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The Human Connection

The Human Connection

Foreign faculty bring international experience to the classroom.

by Ann Jardine Bardsley

Perhaps the most tangible international connection on the University campus is the human one—
the one that takes place between and among students, faculty, and staff. The interaction might occur between domestic faculty who have international ties, or between campus colleagues and students from foreign countries. This intermingling of cultures has the same effect campus wide: Students are transported from the classroom to other “global” environments, broadening the scope of ideas and disciplines.

Some 15 to 20 percent of the U’s faculty hails from other countries. In a typical year, the International Center processes and issues about 350 visas to both visiting scholars and tenure-track faculty. About half that number ends up staying at the U; the others are on temporary status and eventually return home.

Their stories, like the three presented here, illustrate how the U brings the world to our doorstep, one professor at a time.

Julio BermudezWild Notion
Julio Bermudez, Argentina

“Maybe this is cultural,” Bermudez says. “Latins work in groups. My work is not bad alone, but I’ve noticed that all of my best work has been done in collaboration.”

Some ideas need time to gestate, or must wait for the world to catch up with them. Others need coaxing along through collaboration, and maybe a “nice piano party” to facilitate them.

That’s what happened with Julio Bermudez, a native of Santa Fe, Argentina, and an associate professor in the U’s College of Architecture + Planning (CA+P).

“Way” back in 1995, Bermudez had what he calls a “wild idea.” “Traditional architecture is about bricks and mortar, static and inert,” he says. “What if you could have architecture that transforms with the life of a human being, in real time? So you breathe, and the architecture does something. Your heart feels emotion, and the architecture responds. What if I could create an environment in which I could hook someone up, measure heart rate, brain waves, physical and muscular activities, and take that data to build form and space?” In other words, what if a body’s rhythms were integrated with its environment? In 1995, those kind of ideas were considered fodder for a science fiction film.

Enter the piano party. At just such a gathering some years later, Bermudez struck up a conversation with Stefano Foresti, information visualization specialist at the U’s Center for High Performance Computing. Together, they developed the analog-digital design method and theory for which Bermudez has received national and international recognition, a pioneering work bringing architectural insight to the field of information visualization. Jim Agutter joined the project while a graduate student in the CA+P; since then, he has become the leader of information visualization work at CA+P.
Bermudez’s work has lent itself to many multifaceted cooperative projects, often with educators and researchers in different fields. “Maybe this is cultural,” Bermudez says. “Latins work in groups. My work is not bad alone, but I’ve noticed that all of my best work has been done in collaboration.”

One such combined venture was cyberPRINT, a real-time, 3-D, dynamic human architectural model, which also became a performance and computing event. Another project involved a team of anesthesiologists, bioengineers, cognitive psychologists, computer scientists, and musicians, who developed a highly intuitive replacement for traditional medical displays. This project and a variety of others utilizing similar technologies have attracted more than $6 million in combined funding and include patent-pending products now being commercialized. Bermudez’s collaborative work also extends into finance, defense, and network monitoring.

Bermudez credits part of the relationship between his ideas and research to his coming from a different culture. “I go home and I’m not Argentine anymore. But I’m not American, either,” says Bermudez. “But what this gives me is multi-perspective. I never see concepts in just one way. Also, being from another culture, it’s very uncomfortable to be unfamiliar, not to know. But obtaining creativity, invention, and newness in research requires not knowing—or being a fool at some point.”

Currently, Bermudez, who practices Zen and prefers renting a South Temple apartment to purchasing real estate, is now focused on developing a philosophy and practice of Voluntary Architectural Simplicity (VAS), a move to pursue “essentialism.” VAS is one possible design response to social and global challenges, explains Bermudez, a way to be environmentally responsible, reduce complexity, and stop living life in the fast lane—in short, to do more with less, and do it in something other than a six-bedroom McMansion on a one-third-acre lot scraped clean of vegetation.

“I profess the preservation of space. I am a minimalist at heart,” he says. “I am exploring the process of remaining free by giving up, letting go, and by voluntarily choosing to be innocent.”

Elena AsparouhovaTaking Stock
Elena Asparouhova, Bulgaria

“Now I say to my students, ‘I’m from Bulgaria, and I have a heavy accent. So the only way you get used to it is to come to class.’ ”

As a fresh faculty member at the U, David Eccles School of Business Assistant Professor of Finance Elena Asparouhova was frustrated with students who complained to the department chair about her accent, her phrasing, and the way she spoke to them. “Then I learned it was partly my fault,” she says. “So now I say to my students, ‘I’m from Bulgaria, and I have a heavy accent. So the only way you get used to it is to come to class.’ I’ve also learned to speak louder and slower. I’m not a slow person; I just speak English slowly,” she says.

That’s about all she does slowly. To use an American colloquialism, she’s a real go-getter.

In 2003, the same year she came to the U, Asparouhova founded the University of Utah Laboratory for Experimental Economics and Finance (UULEEF). The project, patterned after a similar program at Caltech and recently awarded a $120,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, uses programs, computers, and statistical data to simulate financial markets. UULEEF also involves University students who learn the system, trade real securities, and earn money within a two- to three-hour time period. The experiments are conducted bi-weekly, usually with 20 to 25 participants. Earnings vary—averaging from $20 to $30 an hour, depending on students’ performance. “We study the system in a controlled environment with the goal of figuring out whether the theories we have really work in real markets. The only difference between the lab and the real world is we know so much more—because in the real world they don’t know what the final payoff is going to be for IBM stock; but in the lab we know the final distribution—and we come up with much more precise results than advisors evaluating real-world data.”

In some ways, these sessions in experimental finance are much like a game in which the participants win money by playing well. “Experimental finance is lots of fun,” she says. “Students love it because it is fun trading and they get paid.” Yet these simulations expose students to the intricate workings of markets—both the highs and the lows. Students register through the Web site ( and are notified of upcoming sessions.

Asparouhova’s introduction to experimental research was through her husband, who left Bulgaria in 1995 to accept a fellowship at Caltech. “As Bulgarians, my husband and I were very poor,” she says. “We collected $300 in six months, and this is all he had when he came to the U.S. He called me from Caltech two weeks later, when I was still in Bulgaria, and said, ‘You cannot imagine! At my school there are people playing these games and giving you money for playing them.’ He signed up for every experiment there—a couple a day—and earned $400 or $500 in the first week. He said, ‘You should find out about what they are doing here, because it is so cool and so much fun,’ ” she says.

Asparouhova immigrated a year later, studied English intensively, entered Caltech, which already had well-established tracks in experimental research, and earned a Ph.D. in economics.

And how does she play the market (the real one)? She invests only in her pension, and her portfolio is “heavily biased toward real estate.”

Asparouhova became a U.S. citizen last January. She says life in America would be easier “in all other aspects” if she were not a foreigner. “But having been in America and going back to Bulgaria helps me more there. It gives me a lot,” she says, adding that she incorporates her international experience into her teaching by saying to her students, “Let me tell you what I’ve seen elsewhere….”

Korkut ErturkRich Country, Poor Country
Korkut Erturk, Turkey

“It is interesting for [students] to be exposed to people with very diverse experiences—especially graduate students, where much of the interaction takes place outside of the classroom.”

Born in New York to Turkish parents, but schooled in Turkey, Professor of Economics Korkut Erturk spent his politically turbulent high school years (just prior to a military coup in 1980) pondering why some countries are poor and some are rich. “I became interested in how economic development relates to these situations,” says Erturk, chair of the U’s Department of Economics since 2002.

A U.S. citizen by birth, Erturk returned to America at age 18. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics at New York University, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees from New School University.

Indeed, Erturk ended up specializing in macroeconomics or, in his words, “why economies go through good and bad times.” He first came to the U as a visiting professor and returned as a faculty member in 1993.

“The University’s Department of Economics had a unique focus—pluralistic, with an intellectually open-minded approach to economics,” he says. “The department was willing to draw from other disciplines or traditions in economics—as opposed to other schools with a more narrow focus. That made the department very interesting to me.”

He views economics as a social science, “as opposed to a technical field like engineering, as many economists think in the profession. The kind of economics we teach at the University has put us on the map internationally. So that makes us attractive,” he says.

From 1997 to 2000, while on leave from the U, Erturk was the lead consultant in drafting a document for the U.N. General Secretary on the economic role of women in the global economy, a position that later helped him place U of U graduates with the U.N. Development Program.

More recently, Erturk has been researching the role financial imbalances play in business cycles and currency crises in developing countries. He maintains that free flow of financial capital around the globe, if not managed properly, can have adverse effects that can endanger globalization as we know it.

Erturk’s cultural background, along with his extensive travel, have given him a different regional and international perspective. “I am capable of looking at the United States from outside. And having an outside perspective is very valuable,” he says.

“I’m a believer in the importance of a liberal arts education. Students are here to learn how to think critically and broaden their horizons,” he continues. “It is interesting for them to be exposed to people with very diverse experiences—especially graduate students, where much of the interaction takes place outside of the classroom. I guess I am one of the people of diverse experience they can benefit from.”

—Ann Jardine Bardsley BA’84 is a writer in University Marketing & Communications.

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