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Briefings

Bringing Up Baby - Making Music - Corporate Cash


STOPPING FOREIGN STUDENTS

FOREIGN STUDENT enrollments at American universities barely grew last year, and there are fears that, for the first time since the Second World War, the number of foreign students studying here will decline. During the 2002-03 academic year there were 586,323 foreign students in the United States, up less than a percent from the previous year, according to the Institute of International Education (IIE). The IIE also found that a large jump in enrollments from Asian countries—mainly China, India, and South Korea—masked a huge falloff in students from Middle Eastern countries. The number of students from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait each fell by 25 percent, while those from the United Arab Emirates decreased 16 percent.

While economics are a factor, the main culprit appears to be tough new student visa requirements implemented for security purposes in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks. The rules apply to all applicants, though those from 25 countries with suspected ties to terror groups undergo particularly close investigations.

Victor C. Johnson, associate executive director for public policy at the National Association of Foreign Student Advisors: Association of International Educators (NAFSA), says the IIE findings reflect those found in their own survey of 300-plus schools. Roughly two thirds of those schools reported stable or lower foreign enrollments this year, results that “might suggest” there will be an actual decline next year. Why? “For the first time ever, the United States has put into place a policy that deliberately makes it difficult for students to enroll,” Johnson says. The rules particularly affect Arab males and all science students, regardless of where they're from.

Clearly it's not in America's economic interest to lose students to other countries. If the trend continues, it could eventually harm national security, Johnson says. Historically, America has been the leader in educating the future leaders of foreign countries, a role that's given the U.S. a network of influence in those countries.

 

TENURE AND BABIES DON'T TRACK FOR WOMEN

WHEN IS THE best time for women academics working toward tenure to have children? A recent University of California-Berkeley study provides a gloomy answer for female academics who want a family and a career. Women sans children are 30 percent more likely to be on track for tenure than women with kids, according to the study, dubbed Do Babies Matter?

Suppose a woman wants children. Should she have them early? The study, which looked at 160,000 people who earned Ph.D.s between 1978 and 1984, found that of women who had babies earlier, 56 percent were tenured 14 years after earning their doctorate. Of the men who became fathers early in their careers, 77 percent obtained tenure within that period. Two thirds of the women who start their career before having children never have children. Their male colleagues were 70 percent more likely to have kids. Many women academics who have families indicate that their careers have kept them from having as many children as they desired. A second study of 8,700 professors in the University of California system found that 38 percent of women said they did not have as many children as they wanted. Marc Goulden—a research analyst who worked with the main author, Mary Ann Mason, graduate dean at Berkeley—said they weren't able to dissect the data to look at specific fields of academia such as engineering or English. But anecdotal evidence indicates that the situation for women faculty members may be worse in areas like engineering, where men dominate.

Academia still runs on rules that favor the male-as-breadwinner stereotype, Goulden says. Indeed, 52 percent of the men in the study had stay-at-home wives, a situation that presumably freed them to work long hours and have families. Ninety-one percent of the women, however, were married to men who also worked full time. Moreover, the academic career track is biased against those who take time off for any reason.

Academia is, however, becoming feminized: 44 percent of all Ph.D.s are women, as are the majority of master's holders. And within a few years, women will receive the majority of doctorates, as well. “But academia is based on a model that's been around for a thousand years, not 20,” Goulden says.

 

DIGGING FOR DOLLARS DOWN UNDER

AUSTRALIA—American schools are fortunate. U.S. companies have a long tradition of financially supporting universities. Australian universities aren't so lucky.

As government support has declined over the past decade, Australian universities have raised fees and generated revenue from foreign students to compensate. The country attracts large numbers of foreign students, particularly from Asia. Nonetheless, schools often remain cash-strapped. They are trying hard to get corporate funding but are having limited success. While some companies now make substantial donations, a leading Australian academic with U.S. experience is trying to convince them to do more. Rory Hume, an executive vice-chancellor of UCLA from 1998 to 2002, is spearheading the effort. To convince companies to ante up, he points to Australia's mining industry as a role model and cites its support for the education of mining engineers. “We have only three mining engineering schools in the country, and the mining industry is very closely engaged with them,” he says.

Industry executives often try to influence course content and complain that graduates are not ready for the workplace but do little to help financially. Hume is optimistic, though, that Aussie companies will eventually follow the U.S. model.

 

HOT REVENUE

THE DAY MAY COME when all sorts of businesses can count on an extra revenue stream generated from what's essentially a byproduct of their main business: heat. Every day, countless businesses—from manufacturers to restaurants to dry cleaners—generate and vent huge amounts of waste heat from their in-house power plants, mainly gas turbines or diesel generators.

Daniel Kammen, a professor in the department of nuclear engineering at the University of California-Berkeley, is among those promoting the capture and use of that heat. Called CHP for combined heat and power, the idea is to capture waste heat from turbines and generators and use it to warm nearby buildings such as apartments or offices. This could help cut consumers' energy bills and makes the burning of fossil fuels more efficient.

The growing popularity of distributed power generation, the use of small power plants by businesses to produce their own electricity, makes CHP possible. Kammen says businesses quickly come to realize that by selling the excess heat produced by their generators, they can earn extra revenue without being distracted from their primary ventures. “It's a resource they're wasting, so if they can make money off of it for eight hours a day instead of zero, it's a benefit,” he says. The cost of retrofitting buildings is cheap, Kammen adds, because it requires only basic, standard plumbing.

Even power companies benefit. They act as brokers, collecting revenues from both buyers and sellers. The latter need the power companies to handle things like metering, billing, maintenance, and customer service—the sorts of administrative chores no pizzeria or dry cleaner wants to do.

 

INNOVATION AT A SNAIL'S PACE

IN THE FAST-MOVING robotics technology field, the latest advance is a robot that moves at a snail's pace. It, in fact, moves not only as slow but just like a snail. Dubbed RoboSnail (though the French may want to call it Escargobot) it's the brainchild of Brian Chan, a graduate student working with Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor Anette E. Hosoi.

Hosoi and her students were studying the flow of fluids in flexible membranes like arteries. Chan got the idea of putting a motor on a device that floats along a thin film of liquid similar to the way a snail moves on its slime trail. Chan had been doing other research using water striders and, in collecting them, had amassed a tankful of snails. “He kind of had snails on the brain,” Hosoi says.

To learn how snails move, the researchers put them on glass and videotaped them from below. The first RoboSnail prototype squeezes the liquid between the robot's “foot” and the floor. As pressure differences push the ooze backward, the device is propelled forward. Hosoi says a second prototype moves more like a real snail. The foot flexes and moves the liquid in waves. Imagine, she says, forming a hump at one end of a carpet, and then moving it along like a wave. Once it gets to the other end and flattens, it also moves the carpet forward.

Snails, of course, secrete their own mucus for the job. RoboSnail uses an off-the-shelf lubricant called laponite, which consists of tiny clay particles suspended in water. Given that the robotic snail leaves a slime trail, just like its real-life inspiration, it's likely to be used in industrial and other harsh environments, Hosoi says. Oil companies have already shown interest in using it to climb down sludge-covered drills to take measurements thousands of feet below ground. But users will need to be patient. A RoboSnail will never move fast. “It's good for slow and steady kind of work,” Hosoi says. But how would it taste with drawn garlic butter?

 

CUTTING-EDGE COMPETITION

“Risk-averse” and “conservative” are adjectives commonly used to describe the National Institute of Health's (NIH) grant system. And the NIH acknowledges that that is a fair reflection of its policies. But as part of an effort to change that perception, the NIH will next year award up to 10 Director's Pioneer Awards to researchers who are highly creative, nontraditional thinkers. The awards will focus not on proposed projects but on “exceptional” individuals whose body of work has shown a willingness to take risks and be inventive. “We want the Albert Einsteins identified,” says David Armstrong, chief of the NIH brain disorders and clinical neurosciences integrated review group, and one of the coordinators of the awards. The NIH says it's taking a risk because clearly not all the ideas proposed by award winners will bear fruit. But it hopes that those that do pan out yield huge payoffs.

Candidates can either nominate themselves or be nominated by others, and the deadline for nominations is April 1. Nominations are limited to a two-page letter and a two-page biography. And it is open to engineers, chemists, and mathematicians, who don't normally receive NIH funding. A panel of distinguished experts will sift through the applications, and those selected will be invited to submit a three- to five-page personal essay and two letters of support. A second panel will cut the shortlist down to 20 before a final panel picks the recipients. The NIH expects to begin awarding the first payments in late summer or early fall. Armstrong says the NIH has no idea if most candidates will be self-nominated or not, and admits it will be interesting to see how the submissions come in. The winners will receive $500,000 a year for five years. There are few strings attached to the stipends, though clearly the NIH will be looking for winners to conduct cutting-edge research in areas consistent with the institutes' remit, biomedicine. So what's to stop a winner from using the money to fund a lengthy holiday in the tropics? Armstrong notes that most brilliant, innovative researchers have a huge work ethic. Nonetheless, Pioneer winners will also be asked to participate in an annual, informal review process.

 

NOT SO WELCOME WELCOME

TOKYO—Like the United States and Europe, Japan is feeling the strain of an aging society and lower fertility rates. Unlike the West, however, Japan has firmly resisted immigration throughout most of its modern history. Non-Japanese workers account for only 1 percent of the population, about one million people. One of the reasons Japan has been able to postpone the inevitable, says Kyushu Sangyo University's Atsushi Kondo, is “Japan had succeeded in improving manufacturing techniques through microcelectronics, robots, and automation, and as a result, less demand arose” for imported labor.

But biology has finally overwhelmed even Japanese technology: Japan's population is on course to start shrinking in 2007. The United Nations estimates Japan will need a whopping 600,000 foreign immigrants annually to replace lost workers and maintain economic growth.

Hidenori Sakanaka, director-general of the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau, says opinion in Japan has split into opposing camps. Xenophobes favor keeping the drawbridge firmly raised no matter what the cost, but Sakanaka and other progressives are urging drastic immigration reform.

Japan for years has tried to replicate the Silicon Valley phenomenon, but forum panelist Yasuyuki Motoyama said more attention should be paid to what made California so attractive a proposition for the world's high-tech brains. Among the biggest turnoffs for sought-after IT engineers are a lack of international schools, English-speaking doctors, and other services geared to non-Japanese speakers.

 

CHEMICAL ENGINEER MAKES BEAUTIFUL MUSIC

IMAGINE GETTING your undergraduate and master's degrees in chemical engineering. Then, having never seriously played the game before, deciding you'd rather be a pro baseball player. You then not only ace your farm-team tryout, you actually make the big leagues a few years later. Sebastian Catana has accomplished the equivalent in the world of opera.

The 31-year-old baritone is currently under contract in his first season with the vaunted New York Metropolitan Opera. But it wasn't that long ago when the Romania-born singer was seriously pursuing a career in chemical engineering at the Carnegie-Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh. Catana's parents were well-regarded opera singers in Romania whose careers were suppressed by the former communist government of Nicolae Ceausescu. Eventually, Catana and his mother emigrated to Michigan.

Catana, always good at math, earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan. Next came a stint at Carnegie-Mellon for his master's. While there, he was introduced to Claudia Pinza, the daughter of Italian opera legend Ezio Pinza. She soon became his mentor. Not long after, he enrolled in a voice program at Duquesne University. By then, he was years older than the other voice students.

Despite his love of engineering, he decided he loved music more, and began pursuing a singing career. To help make ends meet, he worked at Carnegie-Mellon's Colloids, Polymer, and Surfaces Lab. He praises the lab's director, Annette Jacobson, and its manager, Rosemary Frollini, for allowing him to work weekends and odd hours so he could take on singing roles. “It was the ideal job. They were both wonderful,” he says.

Like pro athletes, professional opera singers must practice hard and often to keep in top shape. Summers are spent studying and preparing in Italy. Professional opera companies use rehearsals mainly for fine-tuning. The singers are meant to show up steeped in their roles and prepared to sing, Catana explains. Catana says his years in engineering gave him the necessary focus to succeed in opera. “Engineering taught me to be very disciplined.” He says the math he learned in engineering comes in handy. “Music is math,” Catana notes.

He made his professional debut in 2001 in a small role in Les Huguenots at Carnegie Hall in New York. This is Catana's first season with the Met, and he was given four roles. He's now been signed for two big and four or five secondary roles for next season, and will be doing the Marriage of Figaro in Baltimore in 2005.

He's confident of having a long career, but adds, “nothing is guaranteed in this world. One day you're up and one day you're down.” Of course, in the unlikely event that Catana's operatic career ever hits a flat note, he's still got that master's in chemical engineering in his back pocket.

 

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