From using computer vision to improve sustainability of Chinese pig farmers to addressing the benefits of clean cookstoves in East Africa, the range and reach of 21 new faculty-led projects being supported by the Penn Global Research and Engagement Grant Program was on display at a symposium.
The 2022 Launch Symposium at Perry World House brought together faculty from eight of Penn’s 12 schools to share five-minute presentations on their projects that span research, capacity-building, and development efforts across Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, India, China, and beyond. The symposium shined a light on Penn’s commitment to integrate knowledge across disciplines toward addressing global challenges and to global engagement in a post-pandemic world.
In remarks at the symposium’s start, Vice Provost for Global Initiatives Ezekiel Emanuel told the in-person and virtual audience that, when he arrived at Penn a little more than a decade ago, he inherited “a fledgling thing called the Global Engagement Fund.”
“It was tiny, it was unfocused, and there was no strategic plan behind it,” he said. “And I can safely say 10 years has made a huge difference.” Now, the grant program consists of the Global Engagement Fund, China and India Research and Engagement Funds, and the new Holman Africa Research and Engagement Fund.
He also noted how when Penn Global got started globalization was “all the rage,” but now the world has been retreating from globalization, even before the pandemic put physical barriers between nations. Despite all this, Penn is not retreating from engaging with the world, he said.
“This is a moment where understanding other countries, understanding what’s happening in other places, creating bonds among academics, here and in other countries are essential,” Emanuel said.
Penn Global relaunched its competitive research and engagement grant program in fall 2021, after a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April, Penn Global announced it would support 21 new faculty-led projects at a funding level of $1.2 million.
The five panels at the symposium focused on human development and education; climate change and climate justice; India in the 21st century; global intersections of mobility, sustainability, and health; and engaging partners, communities, and institutions.
The engaging partners, communities, and institutions panel, which spotlighted projects supported by the Holman Africa Research and Engagement Fund, was moderated by Wale Adebanwi, the Presidential Penn Compact Professor of Africana Studies.
Lee Cassanelli, associate professor of history in the School of Arts and Sciences, discussed his research on local histories of climate change in the Horn of Africa. He will organize a series of virtual workshops that will put local African experts in dialogue with natural and social scientists from Penn to raise awareness and establish a collective research agenda to promote joint research projects that integrate indigenous knowledge with regional and international expertise.
Associate professor Sunday Akintoye of the School of Dental Medicine presented his project, the PENN/UNILAG Collaboration on Racial Disparities in Ameloblastoma Recurrence. He will leverage ongoing research collaborations with the University of Lagos to access the largest tumor bank of ameloblastoma samples from Black racial populations to elucidate biological indicators of tumor recurrence. Akintoye will also provide training and research capacity building for junior faculty at the University of Lagos.
Dario Sidhu, director of research at the Penn Development Research Initiative (PDRI), presented details on the PDRI Fellowship for African Scholars that he will co-lead with political science professor Guy Grossman. Grossman, founder and co-director of PDRI, and Sidhu are launching a competitive fellowship for international development scholars from sub-Saharan Africa with P.h.Ds to spend a semester in residence at Penn during the fall 2023 semester.
The last presenter in this panel was David Amponsah, Presidential Assistant Professor of Africana Studies, discussing his research Enchanted Geography: India in the West African Popular Imagination. Enchanted Geography is a book project that explores the cultural history of how Ghanaians and Nigerians came to construct India as a repository of the most powerful magic, deities, and spirits. The book further examines how the idea of India is summoned in everyday secular and religious spaces.
“Growing up in Ghana, there are these mythologies that people tell about India and Indians. So, I grew up hearing the stories about India as this mystically enchanted space, as well as Indians specifically as people endowed with supernatural abilities and powers,” he told the audience. “I was interested in trying to figure out the origins of these stories, these mythologies that people have constructed.”
In closing remarks, Amy Gadsden, associate vice provost for global initiatives, noted the last time a research and engagement symposium was held in person was in January of 2020, with the China Research and Engagement Fund. Wuhan had just been shut down and there was much discussion about SARS-CoV-2 and how it would impact China, much less other places around the world.
“Of course, we all know what happened from there, so it is just such a delight to be here and to say that we’re back,” she said. “We’re not just back in this room together, we are back in the world, and your discussions of your research study really demonstrate how we are roaring back as a university to engage and to think meaningfully about the work we do around the world.”
The pandemic put up barriers between us, she said, as neighbors, as citizens, and as countries.
“It also underscored global interconnectedness in indisputable ways,” Gadsden said. “As we move into a post-COVID world, we will be examining that interconnectedness and hopefully taking down those barriers.”
The Penn Global Research and Engagement Grant Program funds research, teaching, service, and other activities around the world to promote interdisciplinary collaboration and strengthen equitable partnerships toward developing new insights on global issues.