Ongoing Major SNF Grants Flip the Script on Brain Drain

The story told about the latest phase of the centuries-old Greek diaspora, in the wake of the country’s economic crisis, is one of “brain drain.” What would it take to turn this story around?

In Canada, an intern from Greece puts the finishing touches on an animated video for Greek language learners in which Athena and Poseidon fight for control of the new city of Athens. Across the globe in Greece, a researcher from Canada will team up with colleagues to fight cancer through a collaborative international research program in molecular oncology.

For centuries, the Greek diaspora has sustained networks—formal and informal—of knowledge exchange, collaboration, and culture sharing. The narrative of the latest phase of that diaspora, in the wake of the severe and prolonged economic crisis that wracked the country, has tended to focus on Greece’s brain drain, a one-way flow of skilled and educated Greeks pursuing opportunities abroad.

A suite of ongoing major grants by the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF) are working to flip the script on the brain drain, helping redirect the one-directional outward flow back into mutually productive international exchange.

The Institute of International Education’s Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program gives scholars working in any discipline the opportunity travel to Greece to collaborate with colleagues at universities around the country. Through the Rebooting the Greek Language program, talented interns from Greece engage in creating innovative language-learning tools through Canada’s Simon Fraser University.

Unlike the mythical contest for Athens, the flow of intellectual and cultural resources doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. When knowledge travels, everyone gains.

(Spoiler alert: Athena wins the contest for Athens.)

Making Modern Greek Accessible to All: Rebooting the Greek Language

In the scheme of world languages, the number of Greek speakers is small. To keep Greek language learning vital, this team of technical whizzes offers the classic IT solution: have you tried rebooting it?

“The apps that we’re developing are a completely new way to learn a language, for both kids and adults,” says Gregory Tsolakis, a Director and Motion Design intern with the Rebooting the Greek Language project. “It makes learning Greek fun, in a way that I didn’t think was possible.”

Rebooting the Greek Language seeks to use state-of-the-art digital tools and pedagogy to create a new platform for Greek language learning, helping revitalize Modern Greek language acquisition outside Greece. The project, which is supported by SNF, has been developed though the SNF New Media Lab and the SNF Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Frasier University (SFU) in British Columbia.

On February 9, 2020, International Greek Language Day, the apps Tsolakis mentions will hit the App Store. They’re tightly segmented by learner level, with a Preschool app for kids four and up, an Early Elementary app for kids six and up, and a Late Elementary App for kids 9 and up. An edition for teen and adult learners is in the works.

As important as the language-learning tools themselves is the process through which they’re developed: by early-career Greek professionals collaborating across international lines. Greek computer science graduates selected for the Rebooting the Greek Language’s paid internship program travel to Canada for three weeks of technical and entrepreneurial training at SFU’s SNF New Media Lab.

After the training period, the internships, which last from three months to a year depending on the project’s needs, follow a distributed model in which interns return to Greece to continue working remotely. Interns are currently working from Athens, Thessaloniki, Kastoria, and Corfu, collaborating with Greek musicians, and connecting with the project hub in British Columbia—a network mirroring the diaspora communities the project aims to serve.

“My experience as an illustrator as part of the Rebooting the Greek Language project can safely be described as amazing,” says intern Nikoleta Koronia. “Not only have I gained a wealth of experience and knowledge, but I also had the opportunity to be part of a creative group which helped me develop my teamwork and communication skills.”

The project is being piloted in 15 schools around North America and will be piloted in another 15, before reaching an intended audience of hundreds of schools and thousands of students.

“It’s thanks to initiatives like these,” says Gregory Tsolakis, “that our language has a chance to stay alive in the diaspora.”

Research and Teaching Collaboration across Continents: The Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program

“It was the most incredible experience. To go back after all these years and contribute something,” is how one Fellow describes the experience of taking part in the Greek Diaspora Fellowship Program (GDFP), organized by the Institute of International Education (IIE) in collaboration with the Fulbright Foundation in Greece and supported by a grant from SNF.

The GDFP originated in 2016, growing out of a decade-and-a-half collaboration between IIE and SNF, and was modeled on IIE’s successful African Diaspora Program. Through the GDFP, scholars working in North America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa who hold Greek or Cypriot citizenship or who were born in Greece or Cyprus have the chance to return to Greece to conduct research, work with students, and develop curriculum at Greek institutions.

Professor Antonis Koromilas of McGill University in Quebec, for instance, will be hosted by Professor Georgios Simos of the University of Thessaly’s Laboratory of Biochemistry in the latest cycle of Fellowships. The researchers will work together on developing a collaborative research program and educational curriculum focused on molecular oncology, to be carried out jointly between Greece and Canada.

To date, the GDFP has provided 87 fellowships to scholars working in fields from engineering, to agriculture, to literature. According to IIE’s year-one report, 88% of Hosts reported that interacting with their visiting Fellow had produced an appreciable improvement in their research practices. For their part, 93% of Fellows reported gaining great value from the program.

Initial indications are that the ties formed will prove durable: 89% of Fellows continued to collaborate with their Hosts after the conclusion of the exchange. The impacts of the program propagate outward to other colleagues in host and home departments, and fellows mentored an average of three students apiece. New formal collaborations arise, along with new entities to steward them.

Harvard neurologist Dr. Alexandra Touroutoglou. Photo: Dr. Alexandra Touroutoglou, via SNF.org

“The GDFP fellowship played a catalytic role in setting the foundations of our nascent research team,” says Host Mary Kosmidis, Professor of Psychology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (AUTh). “Capitalizing on our momentum, the group of AUTh professors on the team founded a university-based institute, the Institute for Computational and Applied Neuroscience (ICAN), inviting other colleagues with key specialty areas to join us.”

“We have continued our collaboration between AUTh and Harvard University,” says Professor Kosmidis, referring to her Fellow’s home institution, “and have been fortunate to receive an Alumni GDFP for a new visit of the fellow this spring.”

The GDFP continues to grow and evolve, adding among other things opportunities in the latest cycle for GDFP alumni to take part in a second Fellowship to further deepen ties.

Harvard neurologist Alexandra Touroutoglou, the Fellow hosted at AUTh by Professor Kosmidis, also describes the impact of the GDFP in terms of a chemical reaction. “The success of GDFP shows that to fight brain drain, scientists in the diaspora do not necessarily need to permanently return to Greece,” she said. “Rather, great benefits can be reaped through ongoing collaborations with Greek diaspora academics…. Initiatives like GDFP can act as catalysts for strengthening Greek universities.”

More information is available online: snf.org.

1 Comment

  1. Computer games are proving extremely valuable in primary education, even though many of the so-called “robot teachers” are just dolls with some cuddly sounds and motions and a tablet computer in the middle. Half a century ago, in Greek one room school houses, the teacher would go around the room and coach each student who was at a self-paced, different, individual level from the rest of the class. In advanced topics, it is hard to find teachers today who are sufficiently skilled both in the psychology of teaching and the actual subject matter. Allowing the computer to provide the material frees the teacher to nurture the student to learn how to learn, a long forgotten, but essential, skill in an environment where everything changes and we all need to keep learning and discovering on our own.

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