Research without Borders

With a world of problems to solve, there are clear advantages to going beyond national borders to team up with like-minded experts all over the globe. WPI researchers have forged strong collaborations with colleagues at universities around the world, connections that not only further their work, but offer increased opportunities for publication and international recognition.

by Joan Killough-Miller

Students also benefit from this broader exposure. Research collaborations offer rich opportunities for study and are important in preparing the next generation of leaders for the interconnected global environment, says Karen Kashmanian Oates, the university’s Peterson Family Dean of Arts and Sciences. “WPI’s focus on solving real-world problems cannot be achieved if we do not interact with the world around us to discover the relevant problems and uncover alternate solutions. Partnering with research collaborators around the globe allows both a synergy and complementarity of skills and expertise to solve the great global challenges we face together.”

Collaborations Yield Efficiency

Joe Zhu, professor of operations and industrial engineering in WPI’s School of Business, collaborates with colleagues in China and elsewhere around the world on his research on data envelopment analysis.

How does a soda factory account for the return of recycled bottles in its supply chain? What is the value of an Olympic gold medal if a country’s population and GDP are factored in? What would be the impact of relocating school bus stops—or government agencies in Japan?

In countries around the world, complex questions like these are being analyzed with a performance measurement tool developed by Joe Zhu, professor of operations and industrial engineering in WPI’s School of Business. Zhu’s methodology, part of a field known as data envelopment analysis (DEA), helps leaders in industry, academia, and government understand and improve the efficiency of their operations.

In 2005 Zhu was asked to establish a joint research center with the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC). Now, as director of the Research Center for Operations and Productivity Management within USTC’s School of Management, Zhu advises doctoral students, guiding them in focusing and carrying out their real-world research. At the same time, his DEA methodology development receives additional testing and refinement in new arenas. “Our goal is to push the research frontier,” he says, “and develop new models for new business problems.”

An important part of his work is helping the Chinese faculty and students learn how to prepare their findings for publication in top-tier Western journals. Zhu explains that publication is the gold standard for business schools. It improves peer recognition, influences rankings, and helps in securing grant funding. The publication rating of a university’s faculty has even been shown to boost the salaries of its graduates.

“The work in China also benefits WPI’s reputation,” says Zhu. “I play a role in the ongoing research, and my name appears as a co-author in these publications, which makes an impression on the deans of our peer institutions. They may not remember my name—but they know the work of WPI.”

The joint center in China, and Zhu’s other international collaborations (which include work with faculty at universities in Canada, Japan, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) would play an important role in a proposed PhD program in business administration that Zhu is helping to develop. He envisions dual-degree tracks that would leverage the resources of two schools, with students spending two years at WPI and two years studying abroad. “Our PhD program could have a strong flavor of international collaboration,” he says. “That would offer a different experience to our students. The research culture—and the way of thinking, the way information is presented—sometimes is very different outside the United States.”

Zhu takes pleasure in another benefit of his work with institutions in other time zones. He can email colleagues in Asia late at night, after he’s put his children to bed, and have answers by the time he arrives at his office the next morning. “Very efficient!” he quips.

Our goal is to push the research frontier—and develop new models for new business problems.

—Joe Zhu

Paving a New Road Together

Rajib Mallick, professor of civil and environmental engineering, works with collaborators in India on his pavement research; he spent 2011–12 on a leave of absence at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras

It’s 7,795 miles from Worcester to Kharagpur, India—and there’s bound to be roadwork ahead. Although it’s clearly not possible to drive from here to there, Rajib Mallick has forged a route that connects the best minds of both nations to solve common problems by developing more durable pavement materials, improved construction techniques, and better ways of recycling pavement.

Mallick, professor of civil and environmental engineering, joined forces in 2009 with colleagues at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to establish the Indo-US Knowledge R&D Networked Joint Center on Highway and Airport Pavement Engineering. WPI and IIT Kharagpur are the lead institutions, in partnership with IIT Madras and the University of Texas at El Paso. The center is funded by the Indo-US Science and Technology Forum (IUSSTF), a nonprofit agency established to catalyze and promote international exchange between scholars on mutually relevant topics.

“In India,” Mallick explains, “there is a critical need for high-temperature resistant asphalt mixes, as well as design standards for long-lasting pavements.” In the last decade, India has seen significant changes in construction practices and huge investments in building new roads to address traffic in cities and hazardous conditions in hilly and rural area.

“At the same time,” he continues, “there is a big push for rehabilitation of roads in the United States, and longer-lasting mixes are critical, especially in the midst of dwindling budgets and rising material costs.” The high-performance and recycled asphalt pavements that he is developing with his colleagues will help address problems of overloading that are severe in India, and also in some parts of the United States, such as the border areas in Texas.

Through the joint center, researchers from the two nations work together on guidelines for the selection of pavement binders for different climate regions, on performance-based design software to evaluate the influence of overloading, and on recycling techniques. The IUSSTF funding supported two international conferences, held in Kharagpur in 2009 and Chennai (Madras) in 2010, and led to multiple industry-sponsored seminars in Bangalore on challenges, opportunities, and trends in pavement engineering. In addition, the funding enabled Indian faculty members and students to visit WPI and the University of Texas, and WPI and UTexas faculty members and students to spend a summer in India conducting research on pavement materials, exploring pavement conditions, and learning about test and analysis techniques from their Indian counterparts.

Currently on a leave of absence at IIT Madras, Mallick is teaching graduate courses, pursuing further joint proposals, and completing his forthcoming textbook, Challenges and Solutions for Designing, Constructing and Managing Roads: A Guide for Pavement Engineers in Developing Countries (Springer, Fall 2012).

“Our gains are many,” he says. “The collaboration has put WPI on the national and international map of pavement engineering, and it has secured a strong bond with the University of Texas and with the two most advanced technology institutions in India. It increases the potential for future funded research, and the prospects for further student exchanges. Both countries gain from utilizing the fruits of research in a critical area of national need in a shorter period of time, and with the use of fewer resources than would be needed without collaborative work. The knowledge gained can be a benefit to the people of all countries.”

Spanning the Globe with Generosity

For his internationally known work in fractal mathematics, Umberto Mosco, Harold J. Gay Professor of Mathematics, works with colleagues in his native Italy and several other nations

“Mathematics is, and always has been universal,” says Umberto Mosco, who came to WPI from Sapienza University of Rome in 2005 as the Harold J. Gay Professor of Mathematics. “It is the product of a collective mind that has been at work for centuries, if not millennia, encompassing contributions from all over the planet.”

At WPI Mosco continues his long-standing collaborations with Italian colleagues on complex problems in fractal geometry. With grant funding from the National Science Foundation, the researchers are developing tools to describe and predict the relationship between surface area and volume in complex shapes, work that has applications in a variety of situations where it is important to maximize surface area. This work has potential impact on everything from nanotechnology to the design of catalytic converters to the detection of malignant cells.

“More than half my work has been with colleagues around the world,” says Mosco, who has held posts as visiting professor at universities in Algeria, Argentina, China, France, Germany, and India. “I would not be one-tenth of what I am today without that.” Generations of scholars feel that way about him: In 2009, researchers and students from around the world gathered at Sapienza—Rome’s largest and oldest state university, which dates back to 1303—for a conference given in honor of his contributions to the field.

Mosco says he values WPI’s stress on global study and feels a keen responsibility to give his students contact with researchers from other countries. He’s sent WPI graduate students to study in Rome, involved international faculty on their dissertation defense committees, and brought lecturers here from France, Italy, Japan, Romania, and Sweden. “There is no future without international competition and international cooperation,” he says. Mathematics, he points out, is not directly dependent on a physical laboratory or influenced by geographic location. However, wide input is required to provide the “rigor” needed to test new ideas. “We mathematicians don’t have experiments to prove our theorems and ideas,” he says. “We must turn them over to others to check.” At WPI he has also found it easy to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines. “For us mathematicians with a flair for applications, it is important to be in contact with engineers, physicists, and chemists,” he says.

To be capable of real science, he tells his students, they must be curious and generous: “Curious about the work of others, and generous in sharing your own work with others.” He finds the research climate in the United States very generous, and less hierarchical than abroad. “When we say that America is a land of great opportunities, it’s not just a saying,” he declares. “I think that explains why so many students from other countries come here to study. We have a lot to offer, not just to receive.”

More than half my work has been with colleagues around the world. I would not be one-tenth of what I am today without that.

— Umberto Mosco
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