Opening ’Dores Internationally
Global connections are on the increase and more important than ever.
Keivan Stassun sat down with fellow astronomers at Queen’s University Belfast a few years back with no preset notions about how the two research teams might partner. What developed is a collaboration that is, well, out of this world.
The newly introduced researchers, normally separated by an ocean, didn’t begin by asking what they were doing already that could be enhanced by sharing. Instead, they immediately began to talk about projects they couldn’t have envisioned on their own, remembers Stassun, director of the Vanderbilt Initiative in Data-Intensive Astrophysics and professor of physics and astronomy. Stassun and his colleagues at Queen’s were both “dealing with sort of an embarrassment of riches.” Between the two universities, they had access to reams of data from observatories around the world. What they needed were intelligent computer tools to sift and winnow data in an automated way, alerting scientists to critical findings. So the teams developed them together.
College of Arts and Science and Queen’s scholars work together on two different research thrusts: to locate and better understand exoplanets, which exist outside our solar system, and to detect and study supernova explosions. These efforts involve a host of graduate students, postdoctoral researchers and faculty members.
That collaboration is one part of several strong and emerging core partnerships between Vanderbilt and universities overseas, partnerships that are essential to the vitality of the college and to research institutions today.
“Looking forward, universities are going to have to create these kinds of global networks to compete effectively for students, faculty and resources. It’s really turning into a global marketplace,” says Tim McNamara, vice provost for faculty and international affairs.
“It turns out that Vanderbilt and Queen’s both, for very different reasons, are at this very interesting point in history.”
—Keivan Stassun, professor of physics and astronomy
Building a Pyramid
McNamara likens the school’s international efforts to a pyramid. Institutional agreements with core partners, like the one with Queen’s, form the top of the pyramid. Other core partnerships—a recent but very well-developed association with the University of Melbourne, a longstanding one with the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and the rapidly expanding relationship with Queen’s in Belfast, Nashville’s sister city—have blossomed lately. Other core partners include China’s Fudan University, Chile’s Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and South Africa’s University of Cape Town.
Faculty collaborations and graduate student exchange, such as bringing Queen’s students to the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities as they complete their doctoral dissertations, comprise the pyramid’s next tier.
And the all-important base of the pyramid will always be study abroad and student exchange, McNamara says.
The College of Arts and Science’s global connections and international scholarship are natural extensions of a vibrant, meaningful liberal arts education, Dean Carolyn Dever says. “It’s part of the college’s mission to expand students’ interest in other cultures and provide diverse experiences,” she says. “Our increasingly global society makes it both possible and vital for students and faculty to be citizens of the world.”
Strengthened by Institutional Support
Institutional collaborations with core partners require a great deal of commitment from both participants, McNamara notes. Recently, Vanderbilt and Melbourne jointly provided $344,000 to support partnership grants for faculty.
One of those projects has Terry Lybrand, professor of chemistry, joining forces with colleagues at the University of Melbourne to analyze data from studies of small peptides and proteins that produce anti-microbial effects. Lybrand provides the in-depth computational work to analyze the data. His Melbourne counterparts will provide something Vanderbilt doesn’t have—solid-state NMR spectroscopy.
Lybrand says the association is enhanced by the many common aspirations and features between the two universities and the fact that there is no language barrier. Well, almost no language barrier. Lybrand says Aussie slang takes a little getting used to.
These types of associations build slowly but yield surprising benefits. Melbourne has poured money into a gorgeous new eye institute, says Associate Professor of Chemistry Eva Harth. The Arts and Science professor develops targeted drug delivery for cancer treatment and researches nanoparticles to treat glaucoma. Melbourne’s eye institute is eager to work with world experts to enhance their productivity and global standing. Already Harth was part of a plenary lecture in nanomedicine at Melbourne and is considering more possible collaborations.
The improved access to talent, resources and funding benefits both institutions, Harth says, adding, “You can accelerate only so much without good collaborators.”
The third blossoming core partnership actually began many years ago with Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, who traveled to Brazil’s University of São Paulo following World War II. He wanted Vanderbilt to be more than a Southern university and began by recruiting renowned scholars—Brazilianists—who formed the core of what is now the Center for Latin American Studies.
Nashville has “a natural synergy with Brazil,” explains Jane Landers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History and CLAS interim director.
Landers, whose research focuses on Brazilian slavery and related issues, says the Southern United States and Brazil have a common history that included eradicating the indigenous population, seizing their land and bringing African slaves to work on plantations.
A great deal of research and collaboration has come out of this shared history, Landers notes. Brazil is working to elevate the lives of its poor black citizens and is intensely interested in the experiences of the American South, she says.
“Our increasingly global society makes it both possible and vital for students and faculty to be citizens of the world.”
—Dean Carolyn Dever
The South’s difficult history with fair treatment and equal opportunities for minorities is also something that unites Nashville and Queen’s University Belfast. Stassun says Queen’s and Vanderbilt each have an institutional commitment to boosting educational and professional prospects for populations that have been underrepresented or faced prejudice.
Stassun co-directs the Fisk–Vanderbilt Masters-to-Ph.D. Bridge program, the university’s alliance with the historically black university. “It turns out that Vanderbilt and Queen’s both, for very different reasons, are at this very interesting point in history. Vanderbilt, through our partnership with Fisk, is attempting in an aggressive and progressive way to respond to the need for increased diversity in the sciences and to train diverse future leaders for the scientific professions,” Stassun says.
“Northern Ireland is emerging from an era of great challenge and unrest. They are now addressing the challenges of successfully integrating traditionally self-segregated religious groups for full inclusion in the scientific professions,” he says. “We’re approaching those challenges institutionally in a similarly broadminded and positive and inclusive way.”
Bridges and Connections
Arts and Science’s international interests support individual students and scholars, too. Building international connections early in a scholarly career can be a critical early marker of success, says Mona Frederick, executive director of the Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities. That’s a discovery that has characterized the Warren Center’s graduate fellowship program with Queen’s, which provides a fellowship to a Queen’s graduate student to be part of the Warren Center for a year while the scholar works on his or her dissertation.
Some students now choose to do internships with French companies or nonprofits, gaining valuable international work experience.
As dissertation adviser for Queen’s graduate student Clive Hunter, Queen’s University Senior Lecturer Maeve McCusker traveled to Nashville for a public lecture Hunter presented in conjunction with the program. She noted that the Warren Center’s Graduate Student Fellows program projected “the very model of what a postgraduate community should look like.”
“While students came from different disciplines and had an eclectic range of interests, I was genuinely dazzled by the connections and bridges they found between their varied fields,” McCusker says. She was further dazzled when her Irish boyfriend, a Queen’s faculty colleague who accompanied her on the trip, proposed in Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge with a ring purchased at Tiffany in Nashville. Married now, the couple has a painting of Nashville’s “honky-tonk strip” hanging in their dining room.
It’s not just faculty and students learning from each other, either. Dean Carolyn Dever and other leaders have visited Queen’s University Belfast and the University of Melbourne, and key officials from core partner institutions have visited and learned from Vanderbilt. Additionally, Queen’s University has consulted with Vanderbilt as it builds its own humanities center in Belfast.
The Pyramid’s Foundation—Study Abroad
Each year, more than 40 percent of College of Arts and Science juniors study abroad in Vanderbilt-sponsored programs. The most popular one is Vanderbilt in France, which has been in existence for 51 years. The longstanding program has adapted over the years to accommodate changes in French culture and politics, and continues to develop new emphases. As part of the program, some students now choose to do internships with French companies or nonprofits, gaining valuable international work experience.
In addition to Vanderbilt’s own programs in countries ranging from Argentina to New Zealand, the university works with other institutions to offer an even wider array of study abroad options.
For undergraduates seeking a unique abroad opportunity that combines travel and service overseas with a strong academic and research focus, there is the Vanderbilt Initiative for Scholarship and Global Engagement (VISAGE), begun in 2008.
Students first take a spring class centering on a country and topic of interest with the faculty member who will lead their four-week summer service trip. The course provides students with a foundation that equips them for more thoughtful service work and community engagement during their time abroad, explained Shelley Jewell, assistant director of the Global Education Office.
Participants typically travel to sites with a Vanderbilt presence, frequently involving Vanderbilt’s core partners, making the program more sustainable.
Once the service abroad is complete, students have the option to follow up with a related, intensive research-based course. The experiences are often profound, Jewell says. “When students return to Vanderbilt, many confront their sense of privilege in relation to the communities they served,” she says. “As a result, they often change the focus of their careers and want to return to those communities.”
While the more traditional programs last a semester, increasing numbers of students now are taking advantage of monthlong Maymester experiences between spring semester exams and the start of summer sessions.
“For some students, a semester abroad sets them back,” says Martin Rapisarda, Arts and Science associate dean. “Maymester fills a particular niche. It’s time-intensive, it’s thematically focused, and it’s taught by Vanderbilt faculty who have special expertise on the topic and provide experiences that you couldn’t necessarily have on campus.”
The experience, he says, can be unforgettable and unmatched. “If I’m an English major and I can go to England and study reformation literature with (director of undergraduate writing) Roger Moore, going to pilgrimage sites as well as reading those texts, it brings those texts alive in a way that complements and enhances the experience,” Rapisarda says.
Looking to the Future
Other relationship opportunities are emerging in other areas of the world, such as Germany and China and other parts of Asia, according to McNamara. “We try to find important areas of the world that will yield interesting and productive collaborations not necessarily looked at by others,” he says.
“At a very high level our goal is to increase the impact and visibility of Vanderbilt worldwide in a very strategic, focused way.”
photo credit: Martyn Boyd, Marketing & Creative Services, Queens University Belfast; Daniel Dubois; Steve Green; Courtesy of University of Melbourne, Australia; Courtesy of Marcus Santos/USP Images; Courtesy of Patrick William Smith;