A dense network of defibrillators can save lives. But what good are they when there’s no emergency exit off the highway for another 174 miles? This is where the research collaboration between Mike Martin of the University of Zurich and Nancy Pachana of the University of Queensland comes in.
The two professors of gerontopsychology specialize in researching healthy longevity. They have worked together on a variety of collaborative projects in recent years, researching the diverse aspects of health longevity and looking for innovative approaches to healthy aging around the world. There is no one-size-fits-all solution: such approaches must be adapted to the local conditions and the individual situation of the person in question.
“It’s not particularly efficient to have health solutions tailored to specific groups or characteristics, such as blindness or deafness,” says Mike Martin. Someone with memory problems, for example, doesn’t need constant reminders throughout the day, but only in certain situations: in other words, any assistance should be adapted to the context and the situation. And there’s the rub – context and situation differ from place to place and from person to person.
Uncovering blind spots
“When we sit in our offices in Zurich thinking about possible information systems for older people, we implicitly assume that conditions in other places are like those in Switzerland,” says Martin. However, in places with poor satellite coverage or long distances between health centers, the requirements of information systems are quite different.
In addition to geographic considerations, the state of existing infrastructure and the political conditions, Martin also mentions cultural characteristics as relevant factors in the design of healthcare solutions. What is the attitude of older people to modern technologies, for example, or how do they react to advertising? “Collaborating with researchers from Australia helps us uncover our blind spots and take into account variables such as spatial, cultural and historical aspects when developing innovative solutions,” says Martin.
The opportunity to share experiences and compare existing approaches in different countries is just one of the many benefits of working collaboratively across institutions and national borders. Collaborative research into healthy longevity was formalized last year with the strategic partnership between the University of Zurich and the University of Queensland, and has since ramped up a notch.
Researchers from the two universities within the Healthy Longevity Innovation Cluster are now working with older people from Switzerland and Australia, as well as with various partners from the private sector, on developing innovative health solutions for this age group.
As Nancy Pachana explains, the teams from the two universities also complement each other through their expertise in different areas: “From our perspective, the collaboration with UZH is valuable because of the potential synergies between our experts in Big Data and innovation management, and the expertise of Mike Martin and his team in situational data analysis.”
The analysis of such situational data, such as on the variability of mobility behavior or regarding socially and intellectually stimulating activities, enables the researchers to provide study participants with contextual and situational feedback on their behavior. This is intended to help people make personalized decisions that benefit their own health. For example, it may be helpful for an older person to receive feedback on when, how often and for how long they are exposed to intellectually challenging conversations.
Getting people involved
In some projects at the Healthy Longevity Innovation Cluster, older people are not only involved as study participants – they also take an active role in planning the studies. Here, the University of Queensland benefits from the Zurich research team’s experience in conducting participatory research on aging, while Queensland’s expertise in innovation management makes it possible for the cluster to translate research into innovative health solutions.
For Mike Martin, the strategic partnership between the two universities is also invaluable in terms of building the next generation of researchers in the field of aging. “International cooperation and the opportunities it provides for students and junior researchers help to make the comparatively small field of gerontology more appealing,” says Martin. As well as benefiting from greater visibility, the strategic partnership also means the Healthy Longevity cluster is eligible to apply for additional institutional funding.
The University of Zurich has also just been certified as an Age-Friendly University – a network of institutions aiming to change the image of aging through their research as well as by providing educational, wellness, cultural and sports activities for older people. As an existing member, the University of Queensland was able to offer assistance and advice to UZH during the certification process.
Strategic Partnership between UZH and UQ
The universities of Zurich and Queensland have a long history of cooperation. In 2004, the two institutions signed a first memorandum of understanding, followed in 2013 by a student exchange agreement. The universities maintain a close relationship in various areas of research and teaching: in addition to the healthy longevity cluster, for example, they run joint research seminars in criminal law for Master’s students and share a large-scale project in the area of agriculture and plant science to breed plants that can be sustainably cultivated.
Thanks to UZH’s membership of the global network Universitas 21, which it joined in 2017, cooperation opportunities with the Australian university have increased, leading to the strategic alliance between UQ and UZH in 2021. In addition to those mentioned above, several further research clusters have since been identified in which the two universities plan to step up their cooperation in research and teaching. These include pediatric critical care, neuroscience, imaging and spectroscopy, and green chemistry and biocatalysis.
The partnership with the University of Queensland is one of UZH’s six current mutual strategic partnerships with other institutions. The others are with Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, the University of Geneva, Charles University Prague and Kyoto University.