East-West partnership raises funds, buildings and hope

Durham's Sri Lankan project links academics and students, writes Chloe Stothart

November 6, 2008

A new type of collaboration between a UK university and institutions in the developing world is being pioneered by Durham University.

Groups of Durham students and academics have gone to Sabaragamuwa University in Sri Lanka for the first time this year, and a separate cohort of students has arrived in Thailand this week to build a water-filtration system.

Durham is also in talks with four UK universities interested in forming similar links with institutions in the developing world.

The project has grown out of Durham's work with the University of Ruhuna, based in the southern coastal area of Sri Lanka, which was devastated by the 2004 tsunami.

Students at Durham "adopt" a Sri Lankan village each year and raise money to build community and school buildings, which they construct during their summer vacation.

But the project is not just a student affair - academics also play a major role. Several Durham researchers are undertaking collaborative projects with colleagues in the two Sri Lankan universities. They have visited each others' institutions to share research methods and help design curriculums, including the country's first sports science degree.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England has contributed £60,000 to the project to pay for Durham academics to work in Sri Lanka between 2006 and 2011.

Although countless universities have engaged in collaborations with institutions abroad, academics at Durham say this one is different.

Already, two Sri Lankan academics have come to Durham's School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences to study for PhDs, with their fees paid for by Durham. They will learn microbiology techniques that they do not have ready access to at home and can then train postgraduates in these skills and incorporate them into the undergraduate courses they teach on their return.

"If you are in a European research programme, your partners use the same technologies as you," said Keith Lindsey, a professor in the school. "This is more of a technology-transfer operation."

He hopes that the link with the Sri Lankan researchers will continue after their PhDs so that their work on crops in the UK can be adapted for application at home.

"It is a very different kind of thing (from a conventional international research project) in that we feel we are really directly helping the Third World, something we do not often end up doing if we work on normal, basic research programmes," Professor Lindsey said.

"It has made us think about what problems there are in the Third World and how we can address them."

Opportunities abound

With funding from Durham, medics in Durham and Ruhuna have created a research network that supports academics by providing courses in research methods and advice on preparing work for publication.

"Translating our (research networks) model to Sri Lanka has been a great source of satisfaction, and I hope it will be effective in producing dividends in the long term," said Pali Hungin, dean of medicine at Durham.

Bringing together Western and Eastern perspectives could also enhance medical research. For example, diabetes and heart disease are emerging problems in Sri Lanka but are longstanding conditions in the UK. Studying the problem in both countries could provide clues about their origins. Similarly, a researcher working with Professor Hungin is studying functional medical problems where patients are ill but tests find no cause. These disorders take up a huge amount of clinicians' time in both countries and are even more prevalent in Sri Lanka than the UK. Studying patients in both countries could reveal how the disorders arise.

There are also plenty of opportunities for joint projects outside medicine. David Cooper, a philosophy professor at Durham, is keen to link up with scholars at Sabaragamuwa University to further his research interest in Buddhist thought and ethics.

"It has the only academic Zen Buddhist philosopher in Sri Lanka, and he is someone I would like to spend time with," he said.

Student experience enhanced

The student side of the scheme is also set to expand, thanks to £60,000 from the British and Foreign Schools Society. The money will be matched by fundraising by Durham students and will allow them to build two schools each year instead of one - one in Sabaragamuwa and another in a tsunami-affected location.

"The student experience is at the heart of this," said Joy Palmer-Cooper, the Durham professor who is the project's founder and director.

"They live in a different culture for nine weeks and share their own culture with the people. It is a situation where both parties gain."

The scheme provides professional development for academics and also embeds the idea of internationalisation into Durham's culture, she added.

The project is contributing both to the rebuilding of Sri Lanka after the tsunami and also to its intellectual growth.

"It is wonderful for us to see villages that now have these community facilities," Professor Palmer-Cooper said. "But there is a lot to do and the reconstruction is still not complete."

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