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Local Players on the Global Stage

Local Players on the Global Stage

The scientists, engineers, and organizations that call New York home are increasingly interacting with citizens and governments in cities and towns across the world, working together to solve some of humanity’s most challenging problems.

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On an inner city Johannesburg street, a new mother's cell phone registers a text message. It reminds her to breastfeed her baby, and to give him antiretroviral syrup daily to reduce his risk of contracting HIV.

At a rural school in Kenya, the lights are on. It's no small feat considering the scarcity of fuel, and the fact that most residents can't afford to buy it. The school, along with a neighboring maternity clinic, runs on dung power—something that's never in short supply.

Half a continent apart, the new mom and the school are connected by a thread that runs to the other side of the globe, to the place where the programs that are improving—and even saving—lives are created and supported: New York.

New York has rightfully been called the meeting place of the world—the United Nations alone justifies the title—but it is not only a city where people gather. It's one of the greatest launching-off points in the world, home to dozens of nonprofits, universities, and foundations that export ideas, technologies, business practices, and innovative health measures to places as far as Madagascar and as close as Queens.

At any moment, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are addressing some of the most vexing issues around the globe. By leveraging the most developed medical infrastructure in the country, 110 local colleges and universities, and a highly developed network of donors, local citizens are creating synergies and implementing programs to improve health, strengthen cities, and expand education, globally.

Such is New York's legacy as a truly global city; from the early, and continuing, contributions of immigrants and local foundations in shaping the city's major industries, to the present, when its Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is asked to chair a council of 40 cities interested in sharing best practices for sustainability, and its resident science academy—the New York Academy of Sciences—is asked by the President of Russia, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, and the Mayors of Barcelona and Mexico City to share wisdom around science and policy.

"A wonderful drug that's too expensive for the developing world doesn't do much good sitting on the shelf."

1,000 Days and Counting

For organizations engaged in solving global health problems, the clock is ticking. With fewer than 1,000 days left to achieve the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, many local institutions are turning up the heat on what has already been considerable progress. These days, New York isn't known as a hotbed of tuberculosis (TB). Following an outbreak in the 1990s, local TB rates have been in steady decline. Yet in 2000, when global health stakeholders gathered in Cape Town to found a new organization dedicated to making treatment breakthroughs for a disease that takes a life every 25 seconds, the consensus was to locate it in New York. Since then, the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development, known as the TB Alliance, has catalyzed the field of tuberculosis research. As a product development partnership, it serves as a critical point of connection between pharmaceutical companies, academic researchers, funders, and the communities around the world where tuberculosis is a daily threat.

Along with managing the largest TB drug pipeline in history, the Alliance has brokered the kinds of collaborative partnerships among competing corporations—notably in the pharmaceutical industry—that are rare. By improving researchers' access to both novel and established drug compounds, the Alliance and its partners are speeding a path to improved treatment. They aim to drastically shorten the treatment course from what is currently as long as two years to fewer than two weeks, by developing new, affordable regimens to combat all forms of TB. "A wonderful drug that's too expensive for the developing world doesn't do much good sitting on the shelf," says Alliance spokesperson Derek Ambrosino.

The Alliance currently has three drug candidates in clinical development and is awaiting results of Phase III clinical trials of a promising new multi-drug regimen.

"We're bringing innovation to a field that's been stagnant," says TB Alliance CEO Mel Spigelman. "It's possible in part because of our access to the incredible human capital in this area—the people, the intellect, the proximity to the pharma companies and the research groups. This couldn't happen in Washington."

What's happening in Brooklyn—or more specifically, the Brooklyn Army Terminal—may change the world. The Terminal is the site of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative's (IAVI) AIDS Vaccine Design and Development Lab, a place where research outcomes from around the world are analyzed in the quest to design an effective, affordable vaccine for HIV.

Through partnerships with dozens of academic, pharmaceutical, and governmental institutions in 25 countries, IAVI is among the world's leading forces advancing the ultimate solution in HIV prevention. Filling gaps in the drug discovery and development process, IAVI directs clinical trials and community engagement efforts in countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, as well as funds high-risk and proof-of-concept work of promising early-stage technologies.

Working with partners around the world and at its Brooklyn lab, IAVI has contributed significant findings to the field. Among them is the identification of nearly 20 broadly neutralizing antibodies—molecules capable of binding to and marking multiple variants of the virus for destruction by the immune system. Found only in a fraction of those infected with HIV, broadly neutralizing antibodies are believed to have strong potential in vaccine development, and efforts are underway to reverse engineer their mechanisms.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, New York City was the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic. More than 150 years before that, it was established as a major commercial center, a status that remains true to this day. Joining the two, and harnessing the power of the business community to impact the course of diseases like AIDS, is the work of the Global Business Coalition on Health (GBCHealth).

Since its founding in 2001 by former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke, GBCHealth has amassed a coalition of 200 companies in a mission to apply business practices to solve major global health threats. What started as a response to AIDS now includes campaigns against malaria, tuberculosis, and non-communicable illnesses including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

"There's a public-private partnership behind most successful global health efforts, and every industry has a core expertise to apply," says Eve Heyn, communications manager for GBCHealth. "In addition to the United Nations, New York also offers us the research and educational institutions to help our partners understand what's needed, and the marketing and media firms who can help spread messages about medical compliance, sleeping under a net, or using condoms."

GBCHealth in action looks like this: A declaration from 40 CEOs of major companies—Levi Strauss & Co., which spearheaded the campaign with UNAIDS, along with Kenneth Cole Productions, The Coca-Cola Company, The National Basketball Association, Thomson Reuters, and others—demanding that 45 countries lift arcane travel restrictions on those living with HIV. It provides support and promotion of innovative partnerships like the Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action (MAMA), which uses text messaging to deliver critical health information to pregnant women and new mothers in developing countries and underserved areas.

"Business skills are readily applied to global health," says Heyn. "Have you noticed you can find a Coke anywhere in the world? The same isn't true with TB medicines. Coca-Cola is the master of the supply chain, and they're working with African governments to improve drug delivery." Similar private sector efforts by GBCHealth and its partners aim to save the lives of 4.4 million children and 200,000 mothers before the Millennium Development Goals clock winds down to zero.

"Solutions developed here will be shared for global gain."

Urban Testbed

More than half of the 7 billion people on Earth live in urban environments—a first in human history. As one of the world's largest metropolitan areas, New York is the ultimate urban testbed for the engineers, ecologists, urban planners, and environmental health specialists developing solutions to strengthen the world's cities.

When Edwin Torres, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation, talks about Jamaica Bay, he doesn't sugar coat matters. "It was basically a dumping ground for New York City for about a century," he told a group at the Municipal Arts Society Summit for New York in 2012. Torres, who runs the Foundation's NYC Opportunities Fund, is among those involved in a first-of-its-kind initiative to rehabilitate a damaged urban ecosystem, taking notes for the rest of the world's coastal cities along the way.

The Rockefeller Foundation is one of the founding supporters of the recently announced Science and Resilience Institute in Jamaica Bay, the 10,000-acre wetland estuary that touches parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island. The storm surge during Hurricane Sandy devastated both the natural environment and the densely populated neighborhoods surrounding the bay, highlighting the vulnerability of coastal cities as climate volatility increases. The Institute will ultimately serve as a hub for research on making cities more resilient—able to survive, adapt, and grow amid climate and population stress. "Eighty percent of the world's coastal cities are on estuaries," Torres says, mentioning some of the more populous places on the planet, like Mumbai, Tianjin, and Lagos. "Solutions developed here will be shared for global gain."

Flooding is only one subject tackled by Upmanu Lall and his colleagues at the Columbia Water Center, one of the 30 research centers that comprise Columbia University's Earth Institute. Powered by more than 850 scientists pursuing a sustainable future, the Institute's global programs address poverty, health, energy, climate change, and, of course, water.

Founded in 2008, the Center's approach "inverted the way people view water," says Lall, the Water Center's director and a professor of engineering at Columbia University. "Many water projects fail because people don't look at the entire chain. If you can secure the resource itself and its quality, then you can impact access—not the other way around." The shift in strategy has served the Water Center, and millions of people on four continents, well. Its engineers and scientists have taken on some of the world's toughest water-related challenges, navigating fierce politics and life-or-death resource issues. They have achieved measurable, positive outcomes in a field often marked by failure.

In the Brazilian state of Ceará, a place Lall calls "the poster child for drought," an advanced system of climate forecasting has helped stabilize a tug of war over water that put the region's farmers at contentious odds with urban dwellers and the government. The Center designed algorithms for predicting rainfall and river flow levels, allowing the government to plan water allocation accordingly and helping subsistence farmers determine when—and if—conditions would be favorable for planting. Likewise, in India, where groundwater depletion from agriculture is so severe that no city gets more than a few hours per day of water flow, the Center devised a strategy to preserve farmers' staple crops while dramatically decreasing water and energy usage. Working with local scientists, Water Center staff deployed soil moisture sensors at farms throughout the Punjab region. The results were significant—a 22% water and 24% energy savings. A project that began with 525 farmers has more than quadrupled today.

Closer to home, the Water Center is training its expertise on New York's water needs, conducting an in-depth study of the history of drought in the Upper Delaware River Basin. The team is eyeing the possible impacts of a series of droughts on the Northeast. "We're trying to determine how much water New York City really needs, and how we should be managing supply today based on what we're learning about the past," says Lall.

A Global College Town

Forty miles south of Seoul, South Korea, is the Songdo International Business District in the Incheon Free Economic Zone. A "smart city" conceived and built by the Korean government, it is high-tech, sustainable, and designed to incorporate signature features of cities around the world. It's also the site of the only outpost of an American university in Korea, SUNY Korea.

"Songdo is considered the global education city in the region," says Samuel Stanley, president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook. "The innovative idea the Korean government had was to invite foreign universities to set up programs in their areas of excellence. In our case, it's been more than just a program."

SUNY has transported its nationally recognized expertise in computer science and engineering to SUNY Korea, with 84 graduate and undergraduate students—mostly in these two fields— enrolled for the spring 2013 semester. SUNY Korea is also home to a branch of the university's Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology, conducting state-of-the-art research at what Stanley attests is an equally advanced facility in Songdo. Students spend two years in Korea and one at SUNY's home campus on Long Island. The first class from Korea will arrive on campus in fall of 2013.

If SUNY's other campuses abroad will serve as level-setters for Korea, the outcomes will be impressive. Among other international centers, SUNY runs the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya, home to Richard, Maeve, and Louise Leakey. Working alongside the renowned paleontologists and anthropologists—whose findings include such landmark discoveries as identifying new species of our own genus—are a team of environmental scientists applying new solar and wind technologies to solve local energy issues. The dung-powered school in Kenya is one of several facilities benefitting from the work of SUNY scientists to improve the energy applications of biogas generators.

New York's university network abroad stretches from Africa, the cradle of human civilization, to the "cradle of modern Western society," as David McLaughlin, provost of New York University, refers to the Middle East when he discusses the importance of having a presence in the region. NYU Abu-Dhabi (NYUAD) opened its doors in 2008, and has grown from a study abroad site into a full-fledged member of the NYU network of research campuses. The inaugural undergraduate class of students from 39 countries has given way to a spectacularly diverse student body hailing from 100 countries, and both the campus and its population are set to grow quickly in the coming years.

The advantages of expanding NYU's presence abroad are numerous, according to McLaughlin. "We certainly think New York is the greatest city in the world, but not everyone of talent wants to travel here," he says. "By having these campuses, we are able to recruit outstanding faculty and students who might otherwise have never been a part of our university."

It also creates possibilities for collaborative research that couldn't happen on anything less than a global scale. The Center for Global Sea Level Change, a joint project between NYUAD and NYU's Courant Institute in New York, aims to produce quantitative estimates of future sea-level changes, combining the physical theory capabilities of Courant with observational data and new modeling techniques pioneered in Abu Dhabi. The multidisciplinary Neuroscience of Language Lab, straddling two major world cities where many languages are spoken, investigates the neural basis of language use and production.

This year also marks another major expansion in the NYU network—campuses in Shanghai, China, and Sydney, Australia.

"The major global challenges facing our world today will require a global response."

The Grand Challenges

A synergy between New York and Qatar is yielding something more than results on paper—it's creating doctors. New York's Weill Cornell Medical College, which has a full campus in the state, taught the first students to ever attend medical school in Qatar in 2002. The initial class of 22 students and eight faculty members, housed temporarily at a Doha high school while the medical school facility was constructed, has grown to 265 students from 30 countries today. And while the curriculum is identical to that of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York— even down to the exams—the faculty and students in Doha are engaged in a suite of projects all their own, including original research on genetic disorders and stem cells, and a high school engagement program to build enthusiasm for a new generation of native physicians.

In 2011, the government of Qatar made a commitment to advancing sustainability and establishing the State as a center for research and development. There was only one problem—they had neither the local expertise nor the capacity to identify the actions needed to achieve these goals. Enter the New York Academy of Sciences. With members spanning the globe, the Academy has considerable reach, along with a history of assisting international leaders in identifying science and technology priorities.

In cooperation with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF), the Academy facilitated communication between stakeholders across multiple sectors in Qatar, ultimately arriving at six Grand Challenges spanning secure and sustainable natural resources, healthcare, information and computing technology, human capacity development, and urbanization. "When Qatar turns to New York for guidance, it signals something interesting," says Academy President and CEO Ellis Rubinstein. "We don't have all the answers, but this is the best international city to pull the right people together to address big challenges."

Rubinstein and a team from the Academy will continue to advise QF on creating partnerships and implementing programs to address the Challenges. The Academy has similarly partnered with Malaysia, after being asked by the country's Prime Minster to help form the country's Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) to bring best practices from around the globe to bear on Malaysia's economic growth and sustainability efforts—with many of the meetings taking place at the Academy's headquarters in New York City. The Academy, along with its GSIAC partners, made a series of recommendations to advance Malaysia's goal of becoming a high-income country. One of the more exciting elements for Academy CEO Rubinstein is a program to boost science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in Malaysia, modeled on the Academy's own successful Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program.

"We're going to improve the pipeline of kids going into STEM in Malaysia, and we're starting similar programs in other countries, including Spain, thanks to Barcelona's forward-looking Mayor" says Rubinstein. "What's great is that we'll be able to connect exceptional students from around the world, and ultimately bring them together for workshops here in New York."

Another way the students will be connected—not only to each other but to Nobel laureates, working scientists, and teachers worldwide—is through seamless telepresence technology, provided through a generous new gift from Cisco Systems Inc. By bolstering local resources and talent, and then connecting them with other local resources around the globe, the Academy and its partners are creating a Global STEM Alliance that seeks to extend STEM excitement and engagement to the next generation.

The outcomes of such outreach—from New York to points all over the globe, and back again—strengthen both New York's science community and those abroad. As Rubinstein says, "The major global challenges facing our world today will require a global response. We will not solve the problems of malnutrition or energy sustainability or chronic disease in isolation—we will solve them together, with science and technology as our common language."

Hallie Kapner is a freelance writer in New York City.

Photo: Vials from the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development.