“When you come to a fork in the road,” said Yogi Berra, “take it.”

Xavier Perez-Moreno has done just that.

Last spring the effusive, pony-tailed Spaniard received a Ph.D. conferred by Washington State University and The Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. WSU officials think he is the first Cougar to earn a doctoral degree jointly with a foreign institution.

Xavi (SHAH-vee), as his friends call him, clearly isn’t big on either/or choices. Besides bridging universities on two continents, his dual degree also combines different kinds of research and departments: theoretical physics here, experimental chemistry at Leuven.

But Xavi didn’t set out to break institutional barriers. He simply went where his restless curiosity led him—and where his advisors encouraged him to go.

When he arrived at WSU in 2000, Xavi thought he was headed for a career in theoretical physics: he was long on ideas, short on lab work. That began to change when he took Mark Kuzyk’s course in optics.

“It was learning how to use lasers,” he recalls. “And I had NO idea. I’m very clumsy still. My friends are always like, ‘Xavi, before you to the laser, are you being very careful?'” He laughs. “We spent a lot of time playing with [optical] fibers, and that’s when I realized, Oh yes, this is very, very exciting.”

He became intrigued with nonlinear optics, and devoted his master’s program to exploring Kuzyk’s hypothesis that there’s a fundamental limit to how strongly any molecule can interact with light (see “Taking it to the limit,” WSM, Summer 2006). Just as he was finishing that degree, Xavi’s visa expired. New post-9/11 laws required him to return to Spain while he re-applied for admittance to the United States. Facing a three-month wait, he asked Kuzyk if there might be some place in Europe he could work until the visa came through. Kuzyk suggested the lab of Koen Clays, a physical chemist at Leuven who had provided the first experimental support for Kuzyk’s revolutionary ideas.

Xavi and Clays hit it off, and Xavi decided to stay in Leuven for his Ph.D. in order to be closer to family. He continued collaborating with Kuzyk as time permitted. A few months after Xavi moved to Belgium, Clays pointed out that Kuzyk was mentoring Xavi at least as much as he was. Leuven had done joint degrees with a university in Sweden; why not try the same sort of program with WSU?

“We weren’t sure if we could do it, because it’s never been done before,” says Kuzyk. “It took us almost the whole time he was in Belgium to iron out all of the paperwork.”

Each school had requirements Xavi had to fulfill, some of which were contradictory. In the end, says, Kuzyk, WSU authorities “were pretty flexible about it. I think that if the University had been even a little bit rigid, it wouldn’t have worked out.”

The result was one of the most successful doctoral programs in Kuzyk’s memory. News of Xavi’s work has appeared on dozens of tech blogs, and chemists from all over the world are sending him samples to analyze. Not only that, instead of losing a student when Xavi went to Leuven, WSU gained a teacher in Clays, who last year became an adjunct professor in WSU’s physics department. During a recent visit to Pullman, the Belgian scientist bought a pile of Cougar paraphernalia, including a bumper sticker that he installed on his office door in Leuven.

“He thinks Pullman is great, and he thinks Washington State University is fantastic,” says Kuzyk. “It’s kind of ironic, coming from a person who’s at one of the oldest universities in Europe, that’s one of the most highly respected universities there.”

Lance Leloup, who heads International Programs at WSU, says his office will be happy to facilitate more joint graduate programs, “but the leadership for them has to come at the departmental level. Joint and dual degrees I don’t think can be imposed from the top down.”

Kuzyk agrees.

“If it comes from the ground up, there’s a lot more commitment from the people [involved],” Kuzyk says. He and Clays are already looking forward to co-advising another student, who is currently working in Clays’s lab. With an agreement now in place between the two universities, the process should be easier this time.

As for what Xavi will do next, Kuzyk thinks he’ll thrive best in a situation that gives free rein to his energy and imagination.

During his doctoral work, says Xavi, “Kuzyk and Clays leave me a lot of freedom. They say, ‘This is what we allow you to do.’ And then if I say, ‘But I’ve been doing this and this and this,’ it’s, ‘Really? You did that? That’s good!'”

To read more about Perez-Moreno’s work, click here.