“Doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers from CIMR and the Institut Curie meet during a three-day retreat at the University of Kent, co-funded by the French Embassy, Cambridge and PSL”  Credit: Sudarshan Gadadhar

A year of collaborative projects involving Cambridge and a consortium of Paris-based universities proves the potential of international partnerships.

This partnership, which has the full support of the Embassy of France in the UK, is one of PSL's priorities in the area of its international development policy.

Thierry Coulhon

When in May 2014 the Vice-Chancellor Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, witnessed the signing of an agreement between Cambridge and the consortium of French research institutions known as Paris Sciences et Lettres (PSL Research University), he celebrated an opportunity for Cambridge “to enhance its well-established connections to some of France’s elite institutions, its most interesting scholars, and its brightest students.”

Just over a year on from the formalisation of Cambridge’s partnership with PSL, many joint projects have emerged that continue to enhance research links and lay the foundation for new collaborations.

These projects have ranged from a summer placement at Chimie ParisTech for students in the Department of Chemistry, to a joint postgraduate research seminar on Ancient Philosophy held in Cambridge, and a doctoral retreat involving the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research and the Institut Curie.

PSL is an undergraduate and postgraduate education and research consortium formally established in 2011 as one of the French government’s Initiatives d’Excellence (IdEx).

It comprises 24 universities and research institutions, including the École Normale Supérieure, the Collège de France, ESPCI ParisTech, Chimie ParisTech, Mines ParisTech, the Observatoire de Paris, the Université Paris-Dauphine, the Institut Curie, the École Française d'Extrême-Orient, the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the École Pratique des Hautes Etudes and the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-arts.

The agreement signed in May 2014, with the support of the French Embassy, aims to facilitate exchange for students and researchers, and seed collaborations between Cambridge and PSL.

A specific purpose of the partnership is to boost existing and prospective collaborative projects, enhancing researchers’ capacity to apply successfully for external funding .

As part of the student mobility element of the agreement, three PSL students were awarded scholarships by PSL to undertake Master’s degrees in Mathematics and Advanced Chemical Engineering.

In the coming  academic year  two PSL students will receive a PSL-Cambridge scholarship from the Cambridge Trust to carry out Master’s degrees in Public Policy and Advanced Chemical Engineering.

Collaborative projects in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences have been funded by PSL and by the Schools of Arts and Humanities, and of Humanities and Social Sciences, through a matched funding mechanism.

Additional funding for projects in the Arts and Humanities has been provided by the French Embassy’s cultural arm, the Institut Français du Royaume Uni.

Meanwhile, the French Embassy’s Science and Technology Division has provided seed funding for collaborative projects with PSL in the Physical, Biological and Clinical sciences, and in Technology.

To date, ten projects have been awarded funding under the Cambridge-PSL agreement, in disciplines as diverse as biochemistry, chemistry, classics, clinical medicine, French, history, philosophy and theoretical mathematics.

Thierry Coulhon, President of PSL Research University, said: “Thanks to the long-standing relations forged between researchers at the University of Cambridge and at the institutions comprising PSL Research University, our partnership has all the necessary elements to enable great joint achievements both in research and in training.

“This partnership, which has the full support of the Embassy of France in the UK, is one of PSL's priorities in the area of its international development policy.”

Dr David Savage, of the Department of Clinical Biochemistry, explained why the support of the Cambridge-PSL-French Embassy Fund has been helpful: “The funding we received as a result of Cambridge-PSL agreement enabled Dr Abdou Rachid Tiam, an emulsion physicist from the École Normale Supérieure, to visit my lab earlier this year for a week. During this time, we undertook several joint experiments. This facilitated an invaluable exchange of practical expertise, as well as lengthy discussions on our collaborative project. As Dr Thiam and I come from very different scientific backgrounds, this face to face meeting time has been particularly valuable.”

Their project aims to understand how a particular protein (Fsp27) facilitates the transfer of lipids between growing fat droplets in fat cells, or adipocytes. Without this protein, fat cells fail to optimally store excess lipid, which then accumulates in other organs such as the liver, where it causes insulin resistance and diabetes.

“Our collaboration has progressed well. We are currently applying for a Human Frontier Science Programme (HFSP) project grant which also includes an American lab at Harvard.”

Last month the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (CIMR) and the Institut Curie hosted a joint three-day retreat for young scientists at the University of Kent. It was organised by the student and postdoc committees of the two institutes using Cambridge-PSL-French Embassy Funds in addition to support provided by CIMR, the Institut Curie, the Gurdon Institute, the MRC Cognition and Brain Science unit, GSK’s Experimental Medicine Imagining unit, and the ERC. The retreat brought together 60 young researchers from the two institutes to discuss their research through speaker presentations, poster sessions and additional skill building sessions.

“This retreat provided a unique training experience for the students and postdocs,” said Alison Schuldt, Research Project Manager at CIMR. “It served to foster new interactions, and to partner fundamental understanding of cell biology with clinical research.

“It will be of particular benefit given the closely aligned research strategies of the two institutes.”

According to Dr Nicholas White of the Department of French, the Cambridge-PSL connection has not only forged closer links to PSL but “has allowed the University to underline its commitment to the study of French culture itself”.

Later this summer, he and his collaborator at the ENS, Professor Alain Pagès, will be hosting twin conferences in Paris and Cambridge on the work of Émile Zola, bringing together early and mid-career scholars for a critical reappraisal of the French writer’s work.

Among the expected outcomes is a special issue of Les cahiers naturalistes the world-leading French journal in the field of Zola studies.

The conferences, held under the title “Zola au pluriel”, will be partly funded through the Cambridge-PSL matched-funding mechanism.

 “Bridging the gap in scientific cooperation across the channel, and strengthening partnerships between French and UK universities, are the two priorities of the Science and Technology Department of the French Embassy in the United Kingdom,” said Cyrille van Effenterre, Science and Technology Counsellor at the French Embassy.

 “We therefore fully support this partnership between the University of Cambridge and Paris Sciences et Lettres, flagships for the best science in our two countries. We strongly hope this agreement will continue to foster relationships among academics, and will be the corner stone for institutional and strategic partnerships.”

Speaking about the projects supported by the Institut Français under the Cambridge-PSL agreement, Dr Catherine Robert, the French Embassy’s Higher Education Attaché added: “This agreement will also help build and strengthen Franco-British networks involving the best young researchers in the arts and humanities in both countries, as they will be the leaders of the future.”

Picture: Doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers from CIMR and the Institut Curie meet during a three-day retreat at the University of Kent, co-funded by the French Embassy, Cambridge and PSL”

Photo Credit: Sudarshan Gadadhar



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