Chris Little is working simultaneously on two graduate degrees that require him to travel between two of the nation's leading research universities.
The good news is those campuses are footsteps apart.
His 10-minute walks between classes at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University are just one manifestation of a situation that is highly unusual -- if not unique -- among America's major research universities.
The two campuses that help define Pittsburgh and give it international standing are so close that traveling between them can be as simple as crossing just one street.
Their students can stroll to the same off-campus nightspots, their faculty are able to share expensive research equipment without getting into a car, and, for a time, both schools even shared a director of economic development.
"Some of the CMU buildings seem almost as close as some of the ones at Pitt," said Pitt professor Charles Perfetti, who can see both campuses from the eighth-floor window of his office in Pitt's Learning Research and Development Center. Dr. Perfetti is co-director of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, a joint effort of both universities, and director of Pitt's learning center.
The closeness he refers to represents more than mere convenience.
The ascent by both institutions in various measures of academic standing may have been aided by synergies that developed in recent years between the two neighbors -- Pitt a public campus with a sprawling medical complex, and CMU a private campus whose contributions in computer science, robotics and engineering stretch from the NASA space program to Hollywood back lots.
The latest indicator of that prominence was last month's release of rankings by Times Higher Education, a major London-based publication. Carnegie Mellon and Pitt placed among the world's top 100 universities, with CMU finishing 20th and Pitt placing 64th.
Of five categories considered, Times Higher Education counted teaching, research and citations of papers for more than 90 percent of the score, while the rest of the score considered international mix and industry income/innovation. In all five, CMU scored ahead of Pitt.
Among universities in North America, Times Higher Education placed CMU 16th and Pitt 41st. Among American universities, CMU ranked 15th and Pitt 38th.
To be sure, there are other colleges and universities in the general vicinity -- Chatham University in Shadyside, Carlow University in Oakland and Duquesne University on the bluff. But in addition to being the only area universities on the international list, Pitt and CMU are the only two local schools that belong to the Association of American Universities, an invitation-only group of the leading public and private research institutions in the U.S. and Canada.
There are other urban centers that benefit from multiple research universities, like Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.; Columbia and New York universities in New York City; and the University of California at Los Angeles and the University of Southern California.
But the distance between those schools often is measured in highway exits and subway stops -- not footsteps.
"If you think of Oakland as sort of one campus, there are very few if any peer campuses in the world -- maybe Harvard and MIT," said Don Smith, president of the Regional Industrial Development Corporation of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
"There are very few places in the world where you have, essentially on one campus, a billion dollars of sponsored research every year," said Mr. Smith, who was Pitt and CMU's director of economic development from 2002 to 2009.
Pitt, with roughly 28,000 students on its main campus, attracts $737 million in sponsored research annually. CMU's campus of nearly 11,000 students drew $321 million in sponsored research as of 2009, the year for which the most current data is available.
Put them both together, and they become a behemoth of 65,000 students and employees that, along with nearby UPMC, help make Oakland one of the state's major business corridors.
The campuses have spawned dozens of collaborative programs, centers and other ventures in areas from the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center to philosophy. Some of the sharing could have occurred even if the schools were time zones apart. After all, researchers with common interests can connect though phones, Internet and airplanes.
But face-to-face encounters help bring down institutional barriers more rapidly, said Robert M. Berdahl, AAU president and former chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley.
"There is increasing interest in the idea of 'critical mass'," said Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education World University Rankings. "Grouping leading researchers closely together, across different faculties, disciplines and even institutions, can help promote new collaborations. ...
"It is good to encourage the serendipitous encounters between academics that may spark a new idea, and close geographical proximity can really help in this respect," he said.
Dr. Berdahl said the physical proximity between Pitt and CMU is "fairly unique." He said it encourages greater sharing of resources at a time when competition for research dollars has gotten more intense.
The resolve of both universities to work more closely together dates to an understanding reached about a dozen years ago by their leaders, Pitt Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and CMU President Jared Cohon, who developed a close rapport early in their tenures.
Both say they recognized the competitive edge their schools stood to gain by -- as Mr. Nordenberg put it -- "combining the intellectual firepower" already present on each campus.
Dr. Cohon said success also required the campuses to "understand and respect differences that exist between us, to work through them, around them or take advantage of them."
Over time, each joint venture made the next seem less foreign. Collaborating with Pitt is now "part of our DNA," Dr. Cohon said.
One often-cited result is the Center for the Neural Basis of Cognition, pairing Pitt's neuroscience expertise and CMU's prowess in such disciplines as computer science, biological sciences, electrical and computer engineering, psychology, and statistics.
Another is the doctoral program in computational biology established by Pitt and CMU jointly in 2005.
The universities worked in tandem to land a $15 million National Science Foundation grant, later renewed, to create the Quality of Life Technology Center in 2006. It uses intelligent systems to help aged and disabled people live more independently.
"Neither university could have claimed that level of support alone, but when we combined our talents, we obviously did succeed," Mr. Nordenberg said.
Other examples abound. In fact, he said, Pitt and CMU have been partners in nearly all regional technology-based economic initiatives since the late 1990s, among them the Digital Greenhouse, Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse and Robotics Foundry.
"Jerry and I have been co-chairs of most of them," he said.
But for all the collaborations, each campus has kept its distinct feel -- as different as the snarling Pitt Panther spotted on ESPN telecasts, and the Scottish terrier mascot adopted by a school with traditions that include the nation's only bagpiping major.
The vast majority of students at Pitt and CMU attend one institution or the other, not both. Campus-based student organizations and activities are separate, but some religious organizations attract students from both.
The Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh strategically placed its Joseph Stern Building on Forbes Avenue between the two campuses. Aaron Weil, executive director of the center, said it is the only multicampus Hillel center in the nation that is a short walk for students of more than one school. He said it can offer stronger programming because it doesn't have to spread its resources between two locations.
Resources of one campus are available to students at the other, including library holdings at no charge. CMU students and faculty check out about 3,500 to 4,000 books a year from Pitt's University Library System, which has 6.2 million print volumes.
Like Mr. Little, some students enroll in a limited number of dual programs between the schools, and even students who do not can cross-register for individual courses at the other. In the spring, 300 students -- 172 from CMU and from 137 Pitt -- cross-registered.
Mr. Little was interested in graduate programs combining public policy and law degrees. The ones he initially found were far apart and could have required him to move as much as thousands of miles between schools from year to year.
Now in his final year of a four-year program, Mr. Little, 29, who is from Los Angeles but lives in Squirrel Hill, walks just blocks between Carnegie Mellon, where he is working on a master's of science degree in public policy and management, and Pitt, where he is working on a law degree.
His first year's classes were at CMU, and the second year was at Pitt. For the final two years, he takes classes at both. On Thursdays, for example, he takes intellectual property and foundations of legal research courses at Pitt, finishing at 2:15 p.m. Then he goes to CMU for a 3:30 p.m. class on geographic information systems.
"I really enjoy it because I think the schools are fairly complementary," he said. "I develop my legal and analytical skills at the law school, and I'm able to develop my quantitative and statistical skills at CMU."
Faculty and graduate students who collaborate on research also have found location to be an advantage.
CMU professor Takeo Kanade, director of the Quality of Life Technology Center said he talks with his Pitt colleagues at least once a week in person, and individual researchers also get together often.
"The point is that can occur without any sort of real big planning. That's a very different situation from the case that if you were in a different city and so forth ... We're close. We just go and call and talk," he said.
The same sentiment exists at the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center, a joint Pitt and CMU venture that began in 2004. It has a director from both schools and has won nearly $50 million in federal money over 10 years.
One of the co-directors, CMU professor Ken Koedinger, said the center is able to take advantage of Pitt's long history of "being at the cutting edge of educational research" and CMU's strengths in technology and cognitive science.
Being practically next door to your research partner helps.
"I think part of good collaborative research and problem-solving sometimes involves talking about issues that you didn't set out to talk about," Dr. Koedinger said.
Those face-to-face conversations sometimes lead to "fortuitous discoveries," he said.
"The Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center has people involved around the world, but it sure does help to be able to walk over and meet face-to-face with people once in a while," he said.
Bill Schackner: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1977. Eleanor Chute: 412-263-1955. First Published October 3, 2010 4:15 AM