Faculty experts share advice for collaborative research in India

By Leslie King | Emory Report | April 9, 2015

Four Emory faculty members shared insights and tactics for collaborating on research and scholarly projects in India at a panel discussion during the university’s India Week.

India is one of five “priority countries” for engagement named in the new “Global Vision for Emory,” a blueprint released in January that is designed to guide the university’s international priorities for the next five years. The other countries are Brazil, China, Ethiopia and South Korea.

"From the study of anthropology and religion in South Asia, to collaboration on vaccine development, Emory's current engagement with India is among its strongest anywhere in the world,” says Philip Wainwright, vice provost for global strategy and initiatives.

“Also, when current Emory undergraduates are hitting the peak of their careers, India will be one of the world's two largest economies,” he notes. “It makes sense for Emory to focus on strengthening its ties there."

Wainwright introduced the faculty discussion, held March 18, and asked each panelist to describe how their collaboration in India began, how they identified partners and what benefits they have obtained.

Seeking an HIV vaccine

Rama Rao Amara, professor in the School of Medicine and Yerkes National Primate Research Center, has three major collaborations in India, all of them related to his work at Emory developing an HIV vaccine, currently being tested in the U.S. with plans for testing in other countries including India.

His lab collaborates with the following:

  • Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in Chennai whose large patient population is of interest as a possible cohort for vaccine testing.
  • International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in New Delhi for basic research.
  • Institute for Science in Bangalore. Amara earned his PhD here and seeks opportunities for collaboration for basic vaccine research. 

The key to success was having funding available, Amara said, explaining that money through the Emory Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) was used to set up an immunology lab in India and provide training.

His advice for other faculty who want to collaborate in India: Be patient. “You need to be prepared that sometimes things move very slowly over there. More importantly, you need to be very clear about why you are doing this,” he explained.

The collaborations provide “a sense of satisfaction to give back to country that gave me so much, to share my knowledge and training,” he said.

Fighting chronic health conditions

K. M. Venkat Narayan, global health professor in the Rollins School of Public Health, used his background in diabetes research coupled with the growth of diabetes in United States and the forecasted growth of the disease in India for his collaboration efforts.

He and his colleagues selected the Madras Diabetes Research Foundation in Chennai and set up collaboration with Emory to start a global diabetes research program.

Emory then collaborated with the Public Health Foundation of India, Madras Diabetes Research Foundation, All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and Aga Khan University to win a grant to set up one of nine centers of excellence between the U.S. and a developing country funded by the National Institutes of Health and United Health Group.

“That grant was not just about diabetes but about non-communicable disease in general worldwide. We felt it was strategic to widen the partnership so we added three other partners in India,” Narayan said.

In the process, he learned “that global research should have mutual benefit” and partner selection “comes down to where you have good personal chemistry.”

Emory is now expanding the collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Public Health Foundation of India, and All India Institute of Medical Sciences to create a global chronic disease center headquartered in New Delhi. “We spent a year and a half overcoming the psychological barriers to multi-country collaboration,” Narayan said.

The April 8 launch of the Center for Control of Chronic Conditions (4C) was attended by Jim Curran, dean of Rollins and other Emory administrators and researchers.

What works, Narayan said, is “you need to bring good ideas, good people and resources together.”

Individual collaborations in mathematics

Raman Parimala, Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, described most of the mathematics research collaborations between the U.S. and India as being “basically on individual collaborative footing.”

At Emory for nine years, Parimala was previously with the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai as a research mathematician.

“Mostly the collaborations of mathematicians from outside of India happen through individual interests — your interests vis-a-vis the interest of another mathematician from another institute coming together, for instance, at a conference, then floating an idea of collaborative work, a few visits; then the collaboration continues sometimes for a longer period,” she said.

She noted that institutions in India which engage in research in pure sciences and mathematics such as the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, The Indian Institute of Science, the Indian Institute of Technology, and the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research often have funds for collaborative partnerships.

“I still have some fruitful collaborations with algebraic geometers from India, algebraic geometry is an area of strength in India at the Tata Institute of Fundamental research, the Institute of Mathematical Sciences and the Chennai Mathematical Institute,” she said.

Exploring media and elections

Holli Semetko, Asa Griggs Candler Professor of Media and International Affairs, had been planning to study India’s pioneering corporate social responsibility legislation and how companies were going to readjust their strategy to accommodate that.

However, after being told “you’re asking too soon,” she was invited to speak at Centre for Culture Media & Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University about media content and survey research, her area of expertise.

That invitation yielded a request to help conduct a study of the 2013 Delhi Assembly election campaign. Semetko designed a post-election survey with a multi-city team of Indian researchers from her base as a Fulbright Nehru scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

Semetko later wrote a grant proposal for the India Election Study (IES) to study campaign influence in urban contexts that included two transformational outcomes: Narendra Modi’s high profile 2014 Lok Sabha campaign led to an absolute parliamentary majority for his party the BJP, and the AAP victory in the 2015 Delhi Assembly election.

“We received about $29,000 from Emory’s University Research Committee, which goes a very long way. The cost of doing a survey in a city is comparatively low per respondent, and we now have an unprecedented three-wave Delhi panel study to explain change,” she said. The data will be the basis for publications and used to train interested graduate students.

“We will apply for external grants as we now have a baseline from which to assess digital influence in future campaigns. A country with 500 million people under 25 and with the growing amount of smartphone use, we expect that campaigns of the future will be heavily mediated through mobile media,” she said.