Global collaborations: Enabling research, transforming results

Friday, Apr 1, 2011

Four thousand miles east of Princeton, not far from Geneva, Switzerland, University physicists are conducting research at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) -- the biggest and most powerful particle accelerator ever built that could enable unprecedented insights into the nature of matter.

Four thousand miles southeast of the LHC, in Kenya, Princeton scientists, engineers, architects, and social scientists at the Mpala Research Center and Conservancy are engaged in projects to promote sustainable human-wildlife coexistence and conserve biodiversity.

Some 7,000 miles west of Mpala, across the Atlantic in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile -- the driest place on Earth -- University astrophysicists are using the Atacama Cosmology Telescope to observe the birth and evolution of the universe.

The scientific approaches being brought to bear on these pressing problems and the goals of these three research efforts may differ significantly, but they have one crucial commonality: International collaboration is vital for success.

“The increasing strength and importance of international research collaborations is a natural result of the questions being asked in modern science,” said Dean for Research A. J. Stewart Smith. “We’re placing matter under more extreme conditions than ever before, we’re looking further into the universe than has ever been done, and we’re exploring biological systems in unprecedented levels of detail -- no country has all the answers, all the experts or all the resources necessary.”(Graphic by Matilda Luk, Princeton University Office of Communications)

For a frame of reference, consider the Large Hadron Collider. Nearly 10,000 scientists from more than 100 countries are participating in the $10 billion project, which will hurl protons into one another at mind-boggling speeds for at least the next 20 years, generating unprecedented volumes of data that will take decades to analyze.

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for scientists, especially younger researchers, to gain extended exposure to countries other than the U.S., and also to participate in a project at this scale,” said Princeton physicist Daniel Marlow, an active LHC investigator. “The pure complexity of the project and the science requires amazing coordination and communication.”

Scientists participating in the project devote roughly half of their time to service, such as building and operating the machine, and half of their time to data analysis. For example, Princeton researchers are engaged in work to measure the luminosity of the accelerator -- a basic measure of how well the accelerator is performing. Essentially, the more collisions, the higher the luminosity, and the better are their chances of detecting a very rare physics process. University physicists have responsibilities both for building the hardware that measures luminosity and for collecting luminosity data and ensuring its accuracy.

Like the LHC, many “big science” projects carry a price tag that all but requires collaboration among nations to foot the bill. But while monetary considerations do help drive the formation of international research partnerships, the need for such collaborations goes far beyond financial concerns. In this increasingly flat world, the world’s leading experts in a given field could be located anywhere. And when research programs aim to address problems or challenges specific to a particular region, it is absolutely imperative that local scholars play a vital role in the work.

“For real progress to occur, you can’t just go in, learn a lesson about a place, and go away,” said Kelly Caylor, a Princeton civil and environmental engineering professor, whose research at Mpala aims to understand interactions between patterns of vegetation and the water cycle.

Caylor is leading a research effort to understand how much water plants use by measuring how water returns to the atmosphere via two different processes that occur in the same place at the same time: evaporation from the soil and transpiration from plants, which occurs when water vapor is released from leaves. While methods exist to measure how much water plants use on a very large scale, such as over North America, there are not currently any techniques for determining how water is used by plants on the scale of, say, a farmer growing corn in Kenya. Caylor’s research uses a state-of-the-art sensor to detect slight differences in the atomic composition of water vapor in the air depending on whether it comes from the soil or from plants.

Working with colleagues in botany and environmental engineering at Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology -- the country’s leading agricultural and technical school -- Caylor hopes his findings will inform the development of farming strategies that maximize the water available to plants to improve quality of life and reduce ecosystem degradation in the regions surrounding Mpala.

“There’s a need for a cultural dialogue, a need to think strategically, and a need to understand how things work in different countries--international collaborations are crucial for transforming research results into real-world solutions to real-world problems,” he said.

One way the University is cultivating ongoing, fruitful relationships with researchers around the world is through the establishment of the Global Collaborative Networks Fund, which supports the development of international scholarly networks that engage Princeton with centers of learning worldwide. The fund is administered by the Council for International Teaching and Research.

“Global Collaborative Research Networks are proposed by University faculty based on their areas of intellectual interest,” said Diana Davies, Princeton’s vice provost for international initiatives. “Our goal is to help build international communities of scholars rooted in long-term, personal connections, developed through collaborative work in any and all research areas. These communities will, in turn, be the foundation upon which Princeton can build multi-dimensional, sustainable relationships with the top universities and research centers around the world.”

The establishment of the research networks is among the initiatives that have been launched based on the recommendations of the President’s Advisory Committee on Internationalization, convened in 2006 by President Shirley M. Tilghman to consider how to “develop a set of strategic priorities and specific measures that will enable the University to fully realize [its] aspiration to be an American university with a broad international vision.” The committee emphasized the need for Princeton international ventures to “enable and support faculty-driven activity,” observing that “research and exchanges work best at Princeton when the stakeholders are also the initiators and custodians of their efforts.”

The hope is that the new global networks will develop and prosper in a way similar to the partnership that has Max Planck Institute for Astronomy/National Astronomical Observatory of Japan) been established between Princeton and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan, Davies said. For years, University scientists and Japanese scholars have been collaborating on fusion energy and astronomy projects. To date, these efforts have yielded numerous significant advances, including the 2009 discovery of a planet-like object made with the Subaru Telescope. Building on the success of existing partnerships, Princeton and NINS officially formalized their relationship in 2010 to support ongoing projects in the physical sciences and to launch a new effort in the biological sciences.

“As always, the University’s research agenda is driven by the intellectual interests of our faculty and a commitment to the creation, preservation, and transmission of new knowledge,” Smith said. “As research becomes increasingly interdisciplinary and complicated, international partnerships are crucial for finding answers to pressing societal challenges, maintaining Princeton’s status as a leading research university, and bolstering American competitiveness by ensuring that U.S. researchers play an important role in cutting-edge research efforts. And last, but certainly not least, the opportunity to engage in research projects with international partners--and often in international locales--provides critical educational opportunities and international experiences to Princeton students who will become the leaders of tomorrow’s ever more global world.”