Six grants support joint research in China through pandemic

The Cornell China Center (CCC) has announced six new grant awards, totaling $140,000, to support research by Cornell faculty teams partnering with researchers in China.

Focused on building solutions to meet the United Nations’ sustainable development goals for China and the world, the 2021 awards include four joint seed fund grants to expand collaborations between Cornell researchers and counterparts at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and two China Innovation Grants.

CCC-funded research thrived in the past year, despite the COVID-19 crisis and logistical challenges the far-flung teams faced – from international travel bans to the 12-hour time difference. The center made 13 awards in 2020, including joint seed funding to five Cornell teams partnering with Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

CCC research teams found ways to collaborate virtually and adapt their work to meet the moment. K. Max Zhang, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, is leading a CCC-funded project team to develop a cost-effective air-quality system for Chinese cities. When COVID-19 lockdowns began in China, his team recognized an opportunity: They analyzed the air-quality impacts from January to April 2020 for six megacities with different lockdown durations.

Using machine learning techniques to evaluate this “naturally controlled experiment,” they found that the lockdown reduced ambient NO2 concentrations by 36% to 53% during the most restrictive periods.

“Data doesn’t mean information automatically – you have to extract and make sense of it. That’s a challenge, and that’s what we’re working on,” Zhang said. “The CCC grant has been crucial in providing the resources for collaborating with our partners in China.”

“It is encouraging to see project teams adapt effectively during COVID times,” said Ying Hua, CCC’s director. “We are also happy to see our grants supporting Cornell students’ continued participation in research during a time with significant challenges.”

Throughout the pandemic, CCC has linked the Ithaca campus with researchers, students and alumni in China. With more than 1,000 Cornell students studying in China during the past academic year, CCC’s Beijing office welcomed students enrolled in Study Away and learning remotely for in-person and hybrid career information sessions, academic talks and gatherings with Cornell alumni.

Delivering effective online education is the opportune focus of a project funded by CCC in 2019. The research team has tested a variety of strategies to increase student retention and engagement in massive open-enrollment courses for environmental education professional development.

Research associate Yue Li says that the grant’s focus on cross-disciplinary research has given their team a fresh perspective on how to reach learners: “I’m from the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and our collaborators are from information science and education, so this is the first time we have had this kind of  interdisciplinary collaboration – which is really valuable.”

With course participants across 50 countries, the team has found that students in China benefit from the encouragement of facilitated study groups. Li says the team is extending the successful collaboration into further research using different interventions to motivate participants to take environmental actions beyond the course.

Four seed fund grants in the 2021 cycle support partnerships between Cornell and Zhejiang University, with each university funding its own researchers:

  • Improving Seed Yield and Stress Tolerance in Rice through Natural Variations of a Novel Lipid Binding Protein: Jian Hua, plant biology, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Yajing Guan (ZJU).
  • In Silico Nanosafety Assessment for Promoting Nano-Enabled Strategies in Agricultural Production: Dan Luo, biological and environmental engineering, CALS, and Fang Cheng (ZJU).
  • Making Inclusive Finance More Digital and Greener: Big Data Evidence from China: Yongmiao Hong, statistics and data science, Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, and Xingguo Luo (ZJU).
  • Regulating the Crystallographic Orientation of Zinc Metal for Advanced Aqueous Zinc Batteries: Lynden Archer, chemical and biomolecular engineering, College of Engineering, and Yingying Lu (ZJU).

Two innovation grants will launch large-scale collaborative research: Cornell-Southern China-Macau International Cooperative Functional Food Groups – Rui Hai Liu, food science, CALS; and Practical Approaches to the Control of Ichthyophthiriasis in Asian Aquaculture – Theodore Clark, microbiology and immunology, College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sheri Englund is associate director of communication for Global Cornell. Priya Pradhan ’22 is a writing intern for Global Cornell.

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Rebecca Valli