WUN Research Mobility Program: Ideas in motion

SUMMARY

Linkages through the Worldwide Universities Network enable research that spans disciplinary boundaries, political and social cultures, and geographical settings. This feature introduces two early-career researchers and explains how WUN connections and their participation in the Research Mobility Program advanced their work: Colin Chu, who established a collaboration to image the eye with scientists at the University of Rochester, and Victoria Rivera Ugarte, who added comparative insights to her social policy studies through a visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Click through to read more about their discoveries and the pathways they opened up for future research.

STORY

A three-month residency at the Advanced Retinal Imaging Alliance (ARIA, University of Rochester) resulted in what Colin Chu (University of Bristol) described as a “breakthrough finding.” Trained as an ophthalmologist and active as a clinician and researcher, Chu was seeking new collaborations as he came to the end of his clinical lectureship program. His visit was supported by Assistant Professor Jesse Schallek, an expert in ocular imaging.

When they used ARIA’s lab to explore Chu’s interests in Uveitis (inflammation of the eye) and the immune system, the researchers discovered that it was possible to observe live immune cells in the inflamed eyes of mice. Explained Chu: “we can see them without dyes or labels, essentially using infrared light, but introduced at an angle to cast shadows, so the moving cells become visible in relief. It was strikingly successful.” The researchers are in the process of publishing their findings. 

They anticipate the discovery might not only transfer to new techniques for diagnosis and treatment of the human eye, but may have even more wide-ranging applications. Immune system mechanisms  underlie many processes across the whole body, Chu noted, “so the types of immune cells we get in eye inflammation are the same as for diseases in other parts of the body, such as in rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis. For the first time we might be able to get a hold on what’s going on not only in these immune eye diseases but in the whole body.”

While Chu’s work at ARIA combined different methods to develop new techniques, Victoria Rivera Ugarte (University of Bristol) created new insights from regional comparisons. In the final year of her PhD, Ugarte’s research examines the implementation of Chile’s Indigenous Development Policy in territories identified as of significance for Indigenous communities. 

She applied to visit the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), Ugarte explained, because of the economic relationships between Chile and China, two countries connected by the Pacific Ocean. Her proposal was supported by Professor Xi Chen, whose expertise in social movements and state-society relations was an ideal match. “Professor Xi’s support was very important,” she emphasised: “guiding on reading and context, how to focus my analysis and exploration, he had a very essential role.”

Ugarte’s analysis combines critical institutionalism and postcolonial perspectives, recognising that “policy is not a recipe where everything is controlled by a central institution but there are different actors, including hidden actors; there are bureaucratic arrangements—formal agreements and roles framing policy—but also culturally-based arrangements.” Arriving during a time of political mobilisation and public unrest allowed Ugarte to observe these dynamics in action. It had powerful and unexpected impacts on her research: “I discovered it was a whole world you can incorporate by considering historical contexts, political engagements, putting your own context in dialogue with different perspectives.” She is considering adopting a comparative approach in postdoctoral projects to study Chinese contexts more directly. 

Chu, too, hopes he and the ARIA researchers will be able to pursue their discoveries through future grants. “There is always a degree of luck,” he reflected, “but you can help make your own luck. We had a great team, a focused project, had this great finding, and were able to do a really exciting piece of work.”