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Skoltech, MIT reflect on first year of collaboration

Anniversary event celebrates international ties.
Skoltech President Edward F. Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT, meets with students.
Skoltech President Edward F. Crawley, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT, meets with students.
Photo courtesy of Tom Luly

In late October, faculty and staff from MIT joined leaders from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology and partnering institutions in Moscow, Russia, to reflect on one year of collaborative activities.

Skoltech, as the university is known, was founded in October 2011 as a private graduate research university, aiming to catalyze research, teaching and innovation around pressing global issues. A pillar of Moscow’s Skolkovo innovation district, Skoltech focuses on biomedicine, energy, information technology, nuclear science and space, with a cross-cutting emphasis on entrepreneurship.

In his remarks to the gathered community, Skoltech president Edward F. Crawley — who is also the Ford Professor of Engineering in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics — thanked attendees for their commitment and hard work. He pointed to a series of milestones that had been achieved over the course of 12 months, ranging from early research capacity to community building, underlining the matriculation of the first class and the selection of the first 10 faculty members.

Crawley highlighted the institute’s global ties as one piece of Skoltech’s vision for connecting Russia with international innovation. The pilot student cohort, and several faculty, are embedded at leading institutions around the world as part of what Crawley calls “a globally distributed campus.” The first course on innovation was also piloted remotely, taking place on MIT’s campus in August.

First-year activities have led to the launch of educational programs in energy science and information science. A biomedicine program will follow in 2013, while future programs in space and nuclear sciences are in early planning. The university has recently opened PhD applications.

With the 2013 admissions cycle and faculty recruiting ramping up, the Skoltech community will continue to expand. An MIT campus advising team was in Moscow in October to meet with Skoltech administrators and the Swiss-based architectural team, Herzog & de Meuron. For planners, the celebration fell amidst intensive design meetings addressing such needs as lab structure, contemporary learning spaces and security. The goal, designers have said, is to open the first building in 2014.

Crawley also noted that Skoltech has announced the first of 15 international Centers for Research, Education, and Innovation. The first three centers will address infectious disease and RNA therapeutics, stem cell research, and electro-chemical energy storage.

MIT researchers from the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and elsewhere will participate in two of the three, working with partners from Russia's Lomonosov Moscow State University (MSU) and the University of Texas Southwestern (UTS). More than 100 MIT faculty, researchers, and affiliates attended the first joint Skoltech-MIT proposal conference in February 2012. A second round call for proposals recently concluded, with the aim of developing additional centers in 2013.

Back home in Cambridge, the Skoltech-MIT relationship is also taking off.

Crawley returned to Cambridge a few weeks after the Moscow celebration to co-host a Skoltech recruiting event with Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Duane Boning, the faculty lead for the MIT Skoltech Initiative. The session on Nov. 16 heralded the opening of Skoltech master’s programs to international admissions. Current MIT seniors are the first to be eligible for Skoltech fellowships.

Event speakers included visiting Skoltech faculty and students, who discussed the innovative curriculum and immersions being developed with MIT, as well as opportunities for postdoc positions and research collaborations. All students admitted to the two-year master’s programs in energy and IT receive full fellowships, covering travel, tuition, accommodation, insurance and other expenses. The application deadline is Jan. 20. In explaining why they joined an academic startup, Crawley, Boning and Skoltech students called it a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” citing the chance to impact the future of higher education in Russia.

MIT’s collaboration with Skoltech and the Skolkovo Foundation has generated a variety of related opportunities for faculty, researchers and students. In the past year, Russian language instruction has been re-introduced after a break of 18 years. Like the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi, however, Skoltech operates entirely in English.

The MIT Skoltech Initiative, through its entrepreneurship and innovation team, was a key partner in launching the summer Founder’s Skills Accelerator (FSA); the FSA could serve as a model for supporting student entrepreneurs at Skoltech. MIT students also have the opportunity to learn about Russian science and technology through MISTI-organized trips to Moscow and St. Petersburg during Independent Activities Period.

In 2013, Skoltech and MIT leaders are planning for additional curriculum pilots, the next CDIO conference at MIT, and new research centers — as well as an expanding faculty and student body. By the end of the decade, the university will be scaled to 200 faculty, 300 postdoctoral associates, 1,200 graduate students, 15 research centers and core campus facilities.

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