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Purdue, Colombia forge strategic partnership

By Della Pacheco

Purdue, Colombia forge strategic partnership

Author: Della Pacheco
Magazine Section: Change The World
College or School: CoE
Article Type: Issue Feature
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When it comes to raising a child, it takes a village. When it comes to raising a world-class scientific research institute, it takes a global community.

Just such a community of scholars and government officials recently came together to launch the Colombia-Purdue Institute for Advanced Scientific Research, the first such agreement signed between the Latin American nation and a foreign university. The effort was led by the College of Engineering and Purdue’s Global Policy Research Institute with input from dozens of faculty members and alumni.

The new institute, which will launch with the first cohort of doctoral students in August, is designed to promote an exchange of people and knowledge, enhance the scientific and entrepreneurial work force in Colombia, and lead to collaborative advancements in science and technology to benefit the economic future of the Americas.

The institute was developed with the Colombian Ministry of Education; Colciencias, the Colombian department for science, technology and innovation, which is the equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation; and Colfuturo, a private foundation that promotes, orients and finances Colombian graduate students studying outside the country.

The agreement will bring to Purdue as many as 60 top Colombian doctoral students, 20 to 40 young research scholars and a group of postdoctoral researchers over the next three to four years, beginning in fall 2011 and all focused on Colombia’s priority areas in nanotechnology and biotechnology. In 2012 the goal is to expand this effort to 30 additional doctoral students in a third focus area broadly dealing with sustainability and engineering against natural disasters. All or a portion of PhD student funding will be provided by Colciencias and Colfuturo.

Priority research areas for the institute include advanced materials, complex systems, genetic resources and biodiversity, agro-industrialization, genomics, and bioinformatics. Purdue recently hosted a group from one of Colombia’s largest energy companies, EPM (Empresas Publicas de Medellín), which is exploring the use of nanotechnology and energy in Colombia and considering construction of a nanotechnology facility that would be open to both industry and university researchers.

Energy research, in fact, highlights the rich opportunities for new perspectives offered by the agreement. Colombia, which shares a border with Brazil, is developing biofuels from natural resources including sugar cane. With one of the world’s richest areas of biodiversity, this region has more potential sources for biofuels and shares U.S. concerns about how to develop sustainable fuel sources without disrupting food production.

In addition to collaboration among researchers and graduate students, the partnership will extend educational opportunities to Colombia’s youngest populations. Working with Colombia’s Ministry of Education, Purdue will build a collaborative STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program that promotes science, math, literacy and educational technology for grades P-12. That nation’s minister of education, Maria Fernanda Campo, is particularly interested in how to improve access, quality and consistency of education for poor and regionally rural populations.

How it all came together

The new institute fulfills a key mission in the College of Engineering’s 2009-14 strategic plan, “Extraordinary People, Global Impact” relating to global scholarship and a commitment to being a global university. As co-leader of the college’s Global Scholars team, it fell to Arvind Raman, professor of mechanical engineering to prepare an outline for a global scholarship plan and steps for implementation. It was 2009 and he was on sabbatical at Oxford University.

“I saw that Oxford was attracting many top international students with funding from their own countries,” Raman says. He prepared a white paper that outlined how Purdue could help to fulfill its strategic goal of “establishing a global presence and international investment in research and education for Purdue, through well-coordinated initiatives involving multiple academic disciplines, for global regions of strategic importance and partnerships.”

The paper was inspired by former Colombia Vice President Francisco Santos’ vision for catapulting that country into a leadership position in science and technology in Latin America. This goal was documented in “Colombia 2025,” a video that Colombian native and Purdue graduate Juan Ernesto de Bedout had shared with Raman. De Bedout, who chairs the Purdue Engineering Advisory Council, earned a bachelor’s degree from Purdue in 1967 and a master’s in 1968 in industrial engineering. He is group president of Latin American Operations for Kimberly-Clark Corp.

De Bedout’s involvement in the plan was “absolutely fundamental” to its success, according to Carolyn Percifield, director of strategic planning and assessment for the College of Engineering.

“He has been a passionate and committed member not just of the dean’s advisory council but the development of the strategic plan as well,” she says. “He has always hoped that engineering and the University would become more tightly engaged in Latin America.”

The College of Engineering has strong ties to Colombia through a devoted alumni base that worked with the team to plan the institute. 

"Purdue's strong alumni network has been key to building our relationships in Colombia," says Leah Jamieson, the John A. Edwardson Dean of Engineering. "We are grateful to Juan Ernesto de Bedout. He facilitated the introductions that have led to this strong, multifaceted collaboration."

Above and beyond

From the beginning, planning for the institute was not limited to an engineering-only handprint. A multidisciplinary group of faculty and staff spent countless hours developing the necessary documents.

“The effort it took was amazing,” Percifield says of the team. One of de Bedout’s managers devoted hundreds of hours helping on the ground in making connections with the new Colombian government elected in August 2010.

Once plans were laid, meetings were arranged with Colombian officials, and the agreement came together quickly. It was signed in three months. According to Percifield, the agreement between the government of Colombia and a university is unusual. “Typically you have a government-to-government agreement,” she says. “It makes you feel good to be part of a university where people pitch in. And it makes you feel equally good that when you approach people in another part of the world how enthusiastically they embraced us and wanted to be part of what we have to offer.”

Though the agreement opens the door to a strong, meaningful global engagement with Colombia, the true success of the collaboration depends on building strong relationships between faculty and in recruiting top students for the institute. Expansion of the college’s Educational Frontiers Research program and K-12 education is being led by Jean-Paul Allain, a native of Colombia and assistant professor of nuclear engineering. He is also focused on establishing strategic partnerships with Colombia’s top universities.

Allain sees benefits for present and future students at Purdue through increased interaction with students at Colombian universities.

“I arrived in the U.S. from Colombia when I was 11 years old,” he says. “I understand the challenges facing young Hispanic Americans in this country, and the role models that Latin America can bring would be invaluable.”

Arden Bement, director of the Global Policy Research Institute, says Purdue is well-positioned to help Colombia enhance its base of world-class scientists and increase their visibility.

“One of our driving passions is to help emerging markets do the kind of research that eventually will improve the world,” he says.

Allain agrees. “Purdue is truly engaging a whole nation and making a significant impact on Colombia. The resources at Purdue will enable Colombian scientists to become more visible globally and eventually influence how science is conducted in Colombian institutions.”

In addition to Arvind Raman and Jean-Paul Allain, the College of Engineering’s Colombia team also included George Adams, associate director of the Network for Computational Nanotechnology; Monica Allain, managing director of Birck Nanotechnology Center; and Michael Ladisch, distinguished professor of agricultural and biological engineering. They were supported by Nathan Mosier and Indrajeet Chaubey, associate professors of agricultural and biological engineering; Chris Martin, College of Engineering director of financial affairs; Andrew Bean, business manager for mechanical engineering; Mary Millsaps and Sally Rehmel, Sponsored Programs Services; Cecilia Tenorio, director of the College of Liberal Arts community assistance program; and Yating Chang, assistant director in the Office of Professional Practice. Also assisting were Susan Fisher, director of the College graduate programs; Cyndi Lynch, fellowship director in the Graduate School; Rabi Mohtar, director of global engineering programs; and Angela Diaz, managing director of the Global Policy Research Institute.