Q&A: Sundaram “Guna” Gunasekaran on his vision for CALS International Programs

Sundaram “Guna” Gunasekaran, professor of biological systems engineering, stepped into the role of faculty director of CALS International Programs on March 1. Although he’s just getting started, eCALS decided to ask him a few questions about his ideas and vision for the program.

Sundaram “Guna” Gunasekaran. Photo from the WARF website.
Sundaram “Guna” Gunasekaran. Photo from the WARF website.

What does CALS International Programs do? What is the scope of the program’s responsibilities?
The goal of CALS International Programs is to facilitate and promote international engagement of faculty and staff in the college, particularly in the areas of research and outreach. This includes building and fostering relationships with agencies and organizations that fund these global activities, including federal and state governments and international non-profits focused on CALS priority areas. We also build partnerships with UW-Madison programs outside of CALS, connecting our researchers with collaborators at other UW-Madison programs who can enhance our international work. While our primary focus is on research and outreach activities, we collaborate with CALS Academic Programs to help faculty, staff and students with their international academic activities as well.

Why is CALS International Programs important for the college?
The world has become very interdependent, and so have the problems we face. Thus, many of the scientific challenges and practical problems we encounter today are not solved by isolated islands of intellectual pursuits, but rather by seeking out and incorporating ideas and approaches from different disciplines and across state and national boundaries. Indeed, the scope of research and outreach performed by CALS faculty and staff extend far beyond the boundaries of the state and the nation. Our faculty and staff are engaged in international activities in about 80 countries around the globe. IP can provide a collective voice to our international engagement to become more effective and impactful.

I think International Programs can help elevate our international engagement from an ‘individual project’ level to more cohesive programmatic effort focusing on key areas of expertise in the college and implement a strategic framework for sustaining this actvity in the long term.

What is your vision for CALS International Programs? How would you like to see the program grow and change?
My vision for CALS International Programs is for it to become among the leaders in the nation’s land-grant colleges for international engagement and for it to effect positive change in the global agricultural, natural resources, energy, environment and life sciences enterprises through research, education and outreach. We are a world-class institution, and CALS is among the very best land-grant colleges in the nation. Thus it is very appropriate that we envision an international program of similar stature. Therefore, I would like for the International Program to engage faculty to initiate and execute innovative and impactful projects that are responsive to the needs of the global community. The programmatic efforts should be resourceful and encourage the entrepreneurial spirit when needed, and they should offer efficient, empowering and sustainable solutions.

I would like to see all faculty and staff consider and include international engagement as a part of their research, teaching and outreach missions. I would like to develop programs that focus on our collective strengths. The ‘Listening and Learning Sessions’ we have scheduled in the next several weeks (2:30 to 4:00 pm on March 31; 1:30 to 4:00 pm on April 18; and 10:30 am to noon on April 28) are designed to find out more about varied international engagement activities that are on-going and develop a collective framework of priorities that can guide our future programming. I certainly welcome any and all input from everyone in the College.

Why did you apply for the faculty directorship position?
An effective international program can identify, facilitate and coordinate granting activities. This will take much of the frustration and paperwork nightmare that comes with dealing with large, multi-PI and multi-institutional efforts out of the hands of our faculty and staff, which should help them become more efficient and productive. This would help fill a void in the college.

Can you describe one or two of the international experiences that you’ve had that will help you in your new role?
I have had varied international engagement experiences. These include being a Fulbright scholar and specialist, USAID Farmer-to-Farmer program participant, research collaborator and visiting professor in different countries, to name a few. I have also travelled widely and enjoy working with individual and groups from different walks of life and interests.