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Top Swiss university forges strong links with Singapore

ETH Zurich is ranked No 6 globally. Its centre here is its only research institute outside Switzerland.

SWITZERLAND'S top university, which has a presence here in Singapore since 2010, has been named the sixth best university in the world in the recently released latest edition of the closely watched QS World University Rankings.

This is the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, or ETH Zurich's best performance in a global university ranking. Moving up from 7th position in the previous prestigious ranking, it is once again the top ranked university outside the English-speaking world and in continental Europe. The university can count over 20 Nobel Prize laureates as alumni, including Albert Einstein.

The Swiss institute established the Singapore-ETH Centre (SEC) here in 2010. The centre was set up at the invitation of Singapore's National Research Foundation to be a part of its Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise (CREATE), which is an international research campus and innovation hub.

As ETH Zurich's only research centre outside of Switzerland, the centre has strengthened the research capacity of ETH Zurich to develop sustainable solutions to global challenges, particularly in the context of the rapidly urbanising Asian region.

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ETH Zurich president Joel Mesot says he sees three main reasons for the continued success of his institute.

First is having excellent students and faculty. "Students at ETH Zurich have to achieve a lot with a strong willingness to persevere. Our students develop critical thinking skills based on the fundamentals of mathematics and physics, which serve them well beyond their degrees. We know this because graduates of our university are in great demand in the job market and often reach positions of great responsibility," he says in an interview with The Business Times.

Second is intellectual freedom and autonomy. High-quality research can only be achieved in an environment with free competition of ideas and solutions, unhindered by external control and pressure, which are counterproductive. Research breakthroughs often occur at the margins of the disciplines, where they are not expected. Another condition that goes hand in hand is the unhindered access to the global talent pool, he adds.

The third prerequisite is strong support and secured funding. For more than 160 years, the Swiss parliament, government and society have been ensuring that ETH Zurich can concentrate on teaching and research of the highest quality and on the transfer of knowledge to society.

ETH Zurich has been actively involved in promoting and fostering scientific cooperation with key institutions in the Asia Pacific region as the leading house for the Swiss Science and Technology Programme with Asia since 2008.

"Setting up the Singapore-ETH Centre in 2010 has helped us to further broaden and strengthen our network in the Asian region," says Gerhard Schmitt, founding director of the Singapore-ETH Centre.

"The Asia-Pacific region is among the most dynamic regions of the world, with megacities like Shenzhen, Shanghai and Jakarta requiring innovative solutions to keep pace with their growth.

"Our presence in Singapore, therefore, also provides our students with a unique opportunity to be close to where rapid urbanisation is unfolding and where research plays an important role in informing and shaping more sustainable development and more resilient cities."

Professor Dr Schmitt says: "Bringing together researchers from diverse disciplines, the centre provides a multidisciplinary, multicultural and collaborative environment for research and innovation.

"Our first research programme, the Future Cities Laboratory, combines science and design to shape a sustainable urban future with an Asian perspective. This is followed by the Future Resilient Systems programme, aimed at making infrastructure systems more resilient to ensure the reliable delivery of energy, transport, water, finance, and other critical services."

Researchers at the centre actively collaborate with universities and research institutes, and engage with industry and government agencies to translate knowledge to practical solutions for real world problems.

As part of the CREATE programme, the centre also benefits from the opportunities to collaborate with centres established by Singapore and leading international universities. These include the National University of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Technical University of Munich, UC Berkeley, University of Cambridge, University of Illinois, and the French National Centre for Scientific Research.

Currently, SEC is looking at conducting research in the field of digital health.

"SEC is working on a research proposal on future health technologies. We feel that research in this area is timely as Singapore is actively looking at shaping the future of healthcare in the country. It aims to address healthcare challenges of the urban and ageing population by developing health technologies geared towards a people-centric healthcare model," says Prof Schmitt.

"The high level of digitalisation and digital literacy in Singapore makes it viable to bring the screening, monitoring, diagnosis and intervention of diseases outside of hospitals, and closer to patients through smart mobile digital health technologies.

"The research seeks to develop wearable sensors, wearable robotics, intelligent diagnostics and other health technologies to prevent falls and fractures, reduce diabetes and obesity, and rehabilitate stroke patients.

"To ensure that the new health technologies are meaningful for patients and can be integrated into the Singaporean healthcare system, we will work closely with local stakeholder groups and healthcare providers to test these technologies in proof-of-concept studies and ultimately in clinical trials."