Uppsala University: Where the past meets the futureBy Asian Correspondent Jun 21, 2012 5:13PM UTC
Sweden’s top university has broken free of its national borders and attained increasingly greater accolades in the past few years. Uppsala University was recently named by Times Higher Education as a ‘perennial top university’, meaning it has earned and held a place on the list of the best 100 universities in the world. It is in good company, sharing the prestigious list with the leading half percent of the world’s universities – the likes of Harvard, MIT, Cambridge and Oxford.
A burgeoning reputation like this is difficult to ignore. With international enrollment on the rise all over the world, it is enlightening to deconstruct exactly what it is that global leaders in higher education are doing to set themselves apart.
From Uppsala University’s perspective, one of the key ingredients to success is collaborative efforts across disciplines, which are producing breakthroughs and creating waves in the medical and scientific communities. And these breakthroughs have global implications. Currently, eight Nobel Prize laureates can be connected to the university. Given the groundbreaking research being conducted at Uppsala today, there is little doubt many more laureates will emerge in the coming years.
Uppsala University’s history and heritage are also central to its successes. The school is built on a 500-year tradition, and strong ties to the past are still honored today through various ceremonies and academic rites of passage.
Heritage and tradition are important, but the real test of a university’s mettle is the impact it leaves on the world and the inroads it forges into the future. Vice-chancellor Eva Åkesson summed it up best when she said, “Here the wings of the past meet the promises of the future.”
For prospective students the world over, this is an exciting crossroads to occupy.
Some of the most important research at Uppsala is happening in the SciLifeLab, a collaborative initiative between four Swedish universities that is positioned on the leading edge of molecular bioscience. The initiative has been rolling out for a few years, but a recent US$25 million investment has put it on target to converge on a single 11,000 sq m facility in late 2013.
SciLifeLab is bringing researchers from various departments together under the same roof to collaborate on projects with life-changing implications. By promoting this conciliatory effort and tapping into international biobanks, researchers hope to develop a unified approach to tackling two of humanities oldest problems – aging and illness. By mapping the genomes of humans and animals, they hope to get to the origin of disease. Put it on a long enough timeline, and this collaborative research is going to revolutionize healthcare.
The hope is that scientists can get a better handle on the genetic differences between healthy and diseased tissue, to refine cancer diagnostics and develop new treatment methods and medications. In the process, elusive diseases such as Alzheimer’s and stroke may become less menacing and costly to treat. Likewise, disease resistance to antibiotics could be overcome. Needless to say, this is an exciting time to be a grad student or research assistant at Uppsala University.
According to Kerstin Lindblad, who spearheads the SciLifeLab at Uppsala and also collaborates with research teams at Harvard and Yale, bringing researchers from different backgrounds together in the same context presents “novel opportunities for attacking difficult problems.” The results have been impressive.
These are a few of the medical and scientific breakthroughs coming out of Uppsala University in recent years. Not all are borne out of SciLifeLab, but each is nonetheless remarkable:
A research team in the Department of Chemistry is working on polymers that can grow new tissues out of existing samples. Imagine bypassing the need for surgery on a major bone break, and instead injecting the patient with a compound that causes the bones to re-grow themselves. We’re not there yet, but that is where this research is heading. And it is getting there faster than scientists expected.
Enhancing drug effectiveness
Something like 95 percent of all drugs in development are ultimately rejected because they either don’t work well or produce unwanted side effects. That results in a lot of time consumed on redevelopment and revision. Research led by a team at Uppsala University and published in the journal, Angewandte Chemie, is changing that. Tiny polypeptides are being bound to specific molecules in such a way that new medicines can target specific tissue without interfering with irrelevant systems or being diluted across the subject’s entire body. The result is a kind of smart medicine – a disease-seeking drone that limits collateral damage in the body.
Saving newborn lives
Medical scientists at Uppsala have discovered that the umbilical cord plays a more important role in infants’ lives than originally thought. Leave it attached for a little while after the infant is born, and the risk of iron deficiency plummets. Sure it’s simple and lacks any breathtaking technological components (at least in its application), but this understanding is going to save the lives of thousands of babies.
Cooperation across hemispheres
All of this reaching out and cross-collaboration isn’t bound by national or continental borders. In fact, it is bridging hemispheres. In 2011, Uppsala joined the European University Centre at Peking University (EUC) as part of a move to strengthen ties with the academic community in Beijing and across greater China. Later the same year, the vice-chancellor traveled to China with a delegation to visit universities in Beijing and Shanghai.
Stronger East-West ties strengthen the interface between students, researchers and even alumni on disparate continents. It also paves the way for more profound collaboration on projects that are central to human advancement and opens up channels to exchange programs. Currently, pathways are opening up for Uppsala University students to study in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore. Of course, the traffic goes both ways. Asia’s brightest young minds have been enrolling at Uppsala University for decades, availing of a European education at its very best.
Academics: an eye to the future
Across Uppsala’s nine faculties are many world-leading programs. Lectures and research initiatives are led by some of the most prominent scholars and scientists in the world, and research conducted at the graduate level is making major contributions to the biotechnical and biomedical fields.
These are some of the major international Master’s Degree programs offered by Uppsala University:
This program interweaves mathematics, computer sciences and biology into a unified discipline. It is a case-in-point example of the sort of collaborative work undertaken at Uppsala.
Students specialize in applied biotechnology in an international atmosphere. At the same time, they develop skills in entrepreneurship and project management.
This program is on the forefront of medical science, addressing pressing issues involving microbial drug resistance and the growing threat of a global pandemic. This area of study is of particular importance in developing nations.
By breaking down disease at the molecular level, scientists can develop a better understanding of how illness is contracted and propagated. Clinicians, researchers and industry leaders from around the world work in chorus to facilitate this program.
Medical Nuclide Techniques
This has been an Uppsala specialty for years. Breakthroughs made by grad students and professors have broad implications, not only in cancer treatment, but also for physicists, chemists, biologists and pharmacists.
Molecular Biotechnology could easily be framed as the showpiece of Uppsala University. It has been on offer since 1991 and benefits from excellent connections with the biotechnology industry.
Heritage: an eye to the past
Students at Uppsala are part of a continuum that dates back centuries. The university became Scandinavia’s first university in the 15th century, and it endured political upheaval and religious reformation across Sweden before catching its stride in the 19th century. Students found their voice in this century, and the university underwent a renaissance of sorts. This is when Uppsala University amassed most of its impressive art collection, which is still here today.
Pride in Uppsala University’s history is contagious. The school maintains its 13 student nations (or clubs), which were founded in the 17th century at a time when King Gustav II Adolf was channeling money and lands to the university to bolster its influence over Northern Europe. The clubs are student-led and overseen by a faculty member. They organize social and leisure events – everything from formal balls and dinners to café or disco nights. Some specialize in musical performance or appreciation. Others plan guided tours, off-campus excursions and guest lectures.
There are also student unions in place to assist with education, healthcare and finance. At the main Student Union, used books, donor computers and advisor services for international students are all on offer.
Combine the schools heritage and storied student traditions with the life-altering research being conducted here, and it’s easy to see why more and more international students are setting their sights on Sweden’s preeminent university. For international students in the 21st century, the chance to plant oneself in the midst of this continuum – with future aspirations to rival the university’s storied heritage – is undeniably attractive.