Global research, learning network continues to grow

October 01, 2008

University Park, Pa. -- From rapid climate change to nursing shortages, from spintronics technology to entrepreneurship, the Worldwide Universities Network (WUN) is seeking to solve some of the most pressing challenges in the world through multinational collaborations.

Penn State is a founding member of WUN, a leading global research and education partnership with more than 3,000 faculty and student researchers which has expanded to 18 universities on four continents. Since 2001 WUN has supported the development of international partnerships, community building and academic leadership in more than 22 core areas. The University of Western Australia and the University of Alberta are the newest member universities, which also include the University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign).

"WUN can generate tremendous value for students, faculty, administrators and institutions," said Eva Pell, senior vice president for research at Penn State. "The interdisciplinary focus allows educators and researchers to increase knowledge sharing and participate in research exchange programs, virtual seminars, conference opportunities, joint funding alliances and initiative leadership experiences."

Through successful applications to different government agencies, scientists in WUN-affiliated projects have secured approximately $30 million of external funding so far, and others are planning future proposals to American or European organizations. Its Research Mobility Programme has funded more than 450 awards since 2002 for faculty and graduate students to study overseas at partner universities. A partnership between the Fulbright Commission and WUN offers opportunities for postgraduate scholar exchange under the Fulbright Program.

"Industry leaders, corporate partners and external organizations also are interested in these collaborations because they do not have access to the intellectual resources, expertise or associations found throughout the network," said Louise Heery, University of Leeds, acting chief executive officer of WUN.

This spring, Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, will assume the chairmanship of WUN, succeeding Michael Arthur, vice chancellor of the University of Leeds.

Here are a few examples of activities involving Penn State faculty and students:

Weathering Research Initiative

The WUN Weathering Initiative is helping to build and sustain connections between weathering scientists in Europe and the United States. Leading geologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, biologists and materials scientists are helping to develop a scientific strategy that will guide the expansion of a trans-national network of weathering research sites.

"Weathering is a key natural process that transforms rock to soil and unlocks nutrients for forest, grassland and agricultural production," said Susan Brantley, professor of geosciences at Penn State and director of the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. "At dozens of sites throughout several countries, scientists are studying how weathering is affected by natural and human activities. Urban development, erosion and pollution are hurting our fertile soil and the Earth's chemical and biological composition, which are vital to life worldwide."

WUN has helped spark dialogue and partnerships between the U.S. weathering scientists, who are part of the Critical Zone Exploration Network, including Penn State faculty, and the U.K.'s SoilCritZone group. According to WUN estimates, the scientists have secured roughly $16 million combined in direct or shared grants from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the U.K.'s Natural Research Council to study the Earth's life-supporting Critical Zone.

Critical Studies of Global Poverty

David Ader, a Penn State doctoral student in rural sociology and demography, traveled to the University of Bergen, Norway, a WUN partner, to attend the Bergen Summer Research School. The school was specifically designed for doctoral students from around the world who address the issue of poverty in their research.

The program offered courses and activities focusing on socioeconomic and methodological issues concerning the study of global poverty. While studying in Bergen, Ader participated in classes, discussions, plenary sessions and debates, all focused on the theme of poverty. The majority of his time was spent participating in a course on mixed methodology for social scientists.

Social science researchers have traditionally gravitated towards either quantitative or qualitative research, and few researchers have the skills needed to successfully combine the two approaches. Increasingly, however, mixed-methods research is gaining favor by peers, funding agencies and journal editors.

Ader's adviser is Leif Jensen, professor of rural sociology and demography at Penn State, who is involved in the WUN-supported Critical Global Poverty Studies group.

"It is hoped that all this activity will lead to external support, both for Ader's dissertation research, and our poverty research agenda," Jensen said.

Historic Stone Structures

Through WUN, Tom Boothby, professor of architectural engineering at Penn State, and Matthew Gilbert, a faculty member at the University of Sheffield, have been sharing research information about historic stone structures and testing novel computational design tools for new design or rehabilitating old structures. Several years ago, an initial WUN grant led to a six-month-long visit by a Penn State graduate student to Sheffield, which culminated in an experimental program, a master's degree thesis and a journal article. Since then, Gilbert and Boothby have made several exchange visits to explore further mutual areas of interest.

In 2007, three Penn State graduate students spent up to six months in Sheffield to conduct research on a local church, the Beverley Minster, in East Yorkshire, and a Sheffield student visited Penn State on the development of novel design techniques for engineers and architects.

Boothby's research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, various state transportation agencies and the Fulbright Commission, among others. Sheffield research in this field is supported by the U.K.'s science funding agency, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, (e.g. Gilbert's Advanced Research Fellowship), Buro Happold and various other sources.

"Our collaboration has developed in a new direction, where contacts with Matthew and his students have resulted in new insights and fresh approaches. Our faculty and graduate student exchanges have helped "cement" our research relationships," Boothby said.

"We look for further initiatives and opportunities for funding, including support from foundations, National Science Foundation in the U.S., the U.K.'s EPSRC and historic building owners."

Other Penn State-affiliated examples include a major initiative to study paleoarctic climates and the International Center for Study of Terrorism, which received seed funding from WUN. The center is planning a wide range of activities this coming year under its new director, John Horgan, an internationally renowned expert on the psychology of terrorism. The University also hosted a WUN workshop on plant stress and food security last spring, and a spring 2009 workshop is planned in the United Kingdom.

More information about WUN and the more than 20 academic communities are at Penn State faculty interested in participating in the WUN should contact Peter Schiffer, associate vice president for research, at 814-863-9658 or at

  • Researchers install monitoring equipiment at Shale Hills/Susquehanna Critical Zone Observatory, part of several U.S. and European weathering projects initially sponsored by Worldwide Universities Network.

    IMAGE: Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment
Last Updated November 18, 2010