Building Relationships across Continents: A Young Scientist’s Summer in Austria

It’s no secret that The Ohio State University is home to some of the world’s brightest students and many renowned faculty who are eager to mentor their pupils.

One such mentor is Jeff Bielicki, assistant professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering, who holds a joint appointment in the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. Bielicki comes from an interdisciplinary background and holds positions in research and teaching at the crossroads of engineering, energy, environment and policy. Last year, he encouraged his doctoral students to apply to the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), in which he also participated as a doctoral student at Harvard University in 2006. Yaoping Wang, a doctoral student in environmental science took the charge to heart.

YSSP is an annual three-month research program for doctoral students who are engaged in systems analysis and research on global environmental, economic and social change. The program takes place in Laxenburg, Austria. The selected students have the opportunity to advance their research under the direct supervision of experienced scientists at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

Wang says she was inspired to apply because the research areas in the YSSP energy program matched very well with her current research.

“My research project was on the impacts of climate change and planned capacity expansion on coal-fired power plants in Asia,” Wang says. She collaborated with other scientists to simulate the potential power outputs of the power plants under various scenarios of technology choice and coal plant addition/retirement, based on a heat-and-water balance model driven by hydrological simulations under 1.5, 2 and 3 degrees Celsius increases in global mean surface temperature.

“There was a strong sense of community because of the collaboration between IIASA scientists and YSSP students,” she says, adding that access to over 300 scientists in the program made it easy for her to find people of similar research interests and helped create a productive learning environment for graduate students.

The physical and social work environments were wonderful, Wang says, noting that the town of Laxenburg has great air quality and was lively because of the tourists who come to visit the Blauer Hof (Blue Court) castle. In fact, IIASA is located in this castle.

Bielicki first applied to YSSP because one of his graduate advisers was involved in YSA, the precursor to YSSP, as one of the first graduate students to attend the program in the early 1970s. YSA started as a collaboration for USSR and American scientists and eventually evolved into a student program. Today, member countries contribute financially to YSSP and can then nominate students from their countries. This year, there were 52 students selected from over 300 applicants from 30 countries.

Bielicki says applying to the YSSP was one of the best things he has done. “You have the opportunity to do interesting work with world-renown researchers, meet people from all over the world, and do it all in a castle in Europe,” he says. The international travel component of the program was definitely a motivating factor for applying. He wanted the opportunity to live in Laxenburg, Austria, for three months while conducting systems-focused research. He explains that the systems-level research at YSSP focuses on interactions rather than reductionist science. His research during the YSSP focused the growth and adoption of new technologies. This required an interdisciplinary approach, including insights from economics, psychology and engineering.

YSSP also provides students with valuable connections. Because of this diverse network of people spanning countries, cultures and cohorts, Bielicki says he can refer his students to former program attendees for work and research and often makes a point to visit those friends when in their countries. In fact, he and his YSSP roommate are international godfathers for each other’s children!

Wang already keeps in touch with fellow program go-ers through a WhatsApp group.

“It is a no-regret to apply! The program is very good for graduate students’ professional development and mental well-being,” says Wang, encouraging other Ohio State students to apply. She advises that a well-written proposal matching the research interests at IIASA is important. The proposal itself is short — hers was less than four pages. Because students have only three months of working time and there will be outings every weekend that they would not want to miss, the proposed research project must not be too lengthy.

Wang says her project contributed greatly to her dissertation, and she became more familiar with different research topics related to her focus. Once she successfully defends her dissertation and graduates from Ohio State, she plans to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship at IIASA among other institutions.

Applications for YSSP are being accepted until Jan. 11.

Ravleen Kaur is a student communications assistant in the Office of Energy and Environment.