May 19, 2010
Among the top-ranked universities in the world, Tsinghua University and Purdue University share several similarities. Tsinghua is a comprehensive research and teaching academy, thanks to an emphasis by the Chinese government to increase the number of Chinese residents with college degrees and a strategic plan to become a world-class comprehensive university by 2011.
Known primarily for engineering and science, Tsinghua has established or restored areas of study in law, the arts, public management and journalism. There are 35,369 students, split evenly between undergraduate and graduate students. There are 2,923 faculty, with more than half working in an engineering discipline.
Almost all of the students and 70 percent of the faculty live on campus, once the site of the Imperial Gardens. Forbes Magazine ranked Tsinghua one of the 14 most beautiful college campuses in the world, with a mix of gardens, trees, ancient Chinese structures, American-style administrative buildings and new construction for laboratories and classrooms.
In recent years, Tsinghua has expanded to include a medical school, a research park system and 11 key research institutes. Sponsored research funding has increased steadily to $360 million in 2009, with initiatives in information technology, energy, environmental sciences, civil engineering, advanced materials, life sciences, and biotechnology and nanotechnology.
Purdue has a history of academic exchanges with Tsinghua. Since 2005, Krannert School of Management has been sending 40 MBA students to Tsinghua for two to three weeks at a time. Purdue's Department of Communication regularly exchanges faculty, with two Tsinghua professors visiting Purdue last semester to give lectures.
Purdue's Office of Professional Practice created an undergraduate research team program with Tsinghua engineering departments. This program pairs Purdue and Tsinghua students for 4-5 weeks at Tsinghua beginning in May of each year. That same team then travels to Purdue later in June to continue the research project. Professors on both sides of the Pacific Ocean supervise the team's work. This year the Tsinghua University Two Way Research Internships program has expanded to four students on each side.
Signing of the Agreement
It was the perfect historic setting for a forward-looking collaboration between two of the world's top universities. Tsinghua University President Gu Binglin welcomed Purdue University President France Córdova to his offices in the Gong Zi Ting Courtyard. The building is 302 years old, the surrounding gardens 400 years old, and the table made of tree roots behind them is 500 years old.
Conversation came easily, covering the importance of student exchanges for education and student growth. The two also discussed the overlap of expertise, with Gu's academic background in physics and conducting research into condensed matter, and Córdova's in astrophysics, studying condensed matter in stars. Small talk became more serious, moving from the challenges of heating and cooling universities, which are the equivalent of medium-sized towns, to the universities' roles in addressing energy issues, environmental challenges, and innovative solutions to sustainability both on their campuses and for their countries.
Gifts were exchanged. Purdue gave Gu a crystal globe; Tsinghua gave Córdova a silk-screen printing. The parties then moved to a small table to sign a Purdue-Tsinghua Strategic Partnership Memorandum of Understanding.
"This is an agreement between peer institutions," Córdova said. "When one looks at the resources China is investing in Tsinghua and in attracting top talent back to the university, you know great things will be accomplished here. We will gain as much as we give."
One possible exchange may be at the presidential level. Córdova invited Gu to visit Purdue, and he invited her to return for Tsinghua's Centennial in 2011, when the university plans a retrospective look at the last 100 years and a strategic look forward to the next 100 years.
Building on a Foundation of Research and Outreach
The workshops and symposiums already are taking place. Just across campus, a Purdue team led by Rudolf Eigenmann of the Purdue-based Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation and Purdue faculty from the School of Civil Engineering have been holding a workshop to show Tsinghua faculty advances in building design and testing that promise to reduce the deaths and destruction associated with earthquakes. The workshop is supplemented with classroom lectures.
Tsinghua Provost Yuan Si is intrigued by the concept of Purdue's Global Policy Research Institute. He's in charge of undergraduate and international affairs and interested in how science can play a larger role in policy formulation. Having the nation's top scientist in Washington, D.C., National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement, slated to take the helm of the Purdue center in June also interested him enough to offer an early invitation for a meeting.
One successful research collaboration already under way at Tsinghua involves Purdue expertise in biosensors, a Chinese academic's work with diabetes and a Chinese company that may end up doing business in Indiana.
Diabetes, a serious problem in the United States, is a growing problem in China with 1 million new cases each year. Zongming Zhang, professor and vice president of the First Affiliated Hospital of Tsinghua University, has been working with individual cells, looking at why some produce insulin and others don't.
XuYue, a Chinese company that commercialized American technology in non-invasive biosensors, connected Zongming with Marshall Porterfield, a Purdue professor of agricultural and biological engineering and biomedical engineering, who has led the development of biosensor use in fundamental research into human health.
Working with Porterfield, Zongming can do multiple experiments much more effectively and efficiently and look at networks of cells as well, comparing healthy beta cells to those that are diabetic. They've already documented signaling malfunctions in diabetic cells, getting closer to learning why some human cells don't produce insulin, information which could, in turn, someday lead to a cure.
Incubating the Incubator
In 1993, a Tsinghua-affiliated research park was just a dream. Today, Tsinghua University Science Park - TusPark - is a cluster of skyscrapers, emerging businesses, partnering multinationals, hundreds of fledgling startups and 19,000 employees in companies that range from Google and Sun Microsystems that everyone has heard of, to some that you never will.
TusPark's mission will resonate with anyone familiar with Purdue Research Park: attract students, foster innovation and help entrepreneurs succeed. The companies come to TusPark for many of the same reasons, too. They want access to the university's students and professors. They want to be at the leading edge of research and development, and they realize internationalization is the future of business, starting with students who study abroad and professors from the top universities in the world who have been recruited back to China to lead departments, schools and research institutes.
"Move this park 20 kilometers from campus and it would be a different story," said Herbert Chen, senior vice president of TusPark.
One of the topics under discussion is how lessons learned and best practices at one park can help the other.