. "I went there as a postdoc in 1969," says the Penn State professor of acoustics. "In 1971, I joined the faculty."

Specifically, the faculty of Southampton's Institute of Sound and Vibration Research. Koopmann, who now directs the Center for Acoustics and Vibration at Penn State, has kept close ties with the Institute ever since. One of his former students there, Philip Nelson, is now the director.

Like ISVR, Penn State's graduate intercollege program in acoustics was formed in the early 1960s, when noise from jet aircraft was recognized as a growing problem. "In England," Koopmann remembers, "we were addressing the problems of the Concorde, with its sonic boom." In the years since, both programs have grown to be leaders in a small field, and collaboration between the two has been a constant.

Koopmann offers a recent example. "A year before WUN happened, one of my students, Steve Sharp, got involved in a joint research project with Phil Nelson, who was here on sabbatical. The project dealt with incorporating smart materials into aircraft panels, a new approach for reducing cabin noise. After Nelson went back, we sent Sharp to Southampton for a semester. When Sharp came back here to defend his dissertation, we had Nelson on the speakerphone. The three of us published a paper on that work."

Before that, in 1998, Vic Sparrow, a Penn State associate professor of acoustics, spent a three-month sabbatical at ISVR, where he worked in the area of virtual acoustics, using digital signal processing to create enhanced, three-dimensional sound fields: surround-sound. "At the time, we were doing nothing in this area at Penn State," Sparrow says, "As a product of my sabbatical, I started a grad course in the topic."

When Koopmann, Sparrow, and Anthony Atchley, chair of the Penn State graduate program in acoustics, learned of WUN's forming back in 2001, and noted that Southampton was listed as a member, "we immediately thought it would be a good way to strengthen these already-existing ties," Atchley says. The fact that acoustics was not one of WUN's exemplar areas turned out not to matter. "This is one of those cases of a more specific, limited interest," David Pilsbury says, where Southampton and Penn State are really the only players in the field. "There could be many of these smaller collaborations within the WUN. Anybody who wants to access our networks and take advantage of the general infrastructure is welcome to do so."

So, in fall 2002, under WUN auspices, Penn State sent two acoustics graduate students to Southampton, including Atchley's student Mark Wochner.

"Our interest, mine and Mark's,"Atchley explains, "is jet noise. The people at Southampton did some of the important early work in that area,"much of it by a professor named Chris Morfey, still active in ISVR's fluid dynamics and acoustics group.

Wochner didn't participate in any organized research at Southampton: his twomonth stay wasn't long enough for that. "We sent him mainly to learn through osmosis," Atchley says. "It was primarily an opportunity for him to get immersed in a different research culture, and to learn through informal discussions. And a chance to do background work for the project he'd begin when he came back."

"What I found," Wochner says, "is that they're not doing what we're doing. They're working on commercial jets: We work on military aircraft." The noise problems are fundamentally different. "Commercial aircraft are really pretty quiet," Atchley explains. "They're a lot more commonly seen and heard, so they were forced to deal with this issue a long time ago."

The trick to making commercial jets quieter has been making their power plants larger in diameter, allowing for bigger fans to push more air with less velocity. The first jet planes, with their tight-coiled engines, "just screamed," Sparrow says. The new Boeing 777, with its huge engines that almost touch the airport runway, whispers in comparison.

With military aircraft, on the other hand, "They won't use a big, wide jet—it hurts performance," Sparrow says. Until recently, he adds, noise has been far down the list of design concerns. But that concern is growing with the number of people living close to air bases. "The Navy is looking to do something about this," Atchley says, including funding engineers at Penn State and elsewhere to look for new ways of minimizing noise.

Even though the emphases of the two programs are different, Wochner says, his time in England was fruitful: "Talking with Professor Morfey convinced me to change the focus of my research. I was going to be doing experimental work. He convinced me to go into computational modeling of jet noise."

Morfey, it turns out, was an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at Penn State from 1990 to 1992. "He and I wrote a paper together at that time," Sparrow says. The topic, non-linear propagation of acoustic waves, is particularly important to understanding how loud sounds—like jet noise—change over long distances.

"Right now, I'm matching our current theories on non-linear propagation against the algorithms Morfey developed in the 1980s," Sparrow says. "So you could say we're collaborating across time as well as space."

There When You Need It

man poses by colorful glassware
James Collins

In an area like materials, where the economic stakes are high, competition can be an obstacle to cooperation. "On the other hand," Carlo Pantano says, researchers working together "might strike gold."

Carlo Pantano is candid about the importance of the WUN to his research area.

"We have over 100 faculty involved in materials research," says the director of Penn State's Materials Research Institute. "There's plenty of collaboration right here. We could survive without this alliance.

"On the other hand, there are overlaps in some strategic areas between us and our collaborators in the U.K. We might strike gold." In the fast-moving field of materials, where today's basic-science discoveries are tomorrow's hot new technologies, that could mean a joint project in a booming area like nanotechnology or smart mate they're rials that would attract potential funders in government or industry around the world.

"Materials is a crowded field," Pantano says, and one in which Penn State's record is long and distinguished. In an area where the economic stakes are high, competition can be an obstacle to cooperation, he acknowledges.

"We thought when the WUN came along that industrially sponsored research would be a good fit, an area where the competition wouldn't be a problem. But right after the WUN started, the stock market tanked. "But if the economy turns around, it could be important. Companies with strong interests in materials might all of a sudden be looking for research opportunities they can move on quickly. And if that happens, we're ready."

A series of international teleconferences helped researchers from the participating schools get to know each other's work. "So far we've focused on advanced materials and nanoscale science," Pantano says. "Part of the problem early on was that the subject area—materials—was just too broad. We had to find some specific points of interest."

In June, Penn State hosted an international symposium on intelligent materials, with WUN as a co-sponsor. Penn State's Kenji Uchino and WUN colleagues from Bristol and Southampton conducted tutorials in cutting-edge topics.

"We've also instituted group meetings every six months," Pantano says. At one of these meetings, in Manchester, England, last fall, he met some researchers from the University of Southampton working in optical materials, the glasses and ceramics whose light-conducting properties are increasingly vital to the telecommunications and computer industries. Returning to University Park, Pantano fell into conversation with chemistry professor John Badding, who had returned from a sabbatical at Southampton the previous spring, and a collaboration was born.

The Opto-Electronics Research Center at Southampton, Pantano explains, is a world leader in developing optical materials for telecommunications. "They invented the optical fiber amplifier that revolutionized the efficient transmission of digital information via light." (An optical fiber amplifier, boosting the light signal as it travels through a glass fiber, is essential for transmitting light over long distances.) "They're also big in photonic crystals, non-linear optical materials, and optical switches."

"They're really the device people," Badding adds. "You take our expertise in materials, and theirs in devices, and that's a good combination."

While at Southampton, Badding had worked with Pier Sazio, a physicist recently arrived there from Cambridge. Soon after they met, Badding and Sazio learned about the existence of the WUN. A travel grant from the alliance funded a summer 2003 visit by Sazio to University Park, allowing the two to continue their work in the area of photonic-latticed structures that can be engineered to manipulate the passage of light; examples in nature include opals, and the tiny scales that make up some butterfly wings. By the precise pattern of their crosshatched structures, and the size of the holes that interrupt the lattice, these materials create a band gap, a range of frequencies in which lightwaves are reflected instead of allowed to pass through. The result of that reflection is a shimmering iridescence.

Building similar crystals by stacking thin layers of glass or metal, researchers can create materials that behave as semiconductors of light. In the near future, these optical components may yield computers and communications devices far faster than anything achievable by etching circuits into silicon.

"We're interested in chemical functionalizing of photonic band-gap materials," Badding says of his work with Sazio. "That is, chemically modifying these materials, changing their surface properties or their chemical or physical properties, in order to achieve functions that might be useful in, for example, new lasers or optical amplifiers." Badding and Sazio have written a joint research proposal that highlights their WUN connections. "We're waiting to hear from the National Science Foundation," he says. "Pier's side has already been funded by the equivalent agency over there."

"To me," Pantano says, "the WUN is a ready resource. You don't know when you're going to use it, but it's there."

A Community of Practice

When WUN came along in spring 2001, Amy Glasmeier says, "I was already having conversations with colleagues at Wisconsin, and Bristol, and Washington. We had already been talking about transcending institutional settings."

Her field, economic geography, is a small one, where collaboration is a way of life. And in an era of economic globalization, the subject matter is increasingly international in scope. As they discussed the field's future, Glasmeier and her colleagues recognized, the emphasis had to be on that larger scale. The WUN grouping brings together some of the top geography departments in the world.

Having British partners adds a certain perspective, Glasmeier adds. "Geography has been the business degree in England, historically. And economic geographers tend to go into leadership roles in business. So economic geographers have a prominence over there that few social scientists enjoy."

Glasmeier, whose own prominence accrues mainly from her quantitative studies of regional development, is currently embarked on a Ford Foundation-backed study focusing on the persistence of poverty in the U.S. Her approach, she says, is uniquely multi-layered.

"In the past, researchers have examined individual poverty as a function of education, age, race, and gender," she explains. "But these characteristics alone don't explain the persistence of poverty over generations. So you say, what about the context? The neighborhood—lack of opportunities, bad schools, racism, segregation, high crime rates. Then there's another level: the metropolitan area. If you live in a city with serious industrial restructuring, where blue-collar jobs have disappeared, that's also a significant factor."

Glasmeier is trying to consider all of those layers at once: She has gathered statistics at every geographic scale from school boundaries ("not just districts, but individual schools") to multi-state regions, from 1970 to 2000.

"So we're looking across time and space, at multiple dimensions. Integrating those levels statistically and theoretically is pretty complicated."

Colleagues in sociology and statistics at Penn State were working on similar problems, but not with the economic emphasis Glasmeier needed. Then, at a WUN geography meeting in England in May 2002, she met Bristol University geographer Paul Plummer. "I said ëHere's my problem,'" Glasmeier remembers, "and he immediately jumped up and said, ëWe have this software! I've been looking for a problem like this!' "

The software, developed by Plummer's Bristol colleague Kelvyn Jones, is called MLwiN. It's a powerful tool for what sociologists call multi-level modeling. "Paul is the best modeler of his type in geography," Glasmeier says. "I couldn't have found anybody better." Last fall, using Ford Foundation funding, she brought Plummer to University Park to teach a series of workshops. "It's started a conversation here, among geographers, sociologists, agricultural economists, even earth scientists." Glasmeier and Plummer have continued to work together, meeting whenever one or the other is in the U.S. or the U.K. Once they're confident of their model's analytical strength using U.S. data, they plan to seek outside funding and to undertake a parallel study of poverty in the U.K. Conversations are underway with other WUN-affiliated faculty members interested in studying long-term poverty. Already, "as a result of what we're doing,"Glasmeier says, "I just got a supplement to my Ford grant—half-again what I had. They like what we're doing."

As much as she has gained from the alliance, Glasmeier says, the WUN is even more important for younger faculty and graduate students. "It gives them access to a higher-order network earlier in their careers than they might have had otherwise. And it provides them with enough money to go and find out if collaborations are possible."

One of her doctoral students, Christy Jocoy, spent five weeks in Bristol in 2002. "It was a chance to talk to people in a different context about what I'm doing, and to develop international connections," Jocoy says. "I met people who will be my peers and colleagues. My host, Adam Tickell, edits one of the top journals in our field."

When she got back to Penn State and started applying for jobs, Jocoy says, "the international experience was a selling point. Two of the departments that interviewed me were Canadian, and I think it said to them I'd be happy to work outside the U.S."

This past July, WUN geographers organized a Summer Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Jocoy reports, "at which 38 senior grad students and junior faculty had the chance to mingle with the leaders in the field. It was a great opportunity for the next generation of economic geographers to get to know each other, figure out what our research is about.

"The way WUN is working, in geography at least, is like a community of practice," Jocoy concludes. "Like a professional organization, but without a formal structure. All these professors have decided that they need to get together and get their students together—they see the value in it. Some of that happens anyway, but it's nice to have an infrastructure helping it take place."

Lee R. Kump, Ph.D., is professor of geosciences in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 535 Deike Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1274; lkump@psu.edu. Gary H. Koopman, Ph.D., is professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Center for Acoustics and Vibration in the College of Engineering, 157A Hammond Bldg.; 865-2761; ghk1@psu.edu. Victor W. Sparrow, Ph.D., is associate professor of acoustics, 316B Leonhard Bldg.; 865- 3162; vws1@psu.edu. Anthony A. Atchley, Ph.D., is professor of acoustics and chair of the graduate program in acoustics, 217 ARL Bldg.; 865-6364; aatchley@psu.edu. Mark Wochner, M.S., is a graduate student in acoustics. Carlo G. Pantano, Ph.D. is distinguished professor of materials science and engineering and director of the Materials Research Institute, 198 MRI Bldg.; 863-2071; cgp1@psu.edu. John V. Badding, Ph.D., is associate professor of chemistry in the Eberly College of Science, 152 Davey Bldg.;777-3054; jvb2@psu.edu. Amy K. Glasmeier, Ph.D., is professor of geography in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 312 Walker Bldg.; 865-7323; akg1@psu.edu. Christine L. Jocoy is a Ph.D. student in geography. David Pilsbury, Ph.D., is CEO of the Worldwide Universities Network, Acorn House, 17 Court Street, Sherston, Swindon SN16 OLL United Kingdom; 44 (0)1666 841199; d.pilsbury@wun.ac.uk.

For more information about the Worldwide Universities Network, contact Eva J. Pell, Ph.D., vice president for research and dean of the graduate school, 304 Old Main, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-9580; ejp@psu.edu; or visit the following Web site: http://www.wun.ac.uk/.

Last Updated September 01, 2003