Sundaram Gunasekaran

Sundaram Gunasekaran, a professor of biological systems engineering, was recently selected to serve as faculty director of CALS International Programs.

Gunasekaran—or Guna, as he is widely known—has made his mark as a food engineer. His research focuses on the rheology of food, especially cheese. More recently, he has focused on applying nanotechnology and other methodologies as tools for pathogen detection and processing validation in foods.

But it’s his life experiences, along with his research prowess, that distinguish him as ideal for his new position. Guna’s international experience is geographically diverse. He received his bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore, India, his master’s degree in food process engineering from the Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, Thailand, and his Ph.D. in agricultural and biological engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been a visiting professor in South Korea, a Fulbright Fellow in Denmark, a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer consultant in Bangladesh and a mentor for a Syrian scientist under the Scholar Rescue Fund.

“I have also traveled widely and enjoy working with individuals and groups from different walks of life and interests,” he says.

As leader of CALS International Programs, Guna will identify and pursue international activities consistent with the college’s strategic goals. He will lead efforts to identify new resources for international activities and oversee the distribution of seed funding for new projects.

Why are international programs so important for CALS? 

The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Many of today’s scientific challenges and practical problems can be solved not through isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries.

Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extends far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. In a recent survey we found that more than 200 people in CALS have been working in about 80 countries around the world in various projects at one time or another. We are very engaged internationally.

International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an “individual project” level to a more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this activity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? 

My vision is for CALS to become one of the leaders among the nation’s land-grant colleges in international engagement, and for it to effect positive change in global agricultural, natural resource, energy, environmental and life science enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature.

How do we currently compare to other institutions? 

Other institutions have much larger international program activities. That’s something we want to see happen at UW– Madison.

Most major international collaborations deal with USDA and USAID projects. The United States government has resources to help developing nations solve their problems in securing a food supply, growing more food and developing infrastructure for storage, handling and distribution of food.

For example, the U.S. government has a large grant program called Feed the Future. We are one of the largest agricultural research schools that is not involved with that type of program. We are a player, but we are not considered to be a leader. That’s what I would like to help change.

How else is this work funded? 

In addition to funding from international agencies, there are local governments and private entities like the Gates Foundation. We also have support from alumni donors and alumni groups.

How has international research been changing over time? 

The United States is still a major intellectual and knowledge base—but now, as other countries and regions in the world are also growing their expertise, we can join hands and solve problems together rather than just being the problem solvers ourselves.

What are the hurdles to developing international research? 

Building relationships takes time. Normally if somebody is familiar with your institution or you as a person, that is the first point of contact. And then we get to know their strengths and needs, and then figure out how we can plug in our strengths and capacities. This kind of “feeling-out” process takes time.

We have to take time to travel and meet people and learn about their region and identify the problems they face there, and then identify researchers in Madison who have the capacity and the intellectual base to help solve some of those problems.

Does this process take resources away from our research endeavor here? 

On the contrary, it actually helps add to our research capacity and resources. Sometimes we develop a solution and international program activities provide additional resources to put that research output into action where it is needed. It takes some effort and capacity from our researchers to be able to focus their attention on international problems, but I don’t think it takes substantial resources away from what we are doing here.

How does international research enterprise affect students? 

We, as an institution, are responsible for developing future generations of citizens, and a student who is knowledgeable and well-versed in global issues and is sympathetic to different languages and cultures is a student who is able to solve the problems of the future. In that respect we believe that international engagement for students is critical for them to become future leaders and citizens of the world.

You held a number of listening sessions with faculty and staff from across the college to hear about their international work and their needs. What did you learn? 

The general consensus is: 1) they value international engagement; 2) they’re very active in it already; and 3) they’d like international programs to support their cause so they can do it more and better.

For example, they’d like us to help with their administrative needs so that they can focus on the technical and scientific aspects. Our office can help with budgetary issues, signing MOUs, and dealing with interinstitutional or intergovernmental issues. They also want to be more actively involved in large projects. So we are in the process of identifying opportunities where we can have multiinstitutional, multiinvestigator-based projects. It is something that individual investigators are not able to do, but that CALS International Programs can facilitate.

Beyond funding, are there other ways for alumni to assist in this effort? 

Certainly our alumni can be the spokespeople, our ambassadors. Especially our alumni who are internationally inclined, who have gone on a study abroad, or people from different countries who studied here and went back home—or even if they stayed here but still have strong connections back home. They identify with UW–Madison, and this is the institution they think of first when they think of collaborating, and so we become the first point of contact for them.

And when we go to another country, we look for someone who has been here, and they become our first point of contact—a resource center, so to speak, to help us navigate the local bureaucracy or culture. They become very valuable partners in this process. We have a number of examples of alumni we work with in engaging with different countries.