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Crossing Borders

From Supporting Children in a War Zone to Developing Robotics for Neuro-therapies, International Collaborations Pay Off

By Greg Breining | Spring 2011

Crick in Uganda

Professor Nicki Crick (center) and research associate Peter Ralston (bottom right) meet the students at Lira Integrated School in northern Uganda.

While studying relational aggression among Japanese schoolchildren, Nicki Crick realized the possibilities of international collaborations.

Crick, Distinguished McKnight University Professor and director of the Institute of Child Development, has a long record of studying relationship rivalries and emotional bullying among children in this country. Her work in Japan allowed her to see the phenomenon in a different setting.

“It allows you to find out whether or not the topic you’re studying is universal,” she said. “For example, does relational aggression exist in other cultures? And if so, does it look the same? Are there some differences? Are the implications of those behaviors different?”

It turns out they are. According to Crick, “shunning” and other aggression is even more devastating in Japan than here.

Crick has also seen the challenges presented by international collaborations. “Our Ugandan work is a good example,” she said. Crick and ICD colleague Dante Cicchetti are establishing a research collaboration with Gulu University to study aggression and child maltreatment in the wake of Uganda’s brutal civil war. Their commitment to helping children and families who have experienced ongoing trauma is strong. However, a lack of widespread Internet access in Uganda, along with political tension and bureaucracy, has complicated the work.

Cultural Challenges

Like Crick, many professors with the College of Education and Human Development are conducting research with overseas partners. Like Crick, they are discovering the benefits, insights, and unique facilities and opportunities that come from working abroad. And at times they discover cross-cultural, legal, and other complications.

“Yes, indeed, there are all these wonderful opportunities that everyone recognizes and wants to benefit from within international collaborations,” said Melissa Anderson, professor of higher education (organizational leadership, policy, and development). “But they don’t realize that there are many, many different ways you can get into trouble.”

Anderson recently co-edited a book (with Nicholas Steneck, University of
Michigan) about international research. The title is straightforward; it’s the subtitle that says it all—International Research Collaborations: Much to be Gained, Many Ways to Get in Trouble.

There are many “normative differences” among scholars from different countries. “What may seem appropriate for one group of researchers may seem inappropriate or may possibly be illegal in another context,” Anderson said.

To promote best practices in the burgeoning field of international research, Anderson helped to draft the recent Singapore Statement on Research Integrity. The consensus statement emerged from the Second World Conference on Research Integrity last summer.

“There are layers and layers of regulations, there are complications, there are so many different things to think about that institutions and scientists are not prepared to address,” Anderson said.

The key to overcoming differences in culture and regulation is communication, and that requires strong relationships among researchers. “We’ve had plenty of scientists say to us, ‘I would never recommend that a young scholar get involved with this.’ Especially if you’re pre-tenure, you can’t afford the time to invest in developing the relationships that will make the collaborations work.”

Context Is Key

DeJaeghere in Bangladesh

Joan DeJaeghere (center) works with CARE's partners in Bangladesh to ensure the best education solutions for marginalized youth.

Joan DeJaeghere assistant professor in the Comparative International Development Education program (organizational leadership, policy, and development), said international research produces many benefits, including projects to support graduate student learning and research, a means to better understand education issues in different cultures, and, ultimately, improvements to our own educational system. However, she notes that global collaborations require additional competencies for the researcher.

“You really need to understand the cultural and social environment you’re working in,” DeJaeghere said. “It’s more challenging because if you aren’t familiar with the social, cultural, and political environment, then you don’t really know what might have just derailed your initiatives or attempts to do something with research or education programming. That to me is the critical piece when we do work internationally.”

DeJaeghere is principal investigator on a project researching education in eight developing countries, supported by CARE, the international aid organization. The complex project includes local partners in each of the countries who identify solutions that would work best in that particular locale.

Meeting in Bangladesh

A meeting with the Bangladesh contingent.

Joining DeJaeghere on the project are Professor David Chapman and Associate Professor Frances Vavrus, also with the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development; Director of International Initiatives and Relations Christopher Johnstone; and 20 graduate students. Together they are investigating the impact of strategies to foster gender equity in education for girls and boys in marginalized communities.


It was a former student who got Crick interested in Uganda—Jens Omli, who traveled from the University of Minnesota to study how a Ugandan soccer coach instilled life lessons through soccer. Omli (now an assistant professor at the University of Texas) returned to Uganda to coordinate the training of more than 2,000 soccer coaches. He also wanted to do research on aggression.

Uganda seemed like fertile ground. Since the early 1980s, the Lord’s Resistance Army and other rebel groups had prowled northern Uganda, conscripting children and terrorizing civilians. Though the rebellion has dissipated, the conflict left a cohort of youth scarred by violence. A generation of children who were orphaned or abandoned and taken in by guardians outside of their own families can be subject to abuse and other forms of maltreatment.

In 2008, Crick started exploring a collaboration with Gulu University. Since then, the partnership has completed a pilot study into relational aggression among elementary children. However, political changes that affected the school’s administration threw the future of the project into doubt. Now Crick and colleagues have heard the project is on again.

Minnesota researchers have found a smoother path towards a research partnership with Lira Integrated University, also located in northern Uganda. Beatrice Ayuru Byaruhanga founded Lira with a preschool and early elementary grades, adding grades through secondary level as her students progressed. Now she has founded a university for her graduates.

“She’s an incredible woman,” said Crick. “Unlike Gulu, she runs the place. She basically said, ‘If I say it’s okay, it’s okay.’ It’s a very different situation.”

A Focus on Opportunity

Classroom in Lacor Primary School

A classroom in Lacor Primary School, which Crick and Ralston toured with colleagues from Gulu University.

This summer, Crick and Cicchetti, lab coordinator Peter Ralston, Johnstone, and graduate student Kathryn Hecht will travel to Uganda to plan next steps. To help get Lira University underway, they will conduct workshops for the teachers and staff on child development, disability, and education.

“Whoever gets a chance to do that—get in on the ground floor?” Crick asked.

The Minnesota contingent will also explore future research at Lira and in schools near Gulu. They hope to study the association between aggression, victimization, and social outcomes. The Minnesota researchers will rely on Gulu graduate students and staff to ensure that their methods and measures are culturally appropriate. Crick and her colleagues hope to train their Gulu colleagues to continue the research, even when the U.S. partners are gone.

“We’d like to train them to collect data … so they can go on and do that themselves if they wish to. It’s something they really need.” Eventually, the Gulu participants may become co-authors on research papers, an important step for someone from a small and isolated school.

As the partnership with Gulu becomes established, Ralston said he hopes additional faculty from across the college and the University will develop their own research collaborations there.

Gathering Global Experts

Konczak presents at a review meeting.

Juergen Konczak (center) presents at a review meeting for a European Union project that developed a humanoid robot.

By contrast, professor Juergen Konczak in the School of Kinesiology, himself a native of Germany, has found little difference between research collaborations within the United States and outside its borders. Konczak works with groups of experienced researchers in established institutions in Germany and Italy.

“You go where the expertise is,” said Konczak. “Often it does not matter all that much where exactly on earth that is.”

For example, Konczak, a movement physiologist, is working with experts in robotics at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. They are interested in how humans control movement and how engineers might apply that knowledge to humanoid robots. The robotic work might have future application to neuro-rehabilitation, Konczak said.

He recently published a study on recovery of arm movement coordination after stroke or other injury to the cerebellum in collaboration with neurologists and neurosurgeons in Germany and Switzerland. The Europeans know the clinical aspects of stroke; Konczak is the one with expertise in analyzing complex motor skills.

New Research Directions

He said liberalization in funding criteria has made a difference. “Ten years ago it was pretty hard to do international collaborations.” At that time, institutions on both sides of the Atlantic were reluctant to provide funds for overseas work.

“I think that attitude has changed,” Konczak said. “If you can convince them there is a certain skill set, a certain expertise, a certain access to patients—then I think they are much more open now to do those kinds of things.”

Funders realize they may have little choice, he said. The same is true of schools and researchers if they expect to stay at the forefront of their fields.

“As globalization continues, it is a trend you cannot stop,” Konczak said. “And if we’re not doing it, someone else is doing it. It’s not even an option to say we’re going to stay parochial.”

This article first appeared in Connect, the magazine of the College of Education and Human Development.
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