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From Cambridge to Cambridge

An experimental partnership is bringing MIT and the University of Cambridge together for research and student exchange.

It began as a politician’s pet idea. Back in 1999 the United Kingdom’s chancellor of the exchequer, Gordon Brown, was looking for a way to jump-start Britain’s economy. He visited MIT that year and found a spirit of creative innovation spawning numerous startups.

Determined to help his country’s institutions have the same kind of impact, Brown formulated a plan for a cross-cultural alliance. He sought to link one of Britain’s premier universities with MIT in the hope that the Institute’s prowess for turning research into companies might rub off on U.K. innovators. In 2000 Brown’s idea became the Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI), a partnership of MIT and the University of Cambridge, backed for five years with about $100 million from the British government. CMI’s aim is to undertake education and research projects that will improve competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship in the United Kingdom.

Today the Cambridge-MIT Institute sits at a crossroads while its administrators evaluate the partnership’s effectiveness and look for ways to sustain the program’s momentum beyond its initial funding period. Foremost among the successes are  promising CMI-funded joint-research programs. Everyone hopes these will lead to marketable discoveries that will directly spur the U.K. economy. But a secondary success, particularly for MIT, has been the effort’s undergraduate student exchange program, the largest of its educational pursuits. The exchange has proved key to its mission by bringing future leaders into close contact, where they can share ideas and learn from each other.

Research Applications

CMI’s mission will be achieved first through its concentration on research. In fact, directors hope this research will quickly lead to commercially viable applications. Each of CMI’s 50 integrated research projects falls into one of two categories: future technologies or competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship. Every project has a designated principal investigator at both Cambridge and MIT. And the U.K. government funds the research, supplying a $40 million chunk of the total CMI budget. Additionally, certain projects receive funding from such industrial partners as British Petroleum.

Projects in competitiveness, productivity, and entrepreneurship evaluate Britain’s business acumen in a variety of industries. Meanwhile, research into future technologies includes scientific work in a variety of fields-from stem cells to microelectronic mechanical systems. Because the goal of the partnership is to encourage the development of patents and the transition of research into the marketplace, the funded projects are those that promise a payoff within two to seven years.

One research group is studying a bacterium called Rhodococcus. For some time, John Archer of Cambridge’s genetics department and MIT biology professor Anthony Sinskey, ScD ‘67, had been working independently on this soil-dwelling bacterium, and when the Cambridge-MIT Institute formed, the pair discovered an opportunity to combine their research. Their work on this organism may lead, among other things, to the development of drugs for AIDS and other diseases.

Working with about $1.7 million of CMI backing and an additional $3.2 million in funding from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, Archer’s and Sinskey’s researchers have made significant discoveries. The first of these is Rhodococcus’s ability to eat very complex molecules, essentially recycling them into harmless molecules found in nature. MIT research scientist Philip Lessard, who helps lead MIT’s work on Rhodococcus, says this feature makes the bacterium an excellent candidate for cleaning contaminated sites. Currently, the researchers are studying the bacterium’s metabolic processes in detail. Their primary goal is to use it, with its unique metabolism, to quickly and inexpensively alter the molecular structure of other compounds, making the bacterium a significant new production platform for antibiotics.

But beyond the research developments, Lessard says this alliance is unique in the amount of information that has been shared by the two institutions. In previous collaborations, he had been careful about providing too much information about his work to collaborators who were potential competitors. But through the Cambridge-MIT Institute, cooperation and joint ownership are guaranteed by administrative policies. Lessard says, “I no longer even think twice about saying [to Archer], I have this plasma, and it took me a year and a half to make this, and I have all these tremendous resources. Do you want it?’” He notes also that CMI encourages researchers to concentrate on commercializing their work instead of just creating new knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

Stumbling Blocks

For the most part, the partnership works well, but it is not without its problems. The biggest obstacle has been the difficulty of resolving questions of patent ownership. After much debate, Cambridge adopted MIT’s patent policy that defines ownership of research from cooperative efforts. That policy states that the fruits of research done in large part on one institution’s equipment belong to that university. Now CMI is granted the sole right to market research applications for any patent that results from a joint project. This has caused delays in awarding proposal grants because each university must conduct extensive background checks to see whether either already owns or has licensed a similar patent. “If we were to do it over again, I would like to see a somewhat different arrangement,” says David Litster, PhD ‘65, program director for integrated research at MIT.

Delays have been another concern, particularly for aeronautics and astronautics professor Ian Waitz, who has been working on the business side of what is called the silent-aircraft initiative. This initiative explores ways to reduce aircraft noise through engineering. And while other researchers explore the physical changes needed to produce silent aircraft, Waitz measures the costs of aircraft noise both in the United States and in Europe, aiming to make a business case for silent aircraft and other methods of preventing noise pollution. Waitz says CMI provided him with a connection to an expert in environmental cost-benefit analysis, and he provided an understanding of aviation issues. However, Waitz cites administrative issues as one mark against CMI. His project was sidelined after only a year, and it took so long to ramp up and begin the collaboration that Waitz says he wasn’t able to accomplish as much as he would have liked.

Litster acknowledges the problems, but, he says, “Generally, what drives collaboration is when researchers get into the project and find they can do things together that they just couldn’t do before. That provides enough motivation that they work to overcome the barriers.” Going forward, CMI will extend its impact throughout the United Kingdom via its National Competitiveness Network, which links British universities and educational groups. The network makes it possible for these groups to share ideas about moving research discoveries into the marketplace.

Educational Advantages

With so much focus on what Britain will gain from CMI, it can be difficult to see what MIT gets from the arrangement. John Vander Sande, MIT’s executive director of CMI during its first few years, explains that the undergraduate student exchange program, in particular, broadens MIT’s educational options for current students because Cambridge’s resources in such subjects as literature, law, and medicine complement MIT’s offerings and can round out students’ educational experiences. “A close connection with them allows us to expand our intellectual borders in a way we couldn’t otherwise,” Vander Sande says.

Thanks to its cross-departmental administrative reach, the exchange is the first Institutewide study-abroad program in which students can be confident that taking a full year of coursework in another country won’t delay their graduation. It began as a pilot program during the 20002001 academic year, when nine MIT juniors spent all or part of the year at Cambridge. This year the program sent 44 students to England and welcomed 49 at MIT. The MIT students represent about a dozen departments, and MIT advisors work closely with the students to help them plan their exchange courses so that they will fulfill graduation requirements.

Students from both institutions end up having extraordinary experiences. MIT students at Cambridge take courses primarily in their majors, but they get to know students from all majors through their colleges-residences, not academic divisions-where they live, eat, and socialize. The MIT students grow accustomed to eating meals with the student and faculty residents of their college every day, and they do so with proper manners particularly at formal hall, the college dinners at which several nights a week, everyone wears academic robes. Most of all, they become accustomed to living and studying in a university that has a centuries-old sense of tradition.

Meanwhile, the Cambridge students at MIT experience a system that is very different from the one they know. Many live in residence halls, and about half live in fraternities, sororities, and independent living groups. They can take classes in any department or school at MIT, and they can participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Most of all, they discover a place where change is the status quo.

Academic Enlightenment

The difference in teaching styles of the two institutions poses the biggest challenge for students of both groups. Unlike the MIT system of graded problem sets and periodic exams, the Cambridge system requires students to learn independently. There are  no graded homework assignments or tests throughout the year, and students’ performance is assessed solely on one end-of-year exam in each course. Students do prepare problem set assignments, but these are discussed in weekly tutorial sessions when an instructor, usually a senior member of the student’s college, explains troublesome problems to perhaps two students at a time. For some MIT students, the Cambridge system of independent learning can feel a bit too formless.

“In some ways, the culture [at Cambridge] is to not appear as though you’re working very hard, when at the same time, you are working hard because you really have to,” says Robert Redwine, dean of undergraduate education and MIT’s education program director for CMI. “Some of our students have been lulled into a false sense of I’m doing OK-everybody else is doing the same thing,’ when in fact, everybody else is not doing the same thing.” Shelli Farhadian ‘03, a premed mathematics major who spent last year at Cambridge, agrees. There, she says, you’re the only thing stopping yourself from succeeding.

Cambridge student Chris Caulkin, who spent this year at MIT, notes that Cambridge undergraduates have a different mindset. At Cambridge, he says, they need only pass with scores of 50 to 55 percent. At MIT, students need to maintain high grade-point averages. Everyone is working from a 100 percent scale, and everyone feels more pressure.

Experiencing these differences has been an eyeopener for both groups and has led to recommendations for improvements at the Institute. “Our students tell us they feel much less pressure when they’re in Cambridge, but they’re not at all sure they’re learning less,” Redwine says. “Maybe they’re even learning a bit more because they have time to think about it and to absorb things and to put it in context.”

Margaret Enders, MIT’s associate program director for CMI, elaborates. “One student told me that at his college, they’re taught the eight-eight-eight rule-eight hours of work, eight hours of play, eight hours of sleep,” she says. When Enders shared that with a colleague at MIT, “he laughed and said, Here it’s more like 18-two-four.’” She adds, “I think we can learn from that.”

At the same time, David Good, program director for undergraduate education at Cambridge, notes that MIT’s system of continuous assessment supports students. “They know what they’re meant to have been doing, what they have done, and how they’re performing with respect to their peers.”

Culture Lessons

Through the University of Cambridge system, MIT students have gained new perspective outside the classroom as well. Allison Lambert ‘03 says it is “conducive to having a healthy social life” because the colleges’ regulated schedules help students know where they can find their friends at specific times throughout the day. Tilke Judd ‘03 says having the college’s cafeteria, or buttery, open for dinner from six to a quarter of seven ensures that everyone eats and socializes at the same time.

This experience has already had an impact at MIT. Most notably, by voicing their appreciation of the college system and group meals, the students returning from England have influenced dining at Simmons Hall. Thanks to the students’ recommendations, dining areas were carefully designed to allow for more interaction, a limited meal plan was instituted, and all Simmons students are required to participate.

Some of MIT’s practices are rubbing off on Cambridge students, and the undergraduate research program is the most-cited example. Cambridge students say it is a major draw for their coming to MIT, and about half spend their year participating in research projects. These projects are also the primary method for achieving CMI’s goal: teaching students about entrepreneurship. The projects give students firsthand research experience, expertise in a particular area, and exposure to faculty members who are seeking to transfer research results to the marketplace. The hope is that when students return to Cambridge they will conduct further research and make advances that could lead to the founding of companies. Now there is talk of introducing a similar undergraduate research program at Cambridge.

Today, as students become aware of the opportunity, the exchange program continues to grow. At the same time, administrators at both schools are convinced the program will become permanent because of the value it brings to both institutions.

Will the plan to revitalize Britain’s economy through an MIT partnership work? It is perhaps too early to tell, but administrators on both sides of the Atlantic will spend the next two years carefully evaluating CMI’s mission and its effectiveness. They’ll also be thinking about the future. Litster explains, “We’re thinking, What happens after the British government money runs out? Are there things we can continue to sustain?’ I think there may well be.”

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