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UW-Madison and China: Strengthening Ties. Chancellor Martin travels to China, spring 2010

UW-Madison forges strong bonds to China through research, partnerships

The University of Wisconsin-Madison has long been driven by the idea that its boundaries should extend to the borders of its home state.

With an annual research budget of nearly $900 million — and as one of only two universities to rank in the top five in the United States in research expenditures for each of the last 20 years — UW-Madison is continually putting this concept, called the Wisconsin Idea, to work. In practice, it now extends to all corners of the globe.

UW-Madison researchers are at work on every continent, from observing interactions between ranchers and rare spectacled bears in South America to recording collisions between neutrinos and atoms deep in Antarctic ice to following the path of disease transmission between humans and other primates in Uganda.

Asia — and China in particular — is no exception. Through partnerships with Chinese universities, research projects on the mainland and offering faculty opportunities to leading scientists from China, UW-Madison has assembled a long list of scholarship with a decidedly Chinese flavor.

In fact, Chinese representation among the UW-Madison campus community has boomed, growing from less than 100 faculty and research staff a decade ago to more than 425 in 2009.

Among recent accomplishments, both by UW-Madison scholars in China and by Chinese researchers in Madison, are these:

Geology professor Huifang Xu and mechanical engineering professor Xiaochun Li are tapping the tiniest sources of waste in the search for new energy.

The two materials scientists have created flexible nanocrystals that produce small electrical charges when they bend. Applied in any situation where they can capture stray vibrations — from rumbling industrial equipment, for example — the energy from the crystals can be used to split water molecules to produce hydrogen fuel.

“We have limited areas to collect large energy differences, like a waterfall or a big dam,” Xu says. “But we have lots of places with small energies. If we can harvest that energy, it would be tremendous.”

Xu’s geology work has taken him to the Loess Plateau in northern China and the site of an ancient collision of tectonic plates in eastern China. He and his wife have hosted visiting Chinese scholars and students, including recent students from Hefei University of Technology in Hefei, China, and Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, China.

“Chinese researchers see Madison as an excellent place to work,” Xu says. “They appreciate the research facilities and friendly atmosphere and the Chinese colleagues who have already done so much work here.”

Through the Sino-U.S. Dairy Research and Development Center — a partnership with China Agricultural University — UW-Madison’s Babcock Institute for International Dairy Research and Development has been sharing dairy farming and processing expertise to bring the milk yield of Chinese cows in line with the needs of the county’s population.

“They have a lot of large farms, but because this is a fairly new industry in China, we have experts who can lend a hand with issues that we have begun to deal with already in Wisconsin,” says Karen Nielsen, assistant director of the Babcock Institute.

UW-Madison faculty members and representatives of Wisconsin-based agricultural industry companies such as ABS Global and Cooperative Resources International attend an annual dairy seminar in China, this year covering topics such as bio-digesters and management of large dairy farms.

Alongside experts from the U.S. Dairy Forage Center, UW-Madison professor Paul Fricke will discuss dairy cattle at the fourth Yangtze Delta Conference on Dairy Technology and Management in April.

Kinesiology professor Li Li Ji, a graduate of East China Normal University, has led groups of faculty, graduate students and Wisconsin public school teachers on weeks-long study trips to China. The groups study techniques used to prepare athletes for competition and help them recover, including a stop at the national judo training center near Tianjin — where young Chinese girls typically knock them off their feet with little effort.

“Kinesiology majors and graduate students are facing challenges of globalization like other professions,” Ji says. “The course gave our students a wide spectrum of exposure to how physical activity is incorporated into China’s culture, health system, schools and ordinary people’s lives.”

At the behest of well-known Chinese physician Du XuePing, professors from UW-Madison’s Department of Family Medicine make annual visits to Beijing’s FuXing Hospital and Yuetan Community Health Service Center to offer their expertise in the development of doctor education programs and improving efficiency in family medicine.

Since the exchange program began in 2005, more than a dozen American physicians have been treated to a look at the integration of Western medical practices with traditional Chinese approaches, such as herbal remedies.

“Nowadays, the hospital brews the herbs and you often get a two-week supply,” says Jie Wang, a family medicine professor who has made the trip to Beijing. “I think in people’s minds, Chinese medicine is very good at treating chronic illnesses and in regulating the body toward wellness. However, many younger people may opt for Western medications.”

Kenneth Kushner, the family medicine professor who has coordinated the program from UW-Madison’s end, lists the mutual exchange of expertise among the most gratifying aspects of his 35-year career. But he hopes the effort has a wider and more lasting impact.

“The Chinese and American health professionals have much to learn from each other,” Kushner says. “I hope that we will be able to create strong enough professional bonds that it will carry over to the next generation.”

Wei Dong, a professor in the UW-Madison School of Human Ecology, studied at the Central Academy of Arts and Design in Beijing and now draws international attention for his knowledge of feng shui and his research into historically significant — but disappearing — courtyard and cave homes in China.

Dong has lectured extensively in China but likes to instill some Chinese perspective in his design students in Wisconsin.

“In China people traditionally ask, ‘Why?’” Dong says. “To be able to approach something — a problem, a relationship, a business — properly, you have to understand not only what is going on but why.”

Geology professor Joseph Mason has worked in collaboration with the Institute for Earth Environment-Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xian to unlock the history of monsoons in China and to help solve a mystery in the American Great Plains.

Using a technique called optically stimulated luminescence dating to determine when sand had last been exposed to sunlight, Mason tracked the movement of sand dunes across China’s northern deserts during a 3,500-year period starting 11,500 years ago. He found a great deal of dune creation and movement during what was understood to be a wet period in China’s past, changing the way the regional effects of the monsoons are understood.

“If monsoon rainfall increases in southern China over the next century, the logical assumption would be that these dunes would become more stable as more precipitation also reaches the dune fields and increases vegetation cover,” Mason says. “That may not be true ... The dunes can become active and the climate there can become drier even when the monsoon is getting stronger.”

Mason was able to introduce partners at Nanjing University to methods developed during a long history of dunefield study by American and European scientists, and he helped a Chinese researcher learn the optically stimulated luminescence analysis at a lab in the United States.

Mason has also studied the Loess Plateau in northern China, which has accumulated dust from the atmosphere not unlike like the Great Plains in the United States.

By comparing the two areas, Mason showed how larger, coarser dust grains and differing wind patterns and ebbing and flowing water led to a great deal more dust deposited on the Great Plains.

“We also play an important role in writing or editing papers on the work in China,” Mason says, “not just because of language issues, but because we have a good understanding of how to make their arguments convincing to American and European reviewers.”

The Wisconsin School of Business has created a network to focus the talent of three of the world’s leading business schools — including Hong Kong University of Science and Technology — in the Global Real Estate Master Program.

“Upon graduation, students will join both the best business alumni network on their continent and the best real estate alumni network in the world,” says Leonard K. Cheng, dean of the Hong Kong school. “It is a great opportunity for HKUST students and alumni who are interested in developing a career path toward leadership in the global real estate industry.”

Students in the program will have the advantage of the Wisconsin School of Business’s rich support structure, including the James A. Graaskamp Center for Real Estate, the student-run Real Estate Club and the Wisconsin Real Estate Alumni Association. Students will also benefit from industry partnerships typical of UW-Madison programs, such as those with the Association of Foreign Investors in Real Estate; Reed MIDEM, an organizer of premier international real estate events; and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

A pair of Chinese scientists is working to better predict the effects of rapid climate change on the planet.

Zhengyu Liu, director of UW-Madison’s Climatic Research Center and professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, is co-leader of a team of climate scientists perfecting a computer model of Earth’s climate that intertwines the forces and energy at play in the atmosphere, oceans and great swaths of glacier ice.

In 2009, Liu — one of just a handful of scientists from mainland China named a fellow in the American Geophysical Society — and his group began publishing the results of their simulation, which matched up well with historical climate conditions and shows promised for accurately predicting changes across the next century. His work has tied together knowledge an array of science disciplines and research programs across the United States.

“You really need a very interdisciplinary team: people on deep ocean, people on geology, people who know bugs,” Liu says. “It is a huge — and very successful — collaboration.”

Feng He, a graduate student studying under Liu and graduate of Ocean University of China, studied the glacial melt cycles key to the group’s findings, and described the climate modeling in a Chinese-language interview on the EurekAlert! China Web site.

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