UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — On June 24, members of Penn State and the University of Freiburg participated in a Live Talk focused on the continued development of transatlantic partnerships during COVID-19. The hour-long session was organized by Baden-Wurttemberg International (bw-i)’s Agency for International Economic and Scientific Cooperation, whose goal it is to connect universities from Germany’s state of Baden-Württemberg with universities around the world. The talk was part of a series devoted to the impact of the coronavirus on international cooperation in science and research.
The two speakers — Zoubeida Ounaies, professor of mechanical engineering and director of the Convergence Center for Living Multifunctional Material Systems (LiMC²), and Jürgen Rühe, professor for chemistry and physics of interfaces at the Albert-Ludwigs-University Freiburg and spokesman for the Cluster of Excellence for Living, Adaptive and Energy-autonomous Materials Systems (livMatS) — put the challenges and opportunities of COVID-19 in its larger context of the thriving partnership between the University of Freiburg and Penn State. From an initial feeling of “uncertainty and uneasiness in these unprecedented times,” as Ounaies remarked, the joint team quickly moved activities to virtual formats, launching their highly successful initial webinar in late May.
The Convergence Center was born out of the desire to create an impactful long-term collaboration that identifies and pursues areas of mutual strength in the broad topic of engineered living materials. Its vision, to “pursue together the goal of advancing the science, technologies, policies, and practices needed for a sustainable world,” has not been held back by the impact of COVID-19. The team believes that by integrating many disciplines, the use of world-class infrastructures, involvement of students, early-career researchers and faculty, it will be able to identify novel materials with enhanced sustainability.
The speakers commented on the inspiring ways that faculty, staff and students in Freiburg and at Penn State have helped to respond to the pandemic by employing creativity in the development of organizational measures such as masks, face shields and ventilator parts, among others. The key, they felt, is to make the best of a situation and adjust. Adjustments have included virtual meetings, proactively planning ahead with what-if scenarios, linking students in Freiburg and at Penn State in research-oriented courses and bringing together early career researchers and faculty in joint projects — a development the Convergence Center is in the midst of planning.
Rühe reiterated that the current pandemic is serious and of a global nature, but that we should not forget that all the other serious global challenges (e.g., climate change, pollution) do not vanish in thin air when we focus our attention exclusively on the current medical problem and that we must continue tackling these challenges by the Convergence Center.
While the pandemic has posed great obstacles, and while “health and safety are paramount,” Ounaies and Rühe pointed out that the shift to virtual delivery of meetings has resulted in the reduction of the carbon footprint, and furthermore has allowed for a broader attendance by interested participants from both universities, maximizing time that otherwise would have included hours in transit. This means new opportunities for cooperation, which researchers at both locations will take advantage of as they will meet again in a webinar in July. The take-away for the team, they said, is to “reframe the pandemic and adapt,” and to pursue research with continued excitement and energy.
The speakers highlighted the symbolism of their logo, a tree firmly rooted in various scientific fields, blending and merging to unfold its foliage in discoveries that have a very broad impact, and noted that COVID-19 has not resulted in preventing the growth of this healthy tree.