McCormick Magazine

Paving the way for global collaboration

Bob Chang develops workshops to bring the world together


changBefore it was a buzzword, globalization was the vision of Bob Chang.

For the past 20 years, the professor of materials science and engineering has been traveling around the world, connecting scientists in hopes of spurring solutions to global challenges. What has resulted is a host of networks and programs that aim to break down cultural and economic walls around the world.

"Today we have global challenges like energy, environment, health, and security," Chang says. "It's very expensive for one country to solve these problems, so many countries need to work together. These networks are exactly the right platform to solve these challenges at much lower costs."

In 1995 Chang organized a National Science Foundation (NSF) cosponsored workshop in hopes of promoting cooperation among North American countries. Researchers, educators, and industry leaders came together to discuss how to better collaborate in materials science. It was such a success that over the next decade Chang put together six more workshops — and the Materials World Network, a worldwide network of universities that fosters international cooperation in materials research and education, was born.

"At first I had to talk my international colleagues into it," he says. "There are many challenges to creating networks like this — you have to build up trust and goodwill. There is a lot of diplomacy involved. But once I gained their trust, they realized they shared my vision."

While global partnerships spur new ideas and groundbreaking research, they also come with a host of challenges, including difficulty with funding and travel. Chang's workshops have helped create a framework of joint funding agreements between the NSF and its international counterparts. "This made it possible for me to travel around the world and help establish collaborations among researchers in order to expand this network," Chang says.

changCreating a global school
Another product of the Materials World Network is the Global School for Advanced Studies (GSAS), which brings together faculty and graduate students from around the world to solve challenges in energy, environment, and health. The program began as an offshoot of the Pan American Advanced Studies Institute, a program created in 2003 by Chang that brought 40 graduate students to Brazil for 10 days of brainstorming about fuel cells and catalysis for environmental applications.

"Most people who put on programs like this just do lectures. People sit there and listen and then go home," says Jennifer Shanahan, assistant director of global programs at Northwestern's Materials Research Institute. "Professor Chang is never happy with just that. He wants to create things that have longer-term impact."

In Brazil, Chang split up the graduate students into teams and had them come up with research projects that they could work on together. In addition to giving talks, lecturers at the institute acted as mentors to the students. But the institute faced a roadblock when they found no one would fund this type of collaborative research. So Chang and Shanahan expanded the model of the Pan American institute to create GSAS, which they hope will advance innovation in areas like energy and the environment as well as develop leadership among young researchers.

"These are the scientists and engineers of the future," Chang says. "Now they have a better understanding of how to work with their peers from around the world. This is the grand scheme that got me interested in education."

GSAS held its first event in Taiwan in 2006; it was funded by the National Science Council of Taiwan. The two-week session on solar cells brought together 20 students from the United States, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Three teams came up with research project ideas, and the winning team's idea was implemented at the Industrial Technology Research Institute in Taiwan.

Last summer GSAS held a session at the International Conference on Electronic Materials in Sydney, Australia. Rather than sponsoring a competition, GSAS organizers invited a core group of faculty members from universities in the United States, Taiwan, Germany, and Australia to collaborate on a project. GSAS hopes to sponsor another session this year.

"We really want to focus on building a consortium of research hubs in these parts of the world," Shanahan says. "Our vision is that these groups will come up with research ideas and then implement them, with students spending perhaps three months at a time at each of the participating institutions."

changFinding new partners across the globe
In addition to GSAS, the Materials World Network has organized events like the U.S.–China Workshop on Nanostructured Materials for Global Energy and Environmental Challenges, held in September 2008 in Evanston. Such workshops spawn partnerships among researchers in both countries. The Materials World Network has also worked with the International Union of Materials Research Societies, a union Chang helped found, to expand into Africa and the Middle East. The ultimate goal of this worldwide consortium is to build on each member's expertise to collaborate and create the solutions needed for a bright future.

Even with decades of scientific diplomacy under his belt, Chang and his staff continue to plan and write proposals for programs and meetings around the world. That, he says, is his life's mission. "I haven't made a lot of money, but I have made a lot of friends who are willing to help me," he says. "At the end of the day you ask yourself what you've done on this earth. I can say I've helped a lot of people."

—Emily Ayshford