Swiss university keen to tie up with Singapore researchers

SWITZERLAND - A Swiss university keen on deeper collaborations with Singapore institutions made its pitch to President Tony Tan Keng Yam yesterday during his visit to the campus.

The Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) presented a few of its ongoing research projects and suggested that they could be boosted by cooperation with Singapore researchers.

One major initiative is its Human Brain Project, a €1 billion (S$1.7 billion) enterprise being funded by the European Commission. It is a collaborative effort among 100 universities in Europe, the United States, China, Japan, Canada and Israel that seeks to map out the human brain by 2023 in order to understand how it is designed and what causes brain diseases.

Dr Tan heard how the researchers aim ultimately to figure out not just how to prevent brain diseases but also how to use a model of human brain circuits to build future supercomputers.

Neuroscience Professor Henry Markram, a co-director of the project, said a group from EPFL will visit Singapore in the coming weeks to seek research collaborators and speak to museum directors. "We believe the stigma of brain disease does not help society," he told the media on the sidelines of the President's tour.

"So we want to explain how the brain works, demystify brain diseases so that people are more compassionate and understanding of those with such diseases, and we want to inspire youth with the kind of possibilities that open up when you understand how the brain works."

The team is establishing a worldwide network of strategic partnerships with museums, including one in Singapore, to hold exhibitions on the project.

"Once we've worked out the plans, it will likely launch in 2016," Prof Markram added.

This will not be EPFL's first collaboration with Singapore. The institute has an academic exchange programme with the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University. It also offers a joint PhD programme with A*Star. Under this programme, doctoral students specialising in life sciences, engineering, physics or mathematics complete half their thesis at EPFL and half at A*Star. So far there has been one student under the new programme, who will be going to A*Star later this year.

The institute plans to build on these ties and is "seriously exploring new avenues of collaborations with institutes in Singapore", said EPFL's head of international relations, Mr Antoine Fromentin.

Dr Tan's four-day visit to Switzerland included a tour of a laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, EPFL's sister institute, on Wed-nesday. Dr Tan was also scheduled to visit the Nestle Research Centre in Lausanne last night.

He leaves for Singapore today.

This article was published on May 10 in The Straits Times.

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