New UI research center planned in Singapore

New UI research center planned in Singapore

URBANA – A major new University of Illinois research center will explore the front lines of interactive wireless media, from real-time remote X-rays to robots that can scan disaster areas for potential rescues.

Here's the twist: It won't be anywhere near the Quad.

The Advanced Digital Sciences Center will be in Singapore, a high-tech island nation halfway around the globe.

The UI is embarking on a unique partnership with Singapore, which is building its information technology sector through projects like "Fusion-opolis," a 24-story tower for businesses and research centers testing new telecommunications products.

The five-year collaboration with the UI is being funded, to the tune of about $50 million, by the Singapore government's Agency for Science, Technology and Research, also known as A*STAR.

Because the money must be given to a Singapore entity, the UI plans to create a new limited liability company to oversee the Singapore research program, which in turn will create a subsidiary in Singapore to receive the A*STAR grant and direct activities there. The UI Board of Trustees, which will act on the proposals Thursday, would be the sole member of the parent company.

The UI has other international ties – study-abroad programs, international students, individual professors collaborating on research projects around the world. But this is the first time the university has engaged in such a complex international partnership, said Chancellor Richard Herman.

"What we're proposing is a much, much larger scale," he said. "This is part of what it means for an institution to be global."

Some faculty members have questioned why the UI would pursue an operation in Singapore, and not all were interested in relocating, Herman said.

The benefits? International prominence for the UI, access to top scientists, students and businesses in Asia – and lots of money for research, officials said.

"It's akin to a large research contract," Herman said.

The money will fund collaborative research projects with College of Engineering faculty in Urbana. The first, the Human Sixth Sense project, will focus on the interactions between humans and computers, developing both software and hardware to improve technology.

Ben Wah, UI professor of electrical and computer engineering, will direct the new center in Singapore for the first two years. He hopes to open for business next fall.

The center will have up to 15 faculty members, from engineering, computer science, psychology and other disciplines, he said. UI professors would visit once a year, for several months at a time, working with up to 40 Ph.D. students and 25 postdoctoral students, Wah said. Other faculty, from Singapore or elsewhere, will be permanently assigned to the center.

Graduate students will spend two years at the UI and two years at the center, while the postdoctoral students will mostly be in Singapore, he said. They will earn UI degrees. Most students will be from Singapore, Wah said.

Wah hopes the project can attract new research opportunities in Asia and be a model for other international partnerships. Many corporations have headquarters in Singapore, he noted.

The UI project was several years in the making and grew out of a joint graduate-degree program between the College of Engineering and the National University of Singapore, with students working with faculty on both campuses. A similar program for other colleges followed, and "that's how we began thinking about bigger programs with Singapore," said Vice Chancellor for Research Charles Zukoski.

He said Singapore is trying to attract "big-name" faculty and universities, and MIT has established research centers there.

"Our argument is that we need to play in that arena to advance the careers of our faculty, in order to advertise the Illinois brand and have it compete, and educate our students," Zukoski said.

It will also support economic development in Illinois through joint university-business research projects, he added.

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