Big answers from small creatures

A graduate student tracks the spread of viruses from bats to humans in Madagascar

By Cara Brook

IT IS SPRINGTIME in the Makira-Masoala peninsula of northeastern Madagascar, and the lychee trees are in full fruit. I sit crouched with my research team in camping chairs as dusk settles, our eyes intent on Rousettus madagascariensis, one of three species of endemic Malagasy fruit bat. The fox-faced bats flit deftly amongst the leafy branches, dodging our nets as they search out juicy pink fruits for their evening meal.

Our quiet vigil is interrupted by the arrival of a whistling gray-haired man from the nearby village who carries a net strung on a pole in one hand and a garish yellow plastic fuel can in the other. With a nod to us, he strides up to a neighboring tree and expertly scoops five of the feasting bats, pins the net to the ground with a bare hand, and coaxes the bats one-by-one into his yellow can. Mission accomplished, he straightens up with a wink and turns back home, rattling his can of bats in time to his whistle as he walks.

Handeha hihinina andrehy izy?” I ask my Malagasy colleagues in astonishment. Is he going to eat the bats? Laughing at my horror, they nod in affirmation.

Bats as reservoirs

I study zoonotic diseases, infections that transmit from wildlife to humans, as a graduate student in Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Bats are native reservoir hosts — meaning they host viruses without getting sick — for a number of the world’s most dangerous human diseases, including rabies, Ebola and SARS. I want to understand how bats host these viruses without getting sick and what factors contribute to the viruses’ spillover to human populations.

Field lab

Graduate student Cara Brook (rear) and colleague Christian Ranaivoson, a graduate student at the University of Antananarivo and an intern with the Pasteur Institute of Madagascar, process fresh bat fluids in their field lab in Maromizaha, Madagascar, in September 2014. (Photo by Deborah Bower.)

A lot of my work involves building mathematical models to understand disease. When I started graduate school, I barely understood what a “model” was. Four years later, I recognize that a model is simply a representation of reality — it can be physical, like a model of the solar system; experimental, like a mouse that a scientist infects to monitor disease progression; or mathematical, like the equations we use to describe disease transmission in my field of disease ecology.

The goal is to build simple models that still adequately represent reality. One of my professors, Bryan Grenfell, once told me, “If you apply a complex model to a complex system, then you have two things that you don’t understand.” If we can understand our models, then we can learn by observing the differences between these models and the more complex reality.

In disease ecology, our simple models are mathematical equations that class all potential disease hosts — bats, in my research — into three categories: (1) susceptible to infection; (2) currently infected; or (3) recovered from infection and now immune. We use our equations to predict how the proportion of hosts within each category changes over time, and then we collect data to determine whether our predictions match reality.

Remote corners

One of the ideas we are testing is whether bats are fundamentally different from other mammals in their capacity for resisting or tolerating viral infections. I build models depicting the spread of infected cells within individual bats and explore the physiological processes that might allow a bat cell to host a replicating virus without experiencing the cellular damage that causes the host to feel sick.

In the lab, I grow layers of bat cells, infect them with virus, and monitor cell-to-cell viral spread. Then I compare these data with what is predicted in my models. If the data match the model, then maybe the mechanism for disease mitigation that I chose for my model also is the one used in real life.

At a population level, bat-virus transmission, including spillover, peaks in the winter, and we want to know why. I build population-level transmission models that incorporate different seasonal pathways to cause winter infections, then I try to match those models to data. Collecting field data is hard — I spend years trekking to remote corners of Madagascar, mastering obscure Malagasy dialects, and rigging complex pulley systems out of nets, fishing lines and carabiners.

At the end of it all, like the man in Makira- Masoala, I catch a few bats. Instead of cooking them for dinner, however, I use fine-gauge needles, cryogenic vials and sterile swabs to collect their blood and other bodily fluids before I let them go. I haul the fluids in vats of liquid nitrogen to the laboratories of the Pasteur Institute of Madagascar in the capital city of Antananarivo. From there, samples are shipped to collaborators in London, Berlin, New York and Washington, D.C., while others remain in-country. My collaborators and I perform a variety of tests on these transported fluids to ascertain whether the bats were susceptible, infected or recovered from infection at the time of sampling.

When all is said and done, the results are sometimes difficult to interpret. Science is a gradual process, and the goal is to always narrow the window of possible hypotheses at least a little bit.

For me, science is a recognition of, as John Steinbeck put it, “how man is related to the whole thing.” I’m still trying to understand how humans fit into the zoonotic cycle of disease. I’m nearing the end of my Ph.D., but I have enough questions to keep me going for a lifetime.

Cara Brook is a fifth-year doctoral student. Her advisers are Andrew Dobson, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; Bryan Grenfell, the Kathryn Briger and Sarah Fenton Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Public Affairs; Andrea Graham, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; and C. Jessica Metcalf, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and public affairs. Brook’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and PIVOT, a Madagascar-based health care nongovernmental society.

A RISKY PROPOSITION: Has global interdependence made us vulnerable?

A Risky Proposition

RISK IS EVERYWHERE. There’s a risk, for example, that volcanic ash will damage aircraft engines. So when a volcano erupted in Iceland in April 2010, concerns about the plume of volcanic ash disrupted air travel across Europe for about a week. Travelers, from the Prince of Wales to Miley Cyrus, were forced to adjust their plans.

In the interconnected world of the 21st century, that risk also put Kenyan flower farm employees out of work because their crop couldn’t reach Europe, and forced Nissan to halt production of some models in Japan because certain parts weren’t available.

Welcome to global systemic risk, where virtually every person on Earth can be affected by disruption in interdependent systems as diverse as electricity transmission, computer networks, food and water supplies, transportation, health care, and finance. The risks are complicated and little understood.

TextA core group of about two dozen faculty members from across the University — along with postdoctoral research fellows, graduate students, undergraduates and outside researchers — has come together for a three-year research effort focused on developing a comprehensive and cohesive framework for the study of such risks.

The Global Systemic Risk research community, with financial support from the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, is working to better understand the nature of risk, the structure of increasingly fragile systems and the ability to anticipate and prevent catastrophic consequences.

“You can’t isolate any of these systems,” said Miguel Centeno, the Musgrave Professor of Sociology and head of the research community. “They’re all complex systems complexly put together. We’ve been running this unique experiment for the past 50 years or so, and we’re all dependent on it continuing to work.”

Making systems stronger

The goals of the community, now in its second year, include research, course development, conferences and even a movie series that will give the public a chance to use popular disaster films as a point of entry to discuss the serious issues of systemic risk.

Thayer Patterson, a research fellow and a member of the group’s executive committee, said the work that emerges should be useful not just for academics, but also policymakers, leaders in business and finance, and the public.

“This isn’t just an academic pursuit; it’s an intellectual exercise that has the potential for real consequences in terms of making our systems stronger and more robust to the inevitable shocks that they will experience,” Patterson said.

Policymakers, for example, may learn more about the ways dangerous unintended consequences can arise from seemingly sensible laws and regulations, Patterson said. And business leaders may better understand the importance of realistic risk assessment.

“We want to celebrate the risk takers and the innovators and the fruits of their labors,” Patterson said. “We are by no means doomsayers, but we hope to provide more information to people on the robustness and fragility of systems.”

Discovery2014_Centeno_full

What are the most fragile global systems? Centeno points to two that concern him the most: the Internet and global health.

While the Internet itself is fairly robust by design, Centeno said, many other crucial systems — such as electrical grids, financial institutions and transportation systems — rely on the Internet, and a catastrophic failure there could quickly have dangerous effects worldwide.

And the ease of global travel today raises the risk that disease can spread unchecked around the world before health authorities have an opportunity to react, he said.

“We now have the conditions under which we could create some kind of pandemic very quickly that we would not be able to resolve,” Centeno said.

Tackling research

The research community includes faculty members from 17 academic departments and five interdisciplinary programs at Princeton. Each brings his or her own background and approach to the topic.

Adam Elga, a professor of philosophy, said he has been interested in the topic of risk for several years and previously co-taught a course on the philosophy of extreme risk. That course piqued his interest in the idea of cascading failures, in which a series of small failures builds within a system and results in a catastrophic failure.

Elga is conducting a series of experiments this year with financial support from the research community that examines how individuals assess risks in situations where there is a small, but real, risk of catastrophic failure.

Elga’s hypothesis is that many experiment participants will struggle to accurately account for the risk of catastrophic failure. In the same way, Elga said, policymakers and the public can be lulled into complacency by the fact that important global systems haven’t experienced catastrophic failure — even though the risk is real and the potential consequences devastating.

“There is some evidence that people aren’t going to be scared enough by the bad outcomes until they’ve already been hit by one,” Elga said. “But once you get hit by a really big one, it’s too late and the game is over.”

Elga said he has derived benefits from the research community beyond direct support for his work.

“It’s been stimulating to hear people from adjacent fields such as psychology, to talk to people who have thought about this from mathematical and engineering perspectives,” he said.

Another participant is Stanley Katz, a lecturer with the rank of professor in public and international affairs, who has begun applying ideas about risk from the research community in his study on philanthropy.

How does a major philanthropic donor, for example, decide between spending $100 million in Africa on bed nets, which have a known effect on the transmission of malaria, or spending the same sum on an unproven vaccine that could either be much more effective than bed nets or be a total failure? Such decisions, Katz said, are based, in part, on assessments of risk.

“The field hasn’t ordinarily been studied this way,” Katz said. “This is relatively new language, and this is one of the things that appeals to me about the project. I’m learning a lot from scholars in social sciences who are much more accustomed to working with the language of risk.”

No easy answers

Vu Chau, a member of the Class of 2015, is an undergraduate fellow with the research community and received funding for summer research on risk-related topics. The economics major is working to understand the impact that policies the Federal Reserve implemented in response to the 2007-08 financial crisis had on emerging markets.

“Before the crisis, the common thinking was that we need only design policies and regulations that focus on individual agents such as banks, because the larger system would be safe if each of its components is safe,” Chau said. “However, the crisis taught us that even when individual parts act prudently and follow regulations, the whole system can fail under certain conditions. This is precisely why systemic risk is dangerous and deserves the kind of attention it is getting.”

Systemic risk is a topic that doesn’t lend itself to easy answers, Centeno said.

Warning systems — such as better measures of financial risk to avert another financial crisis — can be helpful but are limited. Regulations — such as environmental rules to slow global warming — can cause unintended problems.

Safety nets — such as redundant equipment on power grids — are expensive and can actually increase risky behavior.

Shut-off switches — such as quarantines to limit the spread of disease — are practically and ethically challenging.

“Maybe the way to approach this isn’t that we need a better financial system or a better food system,” Centeno said. “Maybe we need a better system as a whole. Increasingly, you can’t divide these domains.”

So while the research community won’t be able to solve the problems of systemic risk during its three-year term, Centeno said its role is both clear and important: “The task of a research community is to create interdisciplinary conversations about a set of problems or issues so you can better understand what you’re looking at. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

-By Michael Hotchkiss

YING-SHIH YU Receives Inaugural Tang Prize in Sinology

Ying-shih Yu

Ying-shih Yu (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

Ying-shih Yu, the Gordon Wu ’58 Professor of Chinese Studies, Emeritus, was awarded the inaugural Tang Prize in Sinology in 2014. The Tang Prize Foundation selection committee recognized Yu for his “mastery of and insight into Chinese intellectual, political and cultural history with an emphasis on this profound research into the history of public intellectuals in China.”

The prize, established in 2012 by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin, takes its name from the Tang Dynasty (618-907), a period considered to be the height of classical Chinese civilization, characterized by liberal policies and robust cultural activity. One of the world’s authorities on the Tang Dynasty, Yu has researched and written extensively on every period of Chinese history, from ancient to modern. As the first Tang Prize laureate in sinology, Yu received NT $40 million (U.S. $1.33 million) and a research grant of up to NT $10 million to be used within five years, as well as a medal and a certificate. He received the award on Sept. 18, 2014, in a ceremony in Taipei.

–By the Office of Communications

Stalin: Volume I: Paradoxes of Power, 1878 – 1928

StalinIt has the quality of myth: a poor cobbler’s son, a seminarian from an oppressed outer province of the Russian empire, reinvents himself as a top leader in a band of revolutionary zealots. He later embarks upon the greatest gamble of his political life and the largest program of social reengineering ever attempted: the collectivization of all agriculture and industry across one-sixth of the Earth.

In Stalin, Stephen Kotkin, Princeton’s John P. Birkelund ’52 Professor in History and International Affairs, offers a biography that, at long last, is equal to this shrewd, sociopathic, charismatic dictator in all his dimensions. Kotkin rejects the inherited wisdom about Stalin’s psychological makeup, showing us instead how Stalin’s near paranoia was fundamentally political, and closely tracks the Bolshevik revolution’s structural paranoia, the predicament of a Communist regime in an overwhelmingly capitalist world, surrounded and penetrated by enemies. At the same time, Kotkin demonstrates the impossibility of understanding Stalin’s momentous decisions outside of the context of the tragic history of imperial Russia.

Africa’s poison ‘apple’ provides common ground for elephants and livestock

Impala

The tall and bushy plant known as the Sodom apple has overrun vast swaths of East African savanna and pastureland, including parts of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. New research suggests that certain animals, including elephants and impalas, could keep this invasive plant in check. (Photo courtesy of Rob Pringle)

AFRICAN WILDLIFE OFTEN RUN AFOUL of ranchers securing food and water resources for their animals, but the interests of fauna and farmer might finally be unified by the “Sodom apple,” a toxic invasive plant that has overrun vast swaths of East African savanna and pastureland.

Not a true apple, Solanum campylacanthum is a relative of the eggplant that smothers native grasses with its thorny stalks, while its striking yellow fruit provides a deadly temptation to sheep and cattle.

New research suggests, however, that certain wild animals, particularly elephants, could be a boon to human-raised livestock because of their voracious appetite for the Sodom apple. A fiveyear study led by Princeton University researchers found that elephants and impalas, among other wild animals, can not only safely gorge themselves on the plant, but also can efficiently regulate its otherwise explosive growth.

Just as the governments of nations such as Kenya prepare to pour millions into eradicating the plant, the findings present a method for controlling the Sodom apple that is cost-effective for humans and beneficial for the survival of African elephants, explained first author Robert Pringle, a Princeton assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Elephants

An elephant prepares to uproot a Solanum campylacanthum plant in the upland savanna of central Kenya. Although this woody shrub is toxic to many mammal species, large browsers such as elephants can eat it, and in so doing help to reduce its abundance.

“The Holy Grail in ecology is these win-win situations where we can preserve wildlife in a way that is beneficial to human livelihoods,” Pringle said “Elephants have a reputation as destructive, but they may be playing a role in keeping pastures grassy.”

The findings are important given the threats to elephants from poaching, Pringle said. “We need to understand to what extent these threatened animals have unique ecological functions.”

Elephants and impalas can withstand S. campylacanthum’s poison because they belong to a class of herbivores known as “browsers” that subsist on woody plants and shrubs, many species of which pack a toxic punch, Pringle said. On the other hand, “grazers” such as cows, sheep and zebras primarily eat grass, which is rarely poisonous. These animals easily succumb to the Sodom apple, which causes emphysema, pneumonia, bleeding ulcers, brain swelling and death.

An unexpected feast Pringle was roughly three years into a study about the effects of elephants on plant diversity when he noticed that the Sodom apple was conspicuously absent from some experiment sites. He and other researchers had set up 36 exclosures — which are designed to keep animals out rather than in — totaling nearly 89 acres (36 hectares) at the Mpala Research Centre in Kenya, a multi-institutional research preserve with which Princeton has been long involved.

There were four types of exclosure: one type open to all animals; another where only elephants were excluded; one in which elephants and impalas were excluded; and another off limits to all animals.

It was in the sites that excluded elephants and impala that the Sodom apple particularly flourished, Pringle said, which defied everything he knew about the plant.

“I had always thought that these fruits were horrible and toxic, but when I saw them in the experiment, I knew some animal was otherwise eating them. I just didn’t know which one,” Pringle said. “The question became, ‘Who’s eating the apple?”

Using the exclosures, Pringle and his coauthors documented the zest with which wild African browsers will eat S. campylacanthum. Pringle worked with Corina Tarnita, a Princeton mathematical biologist and assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, as well as with collaborators from the University of Wyoming, University of Florida, University of California-Davis, Mpala Center and University of British Columbia.

The researchers specifically observed the foraging activity of elephants, impalas, smalldog- sized antelopes known as dik-diks, and rodents. Using cameras, they captured about 30,000 hours of foraging, and discovered that elephants and impalas were the primary eaters of the plants.

There is a catch to the elephants’ and impalas’ appetite for the Sodom apple: When fruit goes in one end, seeds come out the other. Though some seeds are destroyed during digestion, most reemerge and are potentially able to germinate.

Pringle and Tarnita developed a mathematical model to conduct a sort of cost-benefit analysis of how the Sodom apple’s ability to proliferate is affected by being eaten. The model weighed the “cost” to the plant of being partially consumed against the potential benefit of having healthy seeds scattered across the countryside in an animal’s droppings.

While elephants ate an enormous amount of Solanum seeds, they also often destroyed the entire plant, ripping it out of the ground and stuffing the whole bush into their mouths. The model showed that to offset the damage an elephant wreaks on a plant, 80 percent of the seeds the animal eats would have to emerge from it unscathed. On top of that, each seed would have to be 10-times more likely to take root than one that simply fell to the ground from its parent.

Impalas, on the other hand, can have a positive overall effect on the plants, the researchers found. Impalas ate the majority of the fruit consumed — one impala ate 18 fruit in just a few minutes. But they do not severely damage the parent plant while feeding and also spread a lot of seeds in their dung. Of the seeds eaten by an impala, only 60 percent would need to survive, and those seeds would have to be a mere three-times more likely to sprout than a seed that simply fell from its parent.

“A model allows you to explore a space you’re not fully able to reach experimentally,” said Tarnita, who uses math to understand the outcome of interactions between organisms. “This model helped us conclude that although it is theoretically possible for elephants to benefit the plant, that outcome is extremely unlikely.”

The study was published in the June 22, 2014, edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Sherwood Family Foundation, and the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

–By Morgan Kelly

New mineral: Steinhardtite

steinhardtite

Steinhardtite is a mineral named in honor of Paul Steinhardt, Princeton’s Albert Einstein Professor in Science and a professor of physics (Image courtesy of Luca Bindi, et al)

A MINERAL DISCOVERED to be of meteoritic origin has been named “steinhardtite” in honor of Paul Steinhardt, Princeton’s Albert Einstein Professor in Science and a professor of physics. The name was approved by the Commission on New Minerals, Nomenclature and Classification of the International Mineralogical Association.

The mineral was found in the Koryak Mountains in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula during a 2011 expedition led by Steinhardt to locate the meteoritic source of the first known naturally occurring example of a quasicrystal, now known as “icosahedrite,” in which the atoms are arranged in patterns that do not regularly repeat and include unlikely configurations such as the 20-sided shape of a soccer ball. Steinhardt and collaborators had discovered a sample of icosahedrite at the Natural History Museum at the University of Florence, Italy, a finding published in the journal Science in 2009, and later identified the Florence sample as being meteoritic in origin. The expedition to the Koryak Mountains resulted in the discovery of steinhardtite, a new crystalline form of aluminum combined with significant amounts of iron and nickel.

The international team reporting the mineral and proposing the name was led by Luca Bindi, professor of mineralogy and crystallograpy at the University of Florence. Princeton researchers included Nan Yao, director of the Imaging and Analysis Center at the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials (PRISM); Gerald Poirier, PRISM senior research specialist; Lincoln Hollister, professor of geosciences, emeritus; and Chaney Lin, a graduate student in physics. They were joined by Glenn MacPherson, a geologist at the Smithsonian Institution; Christopher Andronicos, an associate professor at Purdue University; scientists Vadim Distler, Valery Kryachko and Marina Yudovskaya of the Russian Academy of Sciences; Michael Eddy, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Alexander Kostin, a geosciences technologist at BHP Billiton; and William Steinhardt, a graduate student at Harvard University.

-By Catherine Zandonella

Activism Shapes Africa Scholar

Leonard Wantchekon

Princeton Professor of Politics Leonard Wantchekon has built upon his past as a political activist in the West African nation of Benin to forge an academic career focused on studying — and working to shape — governance and institutions in Africa. (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Leonard Wantchekon’s education began  as a young child in his home village of Zagnanado, in the West African nation of Benin, where elementary school classes gave way to long soccer games and evenings of storytelling by aunts and uncles whose tales became informal history courses.

He left village life behind in a search for academic success that took him to the nation’s most populous city, Cotonou, to the National University of Benin to study mathematics, and eventually to North America and Princeton.

During his student years in Benin, Wantchekon became a pro-democracy activist. Planning meetings became his classes, fellow activists his classmates and acts of protest his final exams. Through the 1970s and ’80s he rose to a prominent place in the opposition that helped hasten the end of the oppressive regime of Mathieu Kérékou.

“All the time I tried to be two different persons in one,” Wantchekon said. “On the one hand I wanted to be the next big thing in academics in Africa. I wanted to be a top mathematician and was very ambitious, driven and enthusiastic. … At the same time, I was an equally ambitious pro-democracy activist. I was at the center of a social movement that was pushing for major political reforms in Benin.”

His twin paths of academic study and political activism frequently diverged and intersected until a morning in December 1986, when he escaped across the border into Nigeria following 18 months of incarceration as a political prisoner and three months on the run from authorities.

“It was — or rather, I was determined to make this — the dividing line between my past and my future,” Wantchekon wrote about that moment in his autobiography Rêver à contre-courant (Dreaming Against the Grain), published in French by L’Harmattan in 2012.

A quarter-century after leaving his home country, Wantchekon has built upon his remarkable past to forge an academic career focused on studying — and working to shape — governance and institutions in Africa.

He has emerged as one of the rare political scientists who works directly with politicians, using their campaigns as laboratories to study how best to engage voters on policies. He also studies how the benefits of education spread through a society, using his home village as one of the study sites. And he’s hard at work on his most ambitious project, establishing a graduate school and center for social science research in Benin.

“We shouldn’t underestimate how crucial it is that ideas that will help Africa develop have to come mostly from Africa and have to involve more Africans,” said Wantchekon, who joined the Princeton faculty in 2011 as a professor of politics and associate faculty member in the economics department. “This, of course, cannot happen overnight. So we need to set up great institutions of higher education with the hope that, over time, we develop enough talent to make a difference.”

Political campaign as laboratory

In Benin, Wantchekon is experimenting with ways to engage voters using the nation itself as a laboratory. “As a researcher and someone who has political experience, I’m interested in the following question: How can a candidate best communicate a policy platform to the electorate that is both good for the country and can help the candidate win?” Wantchekon said.

Town hall meeting

In his research on engaging voters, Wantchekon compared the effectiveness of two campaign strategies, a town-hall meeting versus a large campaign rally. He found that the town-hall meeting is more effective at getting people to vote for the candidate, and it was far more cost effective. (Photo courtesy of the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy, Benin)

With the cooperation of the candidates and funding from the International Development Research Council of Canada (IDRC), he is evaluating the effectiveness of two campaign techniques: town-hall meetings focused on issues versus the usual large and costly rallies that emphasize financial incentives for voters.

Wantchekon found that town-hall meetings are more effective than rallies both in terms of getting people to turn out to vote and getting them to vote for the candidate. “Not only are the people more informed,” he said, “but those who attend share what they have learned with others.” Some of the project results were published in the October 2013 issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics. He completed a similar experiment in the Philippines earlier this year with support from Princeton’s Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, and is awaiting the results.

His next project is to explore the conditions under which holding primary elections within political parties, as is done in the United States, could encourage candidates to develop more thorough expertise on policy areas. “Competition between two candidates from the same party, running on the same platform, I think will encourage candidates to go deeper into the issues with the voters,” Wantchekon said.

Peter Buisseret, a Ph.D. student studying comparative politics, is collaborating with Wantchekon on this work. “Leonard is enormously enthusiastic about the projects we work on together, and also my own work,” Buisseret said. “As a co-author, he is truly collaborative: I feel very much an equal in the projects we work on, but at the same time I recognize how much intellectual and professional benefit I get from working with someone with his experience and knowledge.”

Wantchekon said his experience in graduate school shapes the way he relates to students. After fleeing Benin, he found his way to Canada, where he earned master’s degrees in economics from Laval University and the University of British Columbia.

In 1992, he went to Northwestern University, where he earned his doctorate in economics. But the transition to the American academic system — and an environment where only English was spoken — was difficult. He overcame the challenges, though, and secured a position as an assistant professor of political science at Yale University and later on the faculty of New York University.

Far-reaching benefits of education

Wantchekon’s experiences spurred him to explore how education has benefited people within villages and across generations in Benin, a country that experienced Western colonization. When Benin, then known as Dahomey, was colonized in 1895 by France, Catholic missionaries began setting up schools throughout the region. The missionaries’ goal was religious conversion, Wantchekon said, while the colonial government aimed to train local people to work as translators, nurses, accountants and security guards.

Colonial school 1936

Wantchekon studies the benefits of education on the income levels of descendants of the first students of missionary schools in Benin. One such school shown above in 1936 operated in Wantchekon’s home village, Zagnanado. (Copyright African Missions)

Using colonial archives, school rosters and oral histories, and with financial support from IDRC, Wantchekon identified 240 of the first students to attend school in the early 1900s at four sites in Benin. He noted that these students were not smarter or wealthier than the average Benin child but merely were fortunate to live near a school, so they can be thought of as randomly selected and representative of the population. He compared each group of 60 students to a representative sample of children from a village that lacked a school.

He found that the educated individuals experienced better incomes and living conditions. For example, only 14 percent of the educated students become farmers, whereas farming was the primary occupation among the uneducated (about 80 percent). He also found that the educated were more likely to have electricity and running water in their homes and to own a bicycle, motorcycle or car.

Wantchekon also found lasting effects that went beyond the individuals who received education. The children of the first students exhibited better outcomes, as might be expected, but what is particularly striking, Wantchekon said, is that the children of uneducated parents living in villages with schools did markedly better than descendants of uneducated parents in villages without schools.

“What I draw from this is the importance of aspiration,” he said. “When you see someone who makes it, he or she is your reference point, and you want to make it too. This is a very important finding for education policy. It is how you use the success of a few to encourage the success of many.”

Wantchekon said his findings resonate with his own experience. His mother, who was mostly uneducated, would show him pictures of his successful and educated uncle and urge her children to be like him. Of the children he went to school with in the village of Zagnanado, 10 others have earned Ph.D.s. “Entire villages in Benin have been completely transformed by education,” he said.

With a small team of students sponsored by Princeton’s Health Grand Challenge program, Wantchekon is now exploring whether the beneficial effects of education have continued to spread to the grandchildren of Benin’s first students in an era of increased competition for jobs.

Returning to Benin

Wantchekon isn’t just studying Africa’s past and present. He’s working to shape its future as founder of the African School of Economics (ASE), which is set to open in Benin in fall 2014. The goal of the ASE, Wantchekon said, is to create a center of excellence for social science research in Africa.

African School of Economics

Wantchekon is working to establish the African School of Economics (ASE), whose offices and a related organization, the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy, are currently housed in the building (top) in Abomey Calavi, Benin. Plans for a new ASE campus, pictured in the architectural renderings (bottom), are underway. (Photo courtesy of Serge Boya; architectural renderings courtesy of ASE)

The school, which has its roots in a research institute Wantchekon established in Benin in 2004, has received funding from the Women for Africa Foundation and SES, a satellite company based in Luxembourg, and is scheduled to open with about 300 master’s degree students.

“I’ve always thought that the way to promote social science research in Africa is to have a better African representation in social science research

in Africa,” Wantchekon said. “We need to solve development problems on the continent through original thinking and indigenous generation of knowledge.”

The ASE will bring together students and faculty from Africa and beyond with an academic focus on informing social science within the context and history of Africa. Classes will be taught in English. The school’s structure and curriculum have been established. The design of the school, to be based near the city of Cotonou, is nearing completion.

The ASE is also pursuing academic partnerships with universities around the world that he hopes will lead to a free flow of students, faculty and ideas. Earlier this year, Princeton announced a partnership involving Wantchekon and the University of São Paulo, the Center for Teaching and Research in Economics in Mexico, and the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy in Benin. As part of this program, ASE hosted a summer school and conference involving 12 graduate students from Princeton and 10 from African universities.

“One of the things the University is very excited about in terms of this initiative is the opportunity our faculty will have to collaborate with scholars in Western Africa and possibly in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa later,” said Diana Davies, vice provost for international initiatives. “Also, this allows us to engage in the activity of capacity building and helping to build up the next generation of scholars in Africa, which is something that’s very important to us.”

“Africa is part of the University’s larger internationalization effort,” said Jeremy Adelman, Princeton’s Walter Samuel Carpenter III Professor in Spanish Civilization and Culture, professor of history and director of the University’s Council for International Teaching and Research. “But the strategy has to be adapted to Africa. Figuring out how it’s going to work in Africa requires working with Africans.”

Wantchekon knows that much work remains to reach his goals for the ASE. “I am really determined to get there,” he said. “ASE enables me to nourish big ambitions and dreams for Africa while being among the best academics in America.”

By Michael Hotchkiss

Princeton establishes strategic partnerships with three universities

University of São Paulo campus

The University of São Paulo is one of three institutions with which Princeton has formed new partnerships. (Photo courtesy of the University of São Paulo.)

Princeton has established strategic partnerships with the University of Tokyo, the University of São Paulo and Humboldt University in Berlin. The agreements expand upon the many institutional partnerships already in place including faculty fellowships, student exchanges and study abroad programs. Individual faculty initiatives will be the driving force behind the development of projects.

-By Karin Dienst

Quantum computing moves forward

New technologies that exploit quantum behavior for computing and other applications are closer than ever to being realized due to recent advances. These advances could enable the creation of immensely powerful computers as well as other applications, such as highly sensitive detectors capable of probing biological systems.

“We are really excited about the possibilities of new semiconductor materials and new experimental systems that have become available in the last decade,” said Jason Petta, a quantum information scientist and an associate professor of physics at Princeton, who collaborated with Andrew Houck, an associate professor of electrical engineering, on a study published in Nature in October 2012 describing a method for quick and reliable transfer of quantum information throughout a computing device.

Support for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Packard Foundation, the Army Research Office, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Quantum Entanglement Science and Technology Program.

–By Catherine Zandonella

First Princeton-Fung Global Forum held in Shanghai

Shanghai skyline

Shanghai skyline (Photo by Dan Day)

Architects, engineers and other scholars gathered in February in Shanghai for the inaugural Princeton-Fung Global Forum to discuss population growth, social trends, climate change and other factors determining “The Future of the City.”

A $10 million gift from Princeton Trustee William Fung, Class of 1970, established the forum and the Fung Global Fellows Program, which is administered by the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies and brings international early-career faculty members working in the social sciences and the humanities to Princeton for a year of research, writing and collaboration. Fung is chairman of the Hong Kongbased Li & Fung group of export and retailing companies.  The 2014 Princeton-Fung Global Forum will be held in Paris.

-By Dan Day