Main Quad, campus Urbana-Champaign

Like KTH – but more and bigger

Published Oct 11, 2011

Naturally, there is quite a lot that differentiates the University of Illinois from KTH, but the similarities are just as many. At the same time, the University of Illinois has a comprehensive perspective with a major focus on interdisciplinary projects. This is how some of the faculty members regard interdisciplinarity and the cooperation opportunities with KTH:

When I ask Jeff Unger, director of the news agency at the University of Illinois and responsible for the university's communication both internally and externally for a list of the university's successes over the past five years, I am somewhat surprised. Did he accidentally send a list of KTH's successes?

The list includes many well-known areas for me as research information manager at KTH. Microelectromechanical systems, electronic noses, super-small nano-needles, transportation studies and graphene research are just a view of the areas shared with KTH. The University of Illinois is also successful in material and cancer research, which are also areas where KTH has made frequent inroads.

But of course, Jeff Unger has not sent the wrong list. KTH and the University of Illinois have very much in common.

Anyone who takes a walk in the campus area, which is located in the twin cities of Urbana-Champaign, will soon have to understand that the red, sometimes magnificent brick houses have a lot in common with KTH's main campus in Valhallavägen.

KTH's courtyard, “Borggården”, has its counterpart in the large, open space, Main Quad, on the south side of the student union building. However, the University of Illinois' campus is considerably larger, grander, and if I dare write it, somewhat prettier. In addition, KTH lacks the multitude of eager and extremely cute squirrels that are completely fearless darting back and forth around the students' feet.

The big difference between KTH and the University of Illinois is the scope of the university's activities. At Urbana-Champaign, education and research are conducted in all disciplines except medicine, while KTH is organized into a single faculty.

Harry Dankowicz

Harry Dankowicz, with a background from KTH and now an associate professor at the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, is one of the initiators of the cooperation with KTH, which goes under the name Inspire.

He argues that interdisciplinarity is not just a matter of having many disciplines represented in a project. It is mostly about being adapted for an interdisciplinary approach, where progress is not possible without a strong connecting link across both disciplinary and geographic boundaries, stresses Harry Dankowicz.

“The University of Illinois has a strong interdisciplinary tradition which in a natural manner encourages discussion between, for example, engineers, biologists and experts in information technology and urban planning. In cooperation with KTH, and by extension with Stockholm University and Karolinska Institutet, fantastic opportunities will open up which can be further developed and which can strengthen this tradition in a broader context,” he says.

What he means is that it is possible to take advantage of expertise that might be represented only at one of the departments that are cooperating which could therefore have a decisive influence on research directions, both nationally and internationally.

“It broadens our opportunities to solve the vitally important challenges facing humanity which are not possible to deal with without an overall perspective,” says Harry Dankowicz.

Anna Westerståhl Stenport, literary-scholar at the University of Illinois, and also one of the initiators of the cooperation between the two universities, provides her views on the matter:

“It is important to point out that the University of Illinois adopted a multidisciplinary approach very early, and that the university is indeed very successful in science and engineering but is also strong in terms of the humanities. It is a very versatile and comprehensive university, ”says Anna Westerståhl Stenport.

It is easy to understand what she means. At my meeting with Roy Campbell, a professor in the computer science department at the University of Illinois, he is extremely enthusiastic when he talks about the human aspect of IT. There is still much to explore and understand, in fact, we have hardly made any progress at all yet on that issue, he says.

“We must become better at understanding why things and people change. We must also develop a deeper understanding of how we humans work. In this way, these phenomenon and events will become understandable and predictable, and we can build IT systems that support people, when they are at work and also during their leisure time,” says Roy Campbell.

How then can KTH and the University of Illinois benefit from each other, for example, from an interdisciplinary perspective?

Harry Dankowicz says that one of the reasons behind investments such as Inspire is to create connections at the local level, where areas of cooperation between colleagues at the University of Illinois are first identified in connection with the finding of common contacts with an external colleague, in this case from KTH.

“The fact that KTH includes courses and disciplines located across several schools at the University of Illinois provides an opportunity for our faculty members to find common research contexts that would otherwise not be prioritised,” he says.


Text: Peter Larsson

Read more about the collaboration between KTH and the University of Illinois


Facts: University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

  • Completely surrounded by the vast, rustling corn fields are the twin cities of Urbana-Champaign, and in the centre is the University campus. It quickly becomes obvious that agriculture is an important industry in this part of the United States.
  • John Bardeen, one of the three creators of the transistor, worked at the University of Illinois between 1951 and 1975. The transistor earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 (he later became the world's only double Nobel Prize winner in physics). The creator of LED technology was his first doctoral student.
  • Every year the University of Illinois produces 18,500 graduating students. The university has 25,000 employees and receives approximately USD 800 million annually in external research funding.
  • The University of Illinois has three campuses, one in Chicago and one in Springfield. The largest is in Urbana-Champaign.
  • Over the years, the University of Illinois' alumni and faculty members have received 23 Nobel Prizes and 19 Pulitzer Prizes.
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