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East meets West in pursuit of science and engineering breakthroughs

In 2008, a delegation led by Chancellor Gene Block and former Vice Provost of International Studies J. Nicholas Entrikin visited Peking University (PKU) with an interesting idea: Forge a collaboration between the two powerhouse research universities that — reaching across 6,266 miles and transcending differences of language and culture — could foster breakthroughs in science and engineering research, secure joint funding, accelerate technology transfer, and prepare researchers and leaders of the future to approach their work from a global perspective.
UCLA students and faculty at Peking University, where they conducted collaborative research with their Chinese counterparts last summer.
The Joint Research Institute in Science and Engineering (JRI) by Peking University and UCLA has accomplished all this and more in the four years since that initial idea became a reality in 2009. Faculty and students from both universities have already teamed up on a wide range of research. Their efforts have appeared in dozens of joint research papers in peer-reviewed journals such as the Journal of Geophysics Research, Applied Physics Express and the Chinese Journal of Electronics. Some 13 collaborative projects are currently under way, including the Clean Energy Research Center at UCLA, the UCLA-PKU Center for Research on the Tibetan Plateau and Global Climate Change, and research that addresses the growing problem of pollution on air quality and health in Beijing.
JRI sponsors an annual mini-symposium that alternates between the Los Angeles and Beijing campuses, during which faculty share their research and tour one another’s research facilities. This year’s symposium takes place on July 1-2 at PKU, with 40 presentations lined up on the topics of cell communication and biological mechanisms, climate and the environment, semiconductor materials and devices, and information technology. Giving introductory remarks will be Peking University President Wang Enge and Chancellor Block, who is attending in conjunction with a UCLA Alumni Association event in Beijing, joined by Kathryn Atchison, Vice Provost of Intellectual Property and Industry Relations, and Cindy Fan, Vice Provost for International Studies in the International Institute.
Jason Cong, UCLA professor of computer science and co-director of the Joint Research Institute in Science and Engineering, and program director Larissa Harrison.
Also heading to Beijing for the symposium and to coordinate multiple events are JRI co-director and UCLA professor of computer science Jason Cong and program coordinator Larissa Harrison.
"There are so many issues of a global nature — energy, environment, information technology — that it only makes sense to collaborate," said Cong. But collaborative relationships develop slowly over time, noted Cong, who, with co-director Xiaoming Li, PKU professor of computer science and technology, interact with diverse departments and colleagues in a variety of fields at their respective campuses. "The work is eye-opening," said Cong. "We learn a lot."
The institute has also created research exchange programs for graduate and undergraduate students at both universities. Thus far, 45 PKU students have conducted research at UCLA under the mentorship of UCLA faculty — eight through JRI’s graduate research exchange program and 37 under the aegis of the broader agreement between the two universities. And 48 UCLA students, including 12 this summer, have traveled to Beijing to conduct research after taking a UCLA Confucius Institute class in Chinese tailored to engineering and science students.
Peking University students and faculty tour the research lab of UCLA neuroscience professor X. William Yang at last year's mini-symposium.
For many of these students, the experience has been life-changing. Robert Cunningham took part in the inaugural summer research program during his junior year at UCLA in 2010. The following year, he won a Princeton in Asia fellowship and went on to teach physics at Raffles Institution (PiA) in Singapore for a year and a half after his graduation from UCLA in 2011 with a degree in physics and applied mathematics. He is now living in Shanghai, where he develops export markets around the world for a Chinese firm that manufactures laboratory furniture.
Said Cunningham, "I can attest wholeheartedly that the PKU-UCLA exchange was the single most important program I participated in during my time at UCLA. The reason I even applied to PiA was because of how amazing the JRI program was, how it opened my eyes to the future of our globally interconnected planet ... Now that I am on the international business side of things, I can take my American upbringing, mix it with this Chinese business and spread the combination out into the farthest pockets of the world."
Starting in the fall quarter, JRI is venturing into a new academic arena with the integrated PKU B.S.-UCLA M.S. Program, which will be piloted in UCLA’s computer science and electrical engineering departments. The program enables PKU students in their fourth year of undergraduate study to complete their PKU degree at UCLA, finishing their undergraduate thesis research in a UCLA lab while also taking graduate courses. Upon successful completion of their B.S. degree and 12 units of UCLA graduate coursework, PKU students will be matriculated in a UCLA graduate program where they can complete a master’s degree in one year.
Learn more at the Joint Research Program website. And read this previous UCLA Today story about last summer’s research exchange: Students to join research teams at Peking University this summer.
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