The power of global research opportunitiesProfessor Thomas Webster, right, faculty advisor for the chemical-engineering Global Exchange Program, works with former Exchange student Alexander Colville, E'15, in the Webster Nanomedicine Lab.Photo credit: Matthew Modoono/Northeastern UniversityOn Dec. 5, 2012, pro­fessor Thomas Web­ster had a lightbulb moment.

Web­ster, the Art Zafiropoulo Chair in Engi­neering and the chair of Northeastern’s chem­ical engi­neering depart­ment, was addressing the 90-plus under­grad­u­ates packed into Shillman Hall for the first chem­ical engi­neering town hall meeting. “How many of you have done work over­seas related to chem­ical engi­neering?” he asked.

Only two hands went up.

How many of you have done research at another uni­ver­sity, either in the U.S. or abroad?”

A couple more stu­dents nodded.

That’s when I thought: ‘Why not put the two ideas together—a university-research oppor­tu­nity over­seas for chem­ical engi­neers?’” says Webster.

A pro­gram is born

Web­ster, who pio­neered the use of nan­otech­nology for improving med­ical devices,  knows the value of inter­na­tional research expe­ri­ences for chem­ical engi­neering stu­dents: They expand stu­dents’ sci­en­tific and cul­tural per­spec­tives, and pro­vide insight into other coun­tries’ reg­u­la­tory and approval processes. Such insight could not only spark advances in research method­ology on both sides of the ocean; it could also give stu­dents an edge in knowing where to fast-track bio­med­ical products—a boon for sub­se­quent co-??op and work placements.

But he knows, too, that such oppor­tu­ni­ties are lim­ited because of the exten­sive in-class course require­ments of the major.

All of that fac­tored into the devel­op­ment of Northeastern’s chem­ical engi­neering Global Exchange Pro­gram, a two-month summer practicum that Web­ster launched in 2014 to offer under­grad­u­ates the chance to earn upper-level engi­neering credits by per­forming hands-on research in seven uni­ver­si­ties around the world. The pro­gram also gives stu­dents at those uni­ver­si­ties a chance to do research at Northeastern.

‘This is real research’

Universities in the Global Exchange ProgramGraphic credit: Luis Delgado/?Northeastern UniversityThe research projects in the pro­gram run the gamut: from building bone-like mate­rials (at Chalmers Uni­ver­sity of Tech­nology, in Sweden) to devel­oping implantable biosen­sors that can diag­nose human dis­ease (Gachon Uni­ver­sity, in South Korea) to using Big Data to under­stand com­plex sys­tems such as cells and economies (Uni­ver­sitat Rovira i Virili, or URV, in Spain).

North­eastern stu­dents apply for the posi­tion they want on the program’s web­site, and fac­ulty at the host insti­tu­tion approve their cre­den­tials. North­eastern fac­ulty whose labs are part of the exchange approve the stu­dents who come here as well.

Because our stu­dents are abroad for only a short period of time, we have them Skype with the fac­ulty mentor before they go so they fully under­stand the pro­gram, the nature of their research, and what they are sup­posed to accom­plish,” says Web­ster. At the end of the summer, the stu­dents present their work in a formal set­ting to Web­ster and each lab’s advi­sors, podium and all.

He says that he and the fac­ulty men­tors have been so impressed by the stu­dents’ level of research that they have sug­gested that many present their find­ings to the Amer­ican Insti­tute of Chem­ical Engi­neers or the Euro­pean Society for Bio­ma­te­rials, or even pub­lish it. “We had one stu­dent who pub­lished his work in two papers in very high-impact jour­nals based on this exchange,” says Web­ster. “This is real research the stu­dents are doing.”

Recog­ni­tion and new directions

Alexander J. Colville, E’15, remem­bers when he heard that his exchange-program research would be pub­lished. For five days a week in the summer of 2014, Colville ran com­puter sim­u­la­tions in a lab atURV to study the ther­moy­namic prop­er­ties of mate­rials that would make up the micro­scopic particles—or nanoparticles—in which drugs could be encap­su­lated and deliv­ered inside the body. Those prop­er­ties deter­mine such actions as how fast the drug will be released and how accu­rate it will be at reaching its target.

The dif­ferent per­spec­tives I got about com­puter mod­eling research were invalu­able,” says Colville, who had com­pleted a co-op in a biotech­nology com­pany in the Boston area, where he tested the effec­tive­ness of nanopar­ticle drug delivery but had never done the the­o­ret­ical mod­eling work that helps shape the par­ti­cles them­selves. “With com­puter mod­eling you can save so much time as opposed to just exper­i­menting with dif­ferent com­bi­na­tions of mate­rials in the lab.”

In March Colville’s work appeared in papers in two jour­nals: Lang­muir and the Journal of Chem­ical Physics—a high point. “For the two months I was a work­horse and run­ning the sim­u­la­tions, gen­er­ating all our data,” he says. “It felt so cool to be a co-author on a paper.”

For Jelle Pen­ders, a master’s stu­dent in mate­rials chem­istry and nan­otech­nology at Chalmers Uni­ver­sity, working in Webster’s lab syn­the­sizing non­toxic gold nanopar­ti­cles that reduced bac­te­rial infec­tion in human cells opened up a new direc­tion for his thesis.

Being able to work under the super­vi­sion of one of the world’s fron­trun­ners in the field of nanomed­i­cine was an amazing oppor­tu­nity,” Pen­ders says. “The expe­ri­ence impacted the direc­tion of research I want to con­tinue in: working with bac­teria and human cells in the field of nanomed­i­cine to improve healthcare.”

North­eastern stu­dents on the Global Exchange Pro­gramNorth­eastern stu­dents on the Global Exchange Pro­gram at Uni­ver­sitat Rovira i Vir­gili, in Spain, enjoy a side trip to Athens, summer 2014.Photo credit: Naf­sika Gjika, E ’15North­eastern under­grad­uate Emily J. Spiel, E’17, exem­pli­fies how accepting the pro­gram is of aspiring stu­dents. Spiel had never con­ducted lab research before going to URV this past summer. But she quickly got up to speed, applying her new­found knowl­edge to studying how nanofibers and nan­odroplets formed when an elec­trical field was applied to a drop of polymer-laced liquid. The research will inform the cre­ation of micro– and nano-structures for use in fields such as optics and energy.

Before I went to Spain, my advi­sors asked me upfront what I knew,” she says. “I told them the classes that I’d taken, and they gave me papers to read. Everyone was very under­standing: When you didn’t know some­thing, people helped you learn it. They under­stood that this was a learning expe­ri­ence for us as well as pro­viding help for them.”

Spiel rel­ished the inde­pen­dence the pro­gram per­mitted as well as meeting people from var­ious coun­tries. The doc­toral can­di­dates in her lab were from Greece and Hun­gary, and she forged bonds with Spanish student-researchers in other labs.

I don’t think I’ll ever have an expe­ri­ence like that again,” says Spiel, who counts as one of her after-work high­lights viewing the human tower com­pe­ti­tion in the city of Tar­ragona, where URV is located. “I got to expe­ri­ence what the country was like because I got to know people who lived in the city by talking to everyone in all the labs. It was an incred­ible experience—something everyone should be able to do.”