Internationalizing UTIA Efforts Through the China Scholars Program

Spring of 2018 will be a special time of celebration for graduates, but this time will also mark a milestone for the China Scholars Program—the first program cohort graduates will walk across the stage. One of those students is Lidong Li, a doctoral candidate for an Environmental and Soil Sciences degree in the department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science. Li was recruited from the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Institute of Applied Ecology, and is now advised by Dr. Sean Schaeffer. She describes the diversity of her experience and has been involved with more than a halfdozen research projects while also taking coursework. According to Li, what makes this experience unique is that the China Scholars Program provides a network for the visiting student; she has connected with many outstanding professors and students. Ultimately, she plans to continue scientific research in a university setting.

Partnerships between UTIA and China have existed formally since 2007, with the development of the Joint Research Center for Ecosystem and Environmental Change (JRCEEC). Key members of the group sought opportunities to extend the China-US partnership beyond yearly meetings, and conversations eventually led to the signing of a 2012 memorandum of understanding for the China Scholars Program.

China and the United States boast the largest agricultural economies in the world; both countries also share the need to feed a growing population with fewer resources while also maintaining environmental sustainability. The China Scholars Program is a partnership between the UT System, UTK, and UTIA. Each year, a cohort of Chinese students is invited to work on their PhD with UTK and UTIA faculty. As part of the agreement, the sponsoring professor pays for the student’s tuition at an in-state rate, and the Chinese government, through a fellowship, provides the student’s travel expense, medical insurance, and living stipend. The fellowship is sponsored through the China Scholarship Council, a nonprofit program under the Ministry of Education. The out-of-state tuition is paid for by the UTK Chancellor’s office. Students are recruited from China Agricultural University, Nanjing University, and the Institute of Applied Ecology, Chinese Academy of Sciences in Shenyang. Students pursue degrees in the broad areas of energy and the environment.

Through this partnership, UTIA faculty have developed collaborations with Chinese universities to internationalize teaching, research, and collaboration efforts with the hopes of addressing grand agricultural challenges. China is an ideal country to partner with because the US and China have similar agricultural systems, a wide diversity of climate ranges (from cold climates to subtropical), and face similar energy and environmental issues. The United States and China are also the two largest economies in the world.

Dr. Joe Zhuang, Research Professor in the Department of Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science, describes this partnership as special and says that the enduring relationship has been sustainable because of the trust between both countries developed through the program. He sees these activities as beneficial to both countries, and the program can especially advance the careers of early faculty and graduate students and future investment of industry to Tennessee.

Dr. John Stier, Associate Dean of CASNR, says that one positive outcome of working with China is that our partnership, “stimulates interest among top Chinese students to pursue degrees in the United States” and that to-date, fifteen PhD students are currently participating in the China Scholars Program. The third cohort of students will start in fall of 2017.

Other benefits of the program include increased faculty research activity with Chinese partners, access to trained graduate students, and international collaboration opportunities. These collaborations extend faculty networks beyond their own office, their own lab, and sometimes their own research area. Faculty who participate in this program benefit through increased collaboration with international researchers, broadening their network, and increasing their research output through papers published in the refereed literature and presentations given at scientific conferences. This program also gives faculty access to trained graduate students, further improving their productivity through increased data collection and analysis. Through this program, UTIA and UTK faculty are able to train international students for the cost of an in-state student. A final benefit to collaborating with China is shared access to labs, datasets, and grants. Increasingly, faculty are evaluated on their international activity; the China Scholars Program is an effective tool for faculty to increase their productivity while increasing their international engagement.

Director of UTIA International Programs Dr. Tom Gill indicates that, “If we are serious about international engagement in the future, we have to realize that China is going to be a major player. We need to look at Chinese institutions as a potential collaborator rather than competitors, especially if we are going to address the challenge of feeding the world.”