Breakthroughs in science and engineering don’t happen in a vacuum… but when multi-cultural and cross-disciplinary brainpower combines in one room to tackle big ideas, it moves mountains!

That is the vision behind the Broadcom Foundation University Student Workshops. The KKT Workshop – now in its 16th year – is proof of concept,  and the inaugural EMEA Workshop in 2017 and upcoming 2018 Asia Pacific Student Workshop reflect the foundation’s commitment to  innovation through international collaboration.

2017 EMEA Workshop

For the 2017 EMEA Student University Workshop, Vice President for Academic Programs & University Relations Nick Alexopoulos  partnered with professors from Tel Aviv University, Israel, Imperial College London, U.K., University College Dublin, Ireland, and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India to bring together some of the brightest students in engineering, computer science and neuroscience to collaborate on ‘Brain Emulation.’

The workshop’s topic was born from Nick’s drive to integrate more science and engineering into the health sector.  He explains, “the brain is the most efficient source conducting the most complicated computations at the lowest power levels. We want to understand exactly how the brain does this to better perceive and navigate the world.”

Each professor identified 7 students – an equal number of women and men –  to attend the workshop in Tel Aviv in October 2017 to work outside the traditional academic model of inquiry and research.  The art of collaboration and an open philosophy about innovation were at the heart of the workshop.

“We insisted on a cross-disciplinary group of individuals because it’s a global society that can tap the wonders of advanced communications; this is the academic model of the future. We required professors to encourage students to stretch outside their comfort zones,” Nick said.  “It’s a grand experiment, a complex operation, to bring four universities together, but it worked out extremely well.”

“Creating an exciting learning environment where the brightest men and women can collaborate across disciplines is a strategic goal for the foundation,” said Paula Golden, President, Broadcom Foundation.  “Communication and teamwork are two of the most important 21st century skills in a world where science and engineering move closer and closer together to solve the grand challenges in medicine. Nick’s idea of focusing our first cross discipline workshop on brain emulation is extremely timely.”

From an array of cultures, backgrounds and disciplines, students were assigned to a cohort made up of students from other universities whose areas of study were vastly different from one another. Even room assignments were made to bring together students from different institutions. In addition to the intense rigors of the workshop, Tel Aviv University arranged social activities including a scavenger hunt through Jaffa, a pizza party and a day-long tour of Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.  Within a few short days, students who had never met before were deeply bonded academically and socially as future friends and colleagues.

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“The experience of working in multidisciplinary teams to solve problems was a ‘first’ for all of the students,” Nick said. “They leveraged each other’s diverse interest and perspectives and came up with ideas together that may germinate into future academic projects.  It is our hope that they developed a high degree of comfort seeking out ideas and exploring concepts outside of their specific fields of study that may lead to breakthroughs in solving real problems in medical care that we have today. We intend to follow their progress in the years ahead to determine if the workshop experience bears fruit.”

Teams selected their own topics that tackled universal challenges such as Alzheimer’s, mapping emotions and speech disorders.

“The mission to formulate a research question in such a small time with people from so many different backgrounds was challenging,” said Orly Fuhrman, Tel Aviv University.  “It was a true learning experience. You have to learn to trust the experts from other disciplines- trust is a big thing.”

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“Personally, when you work in teams, you learn how people work and solve problems,” said Amparo Guemes Gonzalez, a graduate student from Imperial College, London.  “For sure I will be reaching out to these coworkers in the future. In ten years, I will definitely be contacting them.”

What does the future hold for Broadcom Foundation’s University Student Workshops? More exciting workshops! In 2018, the KKT Workshop will be hosted by KAIST in Korea, the Asia Pacific Workshop will be hosted by the University of California, Irvine in Pasadena, California and the EMEA Workshop rotates into London where it will be hosted by Imperial College.

“We aim to continue the success of this great initiative, bringing prominent students together from a variety of countries and scientific backgrounds to innovate new ideas related to ‘Brain Emulation’ at the Imperial College London event in 2018,” said Dr. Pantelis Georgiou, Reader at the Center for Bio-Inspired Technology at Imperial College London.  “We plan to add an extra day to the program for team building as well as to provide expert mentors for each team to spur and shape ideas for the world’s grand challenges.”

Watch highlights from the EMEA Workshop at https://youtu.be/ems3fXkSFIQ.