July 02, 2007
A small team of St. John’s University biology professors recently
returned from a 10-day trip to Vietnam
where it met with biology faculty from Vinh University to lay the
groundwork for a possible partnership and exchange program.
From May 18-20, three members of the St. John’s biology department
Dipak Haldar, Ph.D.
, Director of Graduate Studies in Biology;
his wife, Jaya Haldar, Ph.D.; and
Jay Zimmerman, Ph.D.
,— held extensive meetings with the Biology
Leadership Board of Vinh
(VU), located in the city of Vinh, in north-central
Calling the meetings “remarkable,” Zimmerman indicated that the
Biology Leadership Board (composed of the senior faculty members in
the department) showed significant interest in adopting some of the
research methods espoused by the St. John’s biology department. He
explained that Vietnam — a former developing country currently
experiencing a spike in its economy — is beginning to shift its
college-level teaching philosophy so that it more closely resembles
that of the United States.
Until recently, Vietnamese education has followed the Russian
model, which is noted for its emphasis on practical applications
and criticized by some for its restrictions on student/faculty
interaction. Conversely, the U.S. system is known both for its
theoretical bent and its emphasis on hearty collaboration between
students and professors at the doctoral level.
The recent meetings between the two biology departments hinged on
these recent trends, says Zimmerman, who is the Chair of the St.
Department. Vinh University, located in a heavily agricultural
section of the country, has always boasted a biology department
with a strong reputation in applied agriculture, food safety,
biodiversity, ecology and conservation. What it lacks, says
Zimmerman, are the molecular biological foundations that take the
applications to a deeper level.
Enter St. John’s. As Zimmerman explains it, a partnership between
the two universities would allow VU biology researchers to accrue
the “molecular tools” needed to gain a certain level of expertise.
“They’re very big on medicinal plants, for example,” says
Zimmerman. “But now they want to know, ‘What are the active
products of these plants?’ ‘What do they do?’ ”
Zimmerman says that both universities’ biology departments house
researchers with “significant overlapping expertise. Our faculties
could work together in collaborative projects,” he says, indicating
that he would like to see VU faculty members researching and
teaching on the Queens campus. Already, one VU professor has
enrolled in a St. John’s Ph.D. molecular biology program, with a
goal of exploring turtle conservation.
Other potential benefits of a St. John’s/VU partnership
- a Vietnam-based annual international biology conference
- a VU-based Center of Molecular Biology
- an opportunity for St. John’s students enrolled in “Tropical
Biology” to travel each summer to VU, which sits near an expansive
tropical rainforest, to do their field work
- an opportunity for St.
John’s College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions to
contribute to discussions relating to medicinal plants and
Though nothing has been made official, Zimmerman says he and his
colleagues have introduced plans for an international biology
conference in Vietnam next summer.
During the trip, Zimmerman found time to chat with VU students,
whom he called “the most interesting kids,” about molecular biology
and the U.S. educational system. “We couldn’t shut them up when I
flew the discussion open to questions,” he recalls with a laugh.
“They were really hungry to hear what it’s like in the American
Currently, two VU alumni are enrolled at St. John’s.
There are only a few challenges to any foreseen partnership, the
largest being the language barrier. Zimmerman says that VU faculty
and administrators, for the most part, speak only Vietnamese and
Russian. During last month’s meetings, Zimmerman and the Haldars
required translators, some of whom were Vietnamese students
currently studying at St. John’s.
Zimmerman and the Haldars are not the only St. John’s faculty
members who have reached out to Vietnam this year, as a spate of
joint projects have developed between that country and the
University under the leadership of Hung P. Le,
, Assistant Dean for the Graduate Division of St. John’s
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
According to Le, it’s all part of a multi-platform initiative
conjoining academic, athletic, artistic and service-based elements
to cement St. John’s into the new fabric of post-developing
Vietnam. Last month, a group of faculty members and students from
the St. John’s Department of Psychology traveled to the Far Eastern
country, where they introduced their research methodologies to
Hanoi National University of Education. On May 15, the St. John’s
biology and psychology departments united in Ho Chi Minh City to
cheer on the St. John’s
, in town for a tournament featuring several
Asian national teams.
Le says he’s particularly excited about the VU discourse taking
place. “2008 will be a fresh beginning between St. John’s and Vinh
University,” he says, noting that the universities are close to
designing a dual curriculum package. “This collaboration will
continue to grown into a truly rich, bilateral relationship.”One-Hundred and Twenty is the New
When he’s not facilitating partnerships, Zimmerman tends to his
research, which focuses largely on the biology of aging. Thirteen
years ago, he and his colleagues published a paper revealing that
the reduction of a single amino acid in the diet of a rodent can
enhance its lifespan by 45 percent.
The St. John’s professor remains optimistic that his findings on
lifespan enhancement will one day lead to more significant results.
“I’m sure this research could transfer to humans,” he says. “The
current problem we’re facing is that humans can’t put up with the
diet — it isn’t palatable.” In the next few months, however,
Zimmerman and his colleagues plan to conduct a new test that alters
the amino-acid structure in food in way that causes it to become
“It might be that sweetening your coffee can be the fountain of
youth,” he says enthusiastically.