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Michigan Goes Global With International University Research

In over three decades of work in Africa, Eric Crawford and his colleagues at MSU have been able to see the fruits of their labor – literally.

Dr. Crawford is Professor and Co-Director of the Food Security Group at Michigan State University’s Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics. He has been working on food security in Africa since 1980.

“Food security is making sure that people at all times have access to necessary food and nutrition needs,” Crawford says. This includes the availability, utilization, and stability of food sources.

From Mali to Mozambique to Kenya, Dr. Crawford and his team have worked at home and in the field to stabilize the food supply in those countries. And while the goals remain the same, there has been an evolution in the researchers’ roles.

Many of the countries Dr. Crawford works with have seen rapid urbanization and a growing middle class. With such growth comes more and more university-educated locals who are taking on Dr. Crawford’s early role in effective food security training.

“Instead of us running MSU projects where we recruit people, local universities are now sub-contracting us,” says Crawford. “The point is to get individuals and institutions to do it themselves.”

Now that locals are taking on many of Crawford’s earlier tasks, the professor and his colleagues at MSU can now focus on applied research, the collection and analysis of data, and taking on a more advisory role on government programs and policies.

According to Dr. Crawford, Michigan State’s emphasis on international partnerships has led to their success. International work is a natural component of MSU’s expectations, says Crawford, and not considered an outside activity.

University Research Corridor member institutions all emphasize international partnerships. Take, for instance, the University of Michigan’s partnership with Shanghai Jiao Tong University. The universities are in the third year of a six team joint partnership with three research teams focusing on renewable energy and three research teams focusing on biomedical technologies.

Dr. David Sherman of University of Michigan’s Life Sciences Institute is the principal investigator on a project that is collecting micro-organisms from China’s vast array of diverse ecosystems for the purpose of drug discovery.

“China is fairly under-explored,” Sherman says. “There’s a massive opportunity there.”

Dr. Sherman arranged the project with a former colleague, SJTU’s Professor Zixin Deng, who is, according to Sherman, “one of the half dozen most prominent scientists in all of China.”

Having led similar projects in Costa Rica and Papua New Guinea, Dr. Sherman is confident that this new project will prove successful.

“The key is to go to an area of unusual biodiversity,” he says. “We collect samples, those samples have bacteria and fungi. Then we examine and screen for drug discovery.”

Because SJTU isn’t as established and experienced as the University of Michigan, Dr. Sherman will be sending a microbiologist to help train researchers to collect samples. Modern technologies such as Skype video-conferencing will also be used to bridge the challenge of distance.

The partnership is one that stands to benefit both universities. Says Sherman: “SJTU doesn’t have the lab resources we have. It’s a good partnership. They gather and send the samples, we screen and develop.”

“Because China’s influence on science is only going to grow, this will set up both our labs for success.”

Wayne State University’s Michael Barbour knows a thing or two about supplying resources for successful learning. Barbour, Assistant Professor of Instructional Technology at Wayne State University’s College of Education, has made a name for himself in the relatively young field of distance learning.

“Distance learning is essentially when the student is physically distant from the teacher,” said Dr. Barbour. “This often happens in rural areas, where it is difficult to get highly qualified teachers in some of the more specialized, high demand areas, like mathematics, sciences, foreign languages. Distance learning allows students at schools that don’t have teachers in these areas to be able to take the course from a highly qualified teacher located somewhere else.”

Dr. Barbour has studied K-12 distance education in Canada extensively, from legislation and policy to implementation. And because of a reputation resulting from his research in his native Canada and his professional career here in the states, Dr. Barbour soon “became known as having one of the more international perspectives or background in my relatively new, relatively small field.” Several Ministries of Education in Canada have used Barbour’s reports as reference documents in their own internal reviews of their K-12 distance education policies.

Dr. Barbour has been working on research in New Zealand for the past five years. His international reputation has spread so far, in fact, that he now has the luxury of being much more selective when choosing research projects.

“Right now, I’d have to be honest and say that I get contacted much more frequently than I have to contact others,” Dr. Barbour said. “In fact, I often have to turn down opportunities — particularly for unfunded research projects — because of the number of potential collaborations.”

Each university involved in the URC understands the importance of international partnerships. Dr. Sherman sums it up best: “Science is an international enterprise now.”