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Spanning the Globe: Drexel Research Reaches Around the World in 2014

November 11, 2014

North America: Ted Daeschler (second from right) with his team on Ellesmere Island.
North America: Ted Daeschler (second from right) with his team on Ellesmere Island.

The coast of Antarctica. The Canadian Arctic. Delhi, India. The Congo.

There’s little that these places, oceans apart, seem to have in common, except for this: At some point in 2014, researchers from Drexel were or will be visiting them, helping to make discoveries and an impact on people’s lives.

In fact, this year, Drexel faculty and students will conduct research on all seven continents. To celebrate that fact, Drexel Quarterly is highlighting one researcher or project associated with each continent this year. These are just seven of the dozens of Drexel international research projects going on, but they illustrate just how far the University’s research reach has become.

Drexel has more than 80 formal international research partnerships, plus a number of other informal collaborations, said Heidi West, director of Drexel’s Office of International Programs. The spread of Drexel research around the globe is no accident — it’s something the University has worked toward for years, awarding seed grants and travel awards and otherwise encouraging faculty to find partners abroad.

“There is a growing recognition at all levels of the University of the importance of international research collaboration, particularly to address global challenges and to encourage students and faculty to see themselves as global citizens,” West said.

Research subjects such as health, climate change and water are global in nature, and Drexel has the expertise to attract high-ranking international partners to tackle those issues together, West said. Most of Drexel’s international partner institutions rank in their country’s top 10.

And those research partnerships open doors for Drexel students, including study-abroad opportunities, research co-ops and service-learning programs. An international outlook is practically a requirement for today’s young people, West said, and Drexel’s students have it.

“Now more than ever, everyone needs to be prepared to work across cultures, to communicate globally and to address the kinds of challenges that are facing people around the world,” she said. “And you can’t do this if you don’t create and engage in partnerships abroad.”

North America: Ellesmere Island, Canada

Ted Daeschler, PhD, may have technically stayed on the same continent when he went on his research trip this past summer. But he was still half a world away.

Daeschler, vice president for collections and associate curator of vertebrate zoology at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, spent two weeks in a place hundreds of miles from the nearest town, where the sun shone 24 hours a day and where he and his colleagues were more likely to run into a polar bear than another human.

Along with fellow paleontologists from the University of Chicago and Princeton University, Daeschler was looking for fossils where no one had looked for them before: the northern edge of the Canadian Arctic, on northeastern Ellesmere Island.

“When it comes to geology and paleontology, the whole idea that everything’s been studied couldn’t be further from the truth,” Daeschler said.

Daeschler was hoping to find traces of some of the earth’s earliest vertebrate animals. The area they explored, about 630 miles from the North Pole, was known to contain rock from the time period when those first backboned animals developed — the early part of the Cambrian period, from about 500 to 520 million years ago. But they knew that exploring areas untouched by paleontologists is always a roll of the dice.

“It was a long shot,” Daeschler said. “Sometimes, you gotta take some risks.”

This time, they did not get lucky. They discovered that the Cambrian rock had at some point become deeply buried and subjected to significant pressure and heat —destroying the chances of finding any delicate early vertebrate fossils that had once been there.

But that doesn’t mean the trip was a waste. Someone needs to visit these far-flung corners of the earth to determine what can be learned, Daeschler said. And they did it.

“It’s about discovery,” Daeschler said. “And obviously discovery comes in lots of shapes and forms and in a lot of different places. But what has always turned me on is that idea that there are new things out there and unless you get out and look, you aren’t going to discover anything.”

South America: Rio de Janeiro

In April 2013, President Fry led a delegation to Brazil and Chile, in coordination with a trade mission led by Gov. Tom Corbett. In Rio, the delegation made an important visit to the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio) to sign a university agreement and to meet with researchers from NIMA, the University’s interdisciplinary research group focused on urban sustainability. Throughout 2014, NIMA colleagues and Drexel researchers met in person or online to discuss themes for joint research proposals. These interactions culminated in an in-person workshop at PUC-Rio when Julie Mostov, PhD, vice provost for global initiatives, brought members of the Drexel team to the Brazilian campus.

The workshop held Sept. 21-24 allowed the teams of researchers to discover areas of overlapping interest and come up with a plan for a larger common research project on urban sustainability around the institutions’ common watershed concerns and environmental community outreach.

Drexel’s delegation included Mostov; Eugenia Ellis, PhD, an associate professor in the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design and the College of Engineering; Shannon Marquez, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs, director of Global Health Initiatives and associate professor in the School of Public Health, Patrick Gurian, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Engineering; Rosina Weber, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Computing and Informatics; and Jennifer Britton, PhD, associate director of the Lindy Center for Urban Innovation and interim director of the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships.

While in Rio, Mostov, professors Kenneth Barbee, PhD (School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems); Gail Rosen, PhD (College of Engineering); and John Bethea, PhD (College of Arts and Sciences), also met with colleagues at FIOCRUZ, a top Brazilian institute for advanced studies, to enhance and expand Drexel’s current partnership there to include dual PhDs and research collaboration with Drexel’s School of Public Health. Mostov also visited Uruguayan universities as well as a current Drexel partner, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, in Santiago, Chile. The President of Católica, Ignacio Sanchez, is visiting Drexel on Oct. 21.

Australia: Sydney

Australia: Kara Spiller (left) and Pamela Graney in Sydney.

Kara Spiller, PhD, studies the inflammatory response to foreign materials implanted in the body. So why did that require her to travel to Sydney at the end of August?

It’s the same reason she traveled to China while working on her PhD, and to Portugal for her postdoctoral fellowship. Even though she could theoretically examine biomaterials and cell samples from all over the world in her lab at Drexel, she’s a firm believer in the power of international partnerships.

“I think the clashing of different cultures creates enhanced creativity,” said Spiller, an assistant professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems. “It helps you think outside the box.”

For that reason, she requires all of her PhD students to conduct research abroad. And in August, she took one student, Pamela Graney, to the University of Sydney to meet a colleague named Hala Zreiqat, who has developed implantable scaffolds that can help regenerate bone.

When foreign materials are implanted in the body, its flesh and bones tend to become inflamed. But in the case of Zreiqat’s material, that response may actually be helping bones regenerate. Spiller and her student are coming to learn more about what happens when the scaffold — tested so far only in animals — interacts with the human body, using cell samples.

If results indicate that the cells reacted well, the material could be used to help regenerate bones damaged by gunshots, car accidents or surgeries to remove tumors. The knowledge could also help engineers develop better pacemakers or joint replacements.

And the biggest reason Spiller is doing that research at Drexel, she said, is because of the way it encourages international collaborations.

“It’s why I’m here, literally,” she said. “I interviewed at a bunch of places, and Drexel was the only one that put that at the forefront.”

Europe: Bochum, Germany

Steve Wrenn, PhD, has taught a class for Drexel exchange students at Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) in Bochum, Germany, every year since he helped create the study abroad program in 2011, but last spring marked the first time he spent only a week at the German university. His history with RUB dates back even farther to 2006, when he conducted research there as an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellow. His work and professional connections have enabled chemical and mechanical engineering students to participate in a unique research-based exchange program abroad.

During his sabbatical, Wrenn, an associate professor of chemical engineering in the College of Engineering, started research on microbubbles — tiny gas-filled bubbles used in ultrasound imaging — including their synthesis and acoustic properties. Back at Drexel, he eventually conceived an idea for an ultrasound-triggered drug delivery vehicle in which microbubbles are nested inside liposomes; he and his PhD students have developed a working prototype, and a patent is pending.

Wrenn returned to RUB for research in 2011. This time, however, it was alongside the first class of Drexel students who signed up for the research-focused study abroad program.

Since the program started, the partnership has benefited not only the dozen or so Drexel students who participate each year, but also the RUB students who come to Drexel to conduct research. In fact, this year a recent Drexel graduate whom Wrenn mentored and advised as a master’s student received a Fulbright Scholarship to conduct research at RUB.

Recently, the program was moved from the summer to the spring term to better coordinate with the German university’s schedule, but at the expense of Wrenn’s own itinerary. In 2014, he spent one week at RUB and taught his class online instead. The same schedule is planned for next spring, and the program might even be expanded to include electrical engineers in the future.

Africa: Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and the Congo

With over 20 years of research experience in Cameroon, Gabon and Nigeria and a new position as principal investigator in Drexel’s Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program, it’s no surprise that Katy Gonder, PhD, has planned three trips to Central Africa since she came to Drexel in December 2013. The associate biology professor in the College of Arts and Sciences visited Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea for a few weeks in the spring of 2014 and then all of July, and she has a fall trip scheduled to the Congo.

Gonder, who specializes in African biodiversity and conservation strategies, conducts research and helps young scientists learn to conduct research, and then uses their findings to work with governments to make useful policy recommendations. In July, she held a workshop with 40 American and African graduate students (including three from Drexel) to demonstrate genetic data analysis and promote international collaborations for the future of Africa’s biodiversity.

The workshop was part of the Central African Biodiversity Alliance, an NSF-funded research and educational program where Gonder, as the principal investigator, works with socioeconomic and climate data to understand the continent’s biodiversity map. Gonder’s outreach has allowed Drexel to join the U.S. Department of State Facilitation Team of the Congo Basin Forest Partnership.

No matter the purpose of her trips, she usually visits the Drexel team of researchers and students on Equatorial Guinea's Bioko Island.

So how does she pack for her travels?

“I used to wander around the bush wearing whatever I wanted to look for chimpanzee poop [the source of genetic material], and now I’m talking to officials at embassy functions. I have to bring ‘business outfits’ and can’t wear my ‘bush outfits,’” Gonder said.

Still, she only allows herself one medium-sized piece of luggage — which still doesn’t account for all of the figurative hats she wears overseas.

Antarctica: PhD student Anita Johnson (from left), Peter DeCarlo and postdoctoral fellow Michael Giordano, PhD, with the Aerodyne Aerosol Mass Spectrometer.


On his trip to the coast of Antarctica this fall, Peter DeCarlo, PhD, is not traveling light.

In fact, the trip is centered around something he’s packing with him for his three-week trip in October: a roughly 300-pound machine called an Aerodyne Aerosol Mass Spectrometer. Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation for about $390,000, he’s the first person to take the machine, which he helped develop during graduate school at the University of Colorado, to the world’s southernmost continent.

“That was a big selling point,” said DeCarlo, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering. He is in Antarctica with a group of colleagues for the first of two planned trips with the device.

The machine analyzes aerosols — tiny particles in the air, smaller than 1 micrometer each. (A single hair, for reference, is about 100 micrometers thick.) In different places, aerosols are composed of different chemical compounds. For instance, in an urban area, they can contain material from auto emissions.

Researchers have measured aerosol composition in Antarctica before, but never with a tool this fast and precise.

“We’re trying to get information about the composition of these particles in a way that really hasn’t been done,” DeCarlo said.

The resulting information could help scientists interpret ice cores to determine how Antarctica’s atmospheric conditions have changed over time.

“Antarctica is one of the remaining pretty pristine places on Earth, so we are interested in trying to understand changes in the natural cycle that may be caused by human activity,” DeCarlo said.

DeCarlo has used the machine in a number of places around North America and Europe already: Nova Scotia, Mexico, Spain and Switzerland, among others. His research has taken him around the world.

“As the world becomes more interconnected, that global perspective is an important thing for a university to have,” DeCarlo said.

Asia: Delhi, India

The Yamuna River, the principal source of Delhi’s water supply in India, has long been venerated in Hinduism as a goddess and daughter of the Sun God, and the holy water’s mythical qualities are believed to free bathers from the fear of death. But in more recent times, the river’s polluted water has cast negative health risks on that belief.

A group of interdisciplinary Drexel professors traveled to Delhi to participate in a workshop on quantitative microbial risk assessment that was held from June 30 to July 9.

The Drexel group, led by Patrick Gurian, PhD, an associate professor in the College of Engineering, is collaborating with Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) faculty to create an online database about the water and airborne microbial hazards in the Delhi area.

“Having this information readily available will help practitioners and researchers conduct assessments of the safety of our food, air, water and commonly touched surfaces in the environment,” Gurian said.

The workshop was organized as part of an exchange program sponsored by the Obama Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative Grant, an educational initiative jointly funded by India and the United States that paired the two institutions together.

During the trip, Charles Haas, PhD, and Mira Olson, PhD, from the College of Engineering, and Arthur Frank, PhD, and Shannon Marquez, PhD, from the School of Public Health, worked with Gurian to train Indian and American professionals to carry out assessments in the area. In the future, more information will be added to the web-based archives so that people can learn these methods through self-study.

This is not the first time Haas and Gurian have held local workshops about water quality. Last year, Haas and Gurian hosted a similar microbial risk assessment workshop in São Paolo, Brazil.

This article first appeared in the October 2014 issue of Drexel Quarterly.