Soochow-Western centre beams possibilities forward

Western Chemistry professor T.K. Sham describes it as “a new adventure” for not only Western, but for every researcher and student who will be able to work in this still-emerging field, thanks to this partnership.

This month, Western celebrated the opening of the Soochow University-Western University Centre for Synchrotron Radiation Research, located in Suzhou, Jiangsu province, China. The centre will be physically located at Soochow, although a node will be located at Western.

Led by Sham, the centre will allow Western researchers and students to explore the most detailed aspects of molecular structures leading to possible discoveries in nano-materials and devices, polymers and macro-molecules as well as innovative theories around the capabilities of synchrotron radiation.

Five departments within three Western faculties – Engineering, Science and the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry – are supporting the initiative. Sham said colleagues from Physics & Astronomy, as well as the Robarts Research Institute, have expressed interest and may participate in the centre in the near future.

At its most basic explanation, a synchrotron light source is a source of electromagnetic radiation produced by a synchrotron, a particle accelerator that speeds electrons into a high-energy beam. This beam is then redirected into another component which converts it into light or some other form of radiation.

“There’s a lot of expensive plumbing that goes in there,” Sham said.

Synchrotron light is the brightest artificial source of X-rays, allowing the detailed study of molecular structures.

Work at the Linac Coherent Light Source, located at Stanford University, led to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz and Ada E. Yonath winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2009 for revealing the structure of the ribosome, for which they used synchrotron light.

But before Western – and Canada – gets there, Sham warned, a lot of groundwork needs to be done as the discipline is limited to a small group. He said this is a “slow process” that requires networking with government officials and the science community to show the possibilities of synchrotron research.

“This is ‘Big Science.’ It has a whole different mentality than working in a lab,” Sham said. “Society needs to understand that, needs to support that.”

But with big science comes big opportunity.

“It’s cutting edge because it is something we cannot do routinely,” he continued. “But doing this type of work will enhance the overall scientific expertise and standing of the university, even the entire country. It’s about discovery.”

As for next steps for the new centre, both universities will begin working on consolidating exchange programs and projects for students and researchers, as well as eying funding opportunities in both countries that support international collaboration. Going forward, there will be countless opportunities for joint discovery, publishing and funding.

On the student side, Sham said there will be numerous opportunities for international collaboration and learning. Most of those, at least in the short term, centre on graduate students conducting research at Soochow. In the future, however, Sham said there are hopes to develop a graduate program for students, to be solely or jointly supervised by Western faculty, earn a degree from both universities. He also sees opportunity for undergraduate exchange/co-op programs.

The spark for the centre came from Sham and Soochow professor Jeff Xuhui Sun, who was a visiting graduate student and then became a postdoctoral fellow in Sham’s group at Western in the early 2000s. The pair had been working at the Canadian Light Source (CLS) in Saskatoon, Sask., for the last several years.

Official conversations started in November 2011 when X.L. Zhu, Soochow president, visited Western in and first proposed the idea to Janice Deakin, Western provost and vice-president (academic). The deal was solidified in May 2012, and then sealed and celebrated in a ceremony on recent trip to Jiangsu province by a Western delegation earlier this month.

While this centre is only a year in the making, Western’s roots in synchrotron radiation research run back generations.

Former Western professors Bill McGowan and Mike Bancroft pushed for a Canadian facility in the early 1970s, before eventually developing the Canadian Synchrotron Radiation Facility (CSRF) at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisc., in 1975. That three-beamline facility would serve the entire Canadian synchrotron community until the opening of the CLS in 2008.

Presently, CLS remains the only such facility in Canada; China boasts three such facilities.

In addition to attending the centre’s opening on this trip, Western officials also signed a memorandum of understanding between itself and Nanjing University, located in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China, promising to explore a more fulsome relationship between the two institutions.

Despite being located in London’s sister city in China, Nanjing University has few ties to Western. This memorandum, hopefully, will open new doors between the two universities, said Julie McMullin, Western vice-provost, international.

“We want to build on that designation (as sister cities) to create a partnership where we could turn to one another for something we wanted to do or try,” McMullin said. “We are of the opinion we need to build these ties for our students.”

McMullin said faculty exchanges could serve as a starting point, although nothing is formalized. Student exchange is already encouraged through the Ontario Jiangsu Summer Research Program, organized by Ontario Universities International (OUI), a consortium of participating universities across the province, under the leadership of the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents.

Through OUI, Ontario universities maintain region-to-region partnerships with universities in Jiangsu province, as well as in the region of Rhône-Alpes (France), in the state of Baden-Württemberg (Germany) and in the states of Maharashtra and Goa (India).

Western’s team, led by Deakin and McMullin, included four deans – Michael Strong, Schulich; Charmaine Dean, Science; Brian Timney, Social Science; and Iain Scott, Law – as well as representative of the Health Sciences dean and other officials.