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Couples podcast: synergy of science and globalization

This couple believes science and globalization exist in a symbiotic world. Scientist Sam Stupp and international relations expert Devora Grynspan leverage each other’s connections to enhance the University’s brand at home and abroad.

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Podcast script:

Welcome to another episode of our couples series for Northwestern Now. This time, we’re talking about an unexpected collaboration between world-renowned material scientist…

Sam: Sam Stupp.

And vice president for international relations…

Devora: Devora Grynspan.

When they met as teenagers, it wasn’t exactly love at first sight. That was a long time ago.

Now Sam is director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology at Northwestern. His lab is working on regenerative materials that act like human bone, and Sam is confident it will eventually put an end to problems ranging from back pain to osteoporosis.

Sam: We have been able to develop a platform that is extremely versatile.

Devora is a globe trotter on a mission to make international education at Northwestern a requirement rather than a luxury. She’s adamant that globalization impacts everything.

Devora: There’s an international component to everything we do.

Sam and Devora have now been happily married for 44 years. They both believe science is the undeniable engine of globalization and international relations, and they draw from each other to expand Northwestern’s reputation at home and abroad.

Devora: We leverage each other's contacts and networks to do our jobs better.

So, as I mentioned, we’re talking to Sam Stupp from the McCormick School of Engineering.

Sam: I am Board of Trustees Professor of Material Science and Engineering, Chemistry, Medicine and Biomedical Engineering.

And Devora Grynspan, who works in the president’s office.

Devora: I'm vice president for international relations, and for many years, I have been the director of international program development.

In her role as director of international program development, Devora is responsible for shaping Northwestern’s international curriculum and facilitating student exchanges and partnerships with universities overseas. She says Northwestern really didn’t do much of this back when she was hired in 1998.

Devora: When there is little, you can have a big impact.

With Devora’s guidance, Northwestern is now consistently ranked among the top 25 universities in the world.

Devora: It's not that I was so great; it was that there was a lot to be done.

The University has launched dozens of international programs under Devora’s leadership, including Global Health, European Union Studies and several direct student exchanges with top universities overseas.

Devora: I will not take credit for most of it, just a little bit.

Sam Stupp is a world-renowned material scientist. His work could alleviate a problem that affects 80 percent of Americans: back pain.

Sam: These days, it is very common.

Sam’s lab develops materials that can regenerate things like cartilage, neural tissues and, in the case of back pain, bone. Many people who are experiencing back pain end up having surgery to fuse the vertebrate with bone.

Sam: The ideal situation is to use the patient's own bone, since bone is a tissue that has some ability to regenerate, even in adulthood.

But the problem is, it’s a really long distance between vertebrae. It’s not like a typical bone fracture that heals on its own, given enough time.

Sam: In the case of the spine, it's a large amount of bone that has to grow in order to fuse vertebrate.

The body just can’t do it alone, so that’s where Sam’s materials come in.

Sam: You are growing bone that normally doesn't exist there.

The regenerative material acts like human bone and grows into the gap between vertebrae.

Sam: This way, there is no motion in the disc area that is the source of the pain.

Sam is still waiting for FDA approval to start human trials on this material. He says it should happen in the next five years. Then he’s confident these materials will put an end to a wide range of problems, from back pain to osteoporosis.

On the surface, Sam and Devora’s work seem totally unrelated, but the thing is, Devora’s work – globalization – impacts everything you can possibly think of.

Devora: You cannot be good in any field – economics, business, law – if you are not conversant with international affairs, international law, trade regulations. There's an international component to everything we do.

With that in mind, Devora and Sam have leveraged each other’s diverse networks to help expand Northwestern’s reputation abroad.

Devora: Since I've been working with President Schapiro for several years now, sometimes Sam comes with us abroad. He helps give presentations for alumni. I volunteer his time. I'm very generous, volunteering him.

Sam: I think she exploits me. I'm like a free consultant.

Beyond outreach to alumni and prospective students, Sam and Devora have also helped each other build impactful connections and exchange programs with other universities.

Sam: Hong Kong is another example of where we've seen many synergies.

Devora: Sam has a collaboration with the school of medicine at University of Hong Kong, so when he was visiting his colleagues, I asked him to make an appointment with the people he knows.

Devora met with Sam’s connections, and now Northwestern has a popular undergraduate exchange program with the University of Hong Kong.

Devora: So I have taken advantage not only of my familiarity with the sciences and how they're organized, because of my conversations with Sam, but also of his contacts.

And it works in reverse too.

Sam: I can remember once or twice, in Paris for example… Sciences Po is probably the best university in France for social sciences.

But university leaders wanted to learn more about nanotechnology and its impact on the economy.

Sam: And they actually called me.

Devora: The phone rang, and I answered. It was the vice president. He said, ‘Can I talk to Sam?’ I said, ‘Sam? What do you want with Sam?’

Northwestern: And they knew of you through....

Devora: Yeah, they asked Sam to present to the board.

Sam: I presented to the board on what this new field was, and that led to other interactions later, so there are synergies.

And in Sam’s and Devora’s minds, those synergies are essential to the well-being of the University as well as business and government.

Devora: All knowledge is global. Our scientists know it best because they compete globally.

Sam: Being global is a requirement for a scientist because you can't be a player in science and ignore science that is going on in different corners of the world. It's all one system.

Northwestern: So it really goes hand in hand. As we grow our international presence, we're able to grow our science presence as well

Devora: Governments can ignore research on social sciences or international relations or research on war and peace or conflicts because it's political, in their view. They cannot ignore science. They cannot be competitive in industry or anything else if they ignore science. You can ignore social science and the humanities as you make decisions about U.S. policy, but you can never ignore science and technology.

Northwestern: I like that idea – that science drives globalization as much as globalization improves science. It's an interesting thought.

Devora: Yeah.

For Sam and Devora, this mission to make Northwestern a more global institution is personal. In order to explain, we’re going to go back to the beginning of their story – really, close to the beginning of their lives, when they first met as teenagers in Costa Rica.

Devora: We met when we were very young.

Devora started to tell me this story before Sam was in the room, so she tried to fill in the gaps of what she thought Sam might have to say.

Devora: In fact, he might tell you that when we met, he didn't like me at all. He thought I was a know-it-all. 'Who is that obnoxious girl? Get over it.'

When Sam sat down for the interview, I asked for his version of events.

Sam: I distinctly remember the day I met her.  I thought she was a terribly obnoxious person, very know-it-all and aggressive.

Northwestern: What was the turning point for you?

Devora: We were good friends. I didn't like to see him with anybody else, and I think the same was true...

Sam: Yeah, I think the same was true for me. I think that was the turning point, when she started having boyfriends, and I had girlfriends. It didn't feel right.

Northwestern: A little bit of jealousy?

Devora: Yeah.

And so…

Sam: We were married in July, 1972, so it's been a long time – 44 years.

But the path to marriage wasn’t exactly easy. Sam left Costa Rica when he was 17. He and Devora hadn’t even started dating yet when Sam decided to come to the U.S. for college at UCLA.

Devora: He would come home for summers.

When Sam finished his undergraduate degree, he decided to come to Northwestern for grad school. Northwestern is home to the world’s first materials science department, and it’s still among the best in the world. Devora was in school in Costa Rica at the time, but she agreed to come with Sam and finish her undergraduate degrees in economics and political science at Northwestern.

Devora: I did not know what I was getting into.

They moved here in the middle of winter.

Devora: I was ready to go back within two weeks. I said, ‘This is too cold. You stay here, but I'm going home.’

Northwestern: Clearly you came around to the Midwest winters and settled in.

Devora: I loved Northwestern as an undergrad. I used to walk around and think to myself, ‘I hope the other students know how lucky they are.' It's such a beautiful campus.

Devora loved it so much that she came back to get a Ph.D. in political science, and eventually, when Sam got an offer to work at Northwestern, Devora decided she wanted to work here, too.

Devora: When Northwestern called and wanted to bring my husband, I talked to Henry Bienen. I said, 'You know you need me. 

Devora says she wanted to help Northwestern solve a problem that she faced when she transferred from her university in Costa Rica.

Devora: It took me longer because some of my credits didn’t transfer.

She had completed nearly three years of education in Costa Rica, but only one year of credits transferred over.

Devora: At that time, there were very few foreign students at Northwestern, especially undergrads. There was very little experience with that.

That’s all changed now. This fall, Northwestern welcomed its biggest-ever class of international students – 2,100 students from more than 100 countries. That’s a 200 percent increase in international enrollment over the last decade.

Devora: It has been important to me to make Northwestern a more international university, thinking of international not only as a university that attracts international students to Ph.D. programs, but a university that acts internationally and has an international component to its curriculum.

Devora says she wants to change the way people think about higher education.

Devora: Transition from making an international education a luxury for a few to a need for everybody.

Sam and Devora say they can’t imagine a better working environment than academia, and they say having each other at work improves both their personal and professional lives.

Devora: It's nice to bring the two communities together.

Devora says everyone, not just couples, should strive to meet as many people as they can at the university.

Devora: If you're not going out of your cocoon in your particular department to be part of the University at large, you don't get the full advantage of being in a university and meeting people in the arts and the rest of campus. That's one of the attractions of academia.

This has been Kayla Stoner with a Northwestern Now podcast. For more stories of couples collaborating at work, head to our website, Northwestern.edu.

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