Symposium highlights UChicago collaborations with leading French research center

Online event showcases graduate student projects with French National Centre for Scientific Research

The first-ever joint symposium hosted by the University of Chicago and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) on April 30 highlighted an ambitious initiative that funds collaborative research involving students and faculty from a wide range of disciplines.  

The event was part of an ongoing partnership between the two institutions to foster opportunities for research, education, and scholarly engagement across a range of scientific fields. The agreement, the first of its kind between a U.S. university and CNRS, funds collaborations in such areas as molecular engineering, physics, computer science, mathematics, biochemistry, genetics, biology and the social sciences.

“The work that is sponsored by this joint effort is leading to discoveries that would not be happening without the two institutions coming together,” said Juan de Pablo, vice president for national laboratories, science strategy, innovation and global initiatives at UChicago. “We're honored to be partnering with the CNRS to advance science across borders.”

UChicago has had a footprint in France since 2003, when it built the Center in Paris, its first global facility. Since then, the center has become the largest hub for the University’s study abroad programs and provides support for faculty and students engaged in Europe. UChicago recently announced plans to expand the Center in Paris through the construction of a 25,000-square-foot building designed by the Chicago-based firm Studio Gang. The expanded center, scheduled to open in 2023, will serve as a hub for research and scholarly collaborations throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

In 2019, UChicago and CNRS signed a research agreement designed to support a series of three-year collaborative research programs for up to a total of 10 new Ph.D. students per year, including students from UChicago and from French universities and research institutions that host a CNRS research unit. Under the supervision of two primary investigators, one from UChicago and one from CNRS, the program helps Ph.D. students broaden their perspective, gain experience and maturity in leading international research projects, and enhance their scholarly training in preparation for their future professional careers.

“What is special about this CNRS-UChicago collaboration is the fact that we focus on the younger generation,” said Paolo Privitera, professor of astronomy, astrophysics and physics at UChicago, and a faculty mentor for one of the student groups. “This establishes a different way of working between groups internationally because you have mentors on both sides concentrated on the development of this younger generation.”

The online event featured 11 presentations by student teams from both institutions, with questions and discussion from faculty supervisors. Attendees voted to choose the best presentations and awarded two prizes:

Greaney and Lehman’s project focuses on how the nervous systems of organisms respond to sensory input from their environment, and how that response translates into muscle activity and motor behaviors. Both students said the collaboration benefitted their individual work by adding complementary expertise, namely Lehman’s sensory work in Tihana Jovanic’s lab at the Paris-Saclay Institute of Neuroscience, and Greaney’s motor expertise from Ellie Heckscher’s lab in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at UChicago.

“If it weren’t for this collaboration, my Ph.D. project would have been practically impossible,” Lehman said. “Without the tools and motor expertise the Hecksher lab provides, the mapping of the neural circuits underlying sensorimotor transformations would have required many times the current workload.”

Greaney also said the collaboration has encouraged her to push her work in new directions.

“It's been really cool to exchange perspectives and even to compare experimental methods. It's opened a fun new set of questions,” she said. “Working with the Jovanic lab has gotten me interested in how the behavior I study for my own thesis research interacts with the behavior we're collaborating to study. It has definitely pushed me to expand my thinking about my own project.”