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UCLA Professor Jason Cong and Program Coordinator Larissa Harrison, the UCLA side of JRI. (Photo: Peggy McInerny.)

Joint Research Institute of PKU and UCLA ramping up in many directions

The Joint Research Institute (JRI) in Science and Engineering of Peking University (PKU) and UCLA enters its fifth year of operation this summer, heralding a busy upcoming year.

International Institute, June 25, 2013 — The Joint Research Institute (JRI) in Science and Engineering of Peking University (PKU) and UCLA is continuing to spark cooperative ventures on both campuses, with July 2013 promising to be a particularly busy month.

Co-Director and UCLA Professor of Computer Science Jason Cong and UCLA Program Coordinator Larissa Harrison are both headed to Beijing to coordinate multiple events. JRI’s annual mini-symposium and summer exchange program kick off at PKU on July 1st — just in time for a UCLA Alumni Association event in China. The reception, for which JRI has provided substanital administrative support, will be attended by Chancellor Gene Block, Vice Provost Kathryn Atchison and the International Institute’s Vice Provost for International Studies Cindy Fan.

Some 16 faculty at PKU are actually UCLA alumni, having completed Ph.Ds. here in such diverse fields as mathematics, life sciences, economics, finance and, of course, engineering and computer science. Among them is Guojie Luo (UCLA 2011), a computer science student of Cong — himself a PKU alumnus.


JRI was officially launched in June 2009 and actively engages the top leadership of both institutions. A flexible and farseeing collaboration, it promotes collaborative research between the faculty of the two universities in the fields of science, engineering and medicine.

It also jointly trains students in these fields to become future leaders with a global perspective through several educational programs:

  • A graduate research exchange program for PKU students at UCLA for up to one academic year (one to three quarters), which accepts about 5 students a year. (This program leverages the opportunities offered by the separate UCLA Cross-Disciplinary Scholars in Science and Technology Program for undergraduate students, in which PKU is a participating Chinese university.)
  • A summer research exchange program for UCLA undergraduate and graduate students at PKU. Although students conduct their research in English; they must study Chinese for at least one quarter prior to departing (the UCLA Confucius Institute provides a language course tailored to engineering and science students). They then attend Chinese classes while they are in Beijing.
  • A brand-new, Pilot Integrated PKU B.S. –UCLA M.S. Program in Science or Engineering (3+2) for PKU students at UCLA (the “3+2” Program). This program enables PKU students in their fourth year of undergraduate study to complete their PKU degree at UCLA, taking graduate courses here while finishing their undergraduate thesis research in a UCLA lab. Upon successful completion of both their B.S. degree and 12 units of UCLA graduate coursework, PKU students will be matriculated in a UCLA graduate program and be able to complete a master’s degree in one year. 

    The "3 + 2" Program will be piloted in fall 2013 in the UCLA computer science (5 students) and electrical engineering (2 students) departments.
  • Although not a program of JRI, the general PKU-UCLA agreement also provides an opportunity each year for 10 outstanding PKU undergraduate students to conduct research with a mentor at UCLA for up to one year (one to three quarters).

Annual mini-symposium: Speed dating, academic style

The Institute’s annual symposium, hosted this year by PKU on July 1–2, offers faculty from both universities an opportunity to hear about current research being conducted at one another’s institutions, then tour the host institution’s research facilities. (The symposium alternates between the two campuses each year.)

Following a plenary session that will feature presentations by senior faculty of both universities (including Paul Weiss, director of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, and Rao Yi, dean of the PKU School of Life Sciences), the 2013 symposium will run four parallel sessions at which researchers from both universities will discuss research on, respectively, cell communication and biological mechanisms, climate and the environment, semiconductor materials and devices, and mobile computing and big data.

Collaborative relationships develop slowly over time, with Cong at UCLA and Li at PKU helping their colleagues identify peers with similar interests. Both co-directors thus interact with diverse departments across their respective campuses, working with colleagues in very different fields. “The work is eye-opening,” says Cong, “we learn a lot.”

The 2013 symposium in Beijing will be the first time that Larissa Harrison and her PKU counterpart, Program Coordinator Cecca Yun-li Yang, meet face-to-face. “Cecca and I have worked closely together for two years on opposite sides of the world,” remarks Harrison. “It not only feels like we’ve met, but are in the same office! We email constantly, Skype — even share photos of our families. I’m excited to finally meet her and give her a big hug,” she says.

In fact, the entire JRI team will be in the same place for the first time. Following the symposium, the Institute’s Co-director at PKU, Professor of Computer Science and Technology Xiaoming Li, will host a welcome luncheon for UCLA summer exchange students on July 3.

Although unable to attend the symposium this year, Li regularly hosts UCLA visitors and facilitates faculty introductions. In addition to his teaching and JRI responsibilities, he also directs the Institute of Network Computing and Information Systems and the Office of Academic Program Development at PKU.

Students reap enormous — and often life-changing — benefits from research exchanges

To date, 48 UCLA students have participated in the summer exchange program (including 12 that travel to PKU this summer), and 45 PKU students have conducted research at UCLA under the mentorship of UCLA faculty, 8 through JRI’s graduate research exchange and 37 under the aegis of the broader agreement between the two universities.

For many of these students — who typically do not attend “year abroad” programs — it is their first international experience. Their feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The remarks of Jonathan Chiang, a third-year human genetics student at UCLA when he participated in the 2012 summer exchange, have been echoed by virtually all students who have participated in the program in either direction:

“The opportunity to experience the sociocultural dynamic and nuances of daily living in China under structured oversight make for a truly unforgettable experience in a foreign country. . . .  The intangibles that I gained through this program have broadened my understanding of Chinese culture and will no doubt continue to impact my perspective on science at the global scale.”

The experience of going to China was life-changing for UCLA student Robert Cunningham (UCLA 2011, physics/applied mathematics), who was a junior when he participated in the first summer research exchange at PKU.

Not only did Cunningham apply for and win a Princeton in Asia (PiA) fellowship in his senior year at UCLA — going on to teach physics at Raffles Institution in Singapore for a year and a half after his graduation from UCLA — he is now living in Shanghai and working for a Chinese firm. There, he is helping the manufacturer of laboratory furniture develop export markets around the world. As Cunningham explains it:

“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 furthest pockets of the world.”

Faculty collaboration yields publications and new initiatives

PKU and UCLA faculty and graduate students have written well over 26 joint research papers since 2010 (with many more prior to that year). A large number of these papers have been published in such peer-reviewed journals as the Journal of Geophysics Research, Applied Physics Express and the Chinese Journal of Electronics.

Roughly 13 collaborative projects are currently in progress between the two institutions’ faculty. Among the major initiatives facilitated by JRI over the past four years are the:

  • Creation of the UCLA-PKU Center for Research on the Tibetan Plateau and Global Climate Change in 2012. The Center is a joint effort of the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at PKU and the Joint Institute for Regional Earth System Science and Engineering (JIFRESSE) of UCLA, itself a collaboration between UCLA and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JIFRESSE and the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences are currently offering summer training to PKU students.
  • Continuing collaborative research on the impact of pollution on air quality and health in Beijing led by Mei Zheng of PKU’s College of Environmental Science and Engineering and Yifang Zhu of UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.

    The researchers conducted extensive pilot research in December 2011, attracting experts from Fudan University, Ocean University of China and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and are now engaged in a series of studies on particulate matter pollution. (See article in the June 2013 UCLA Public Health Magazine.)

Looking ahead

In addition to launching the new “3 + 2” Program for PKU students at UCLA this fall, JRI will expand its efforts to secure outside funding for the summer exchange program, beginning with a donor reception in October.

All in all, the efficient JRI staff are helping build a growing network of mutually supportive relationships across UCLA and PKU – a relationship “octopus” in the words of Harrison. At only four years old, the Joint Research Institute is clearly flourishing.