A trip to the cutting edge of Saudi science

KAUST campus

On the KAUST campus. The tall “palm trees” on the horizon are actually mobile phone masts.

Grantham Institute Co-Director Prof Joanna Haigh shares her impressions on the Saudi science scene following a recent visit to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia.

I am sitting in the lounge at Jeddah airport, waiting for a flight to London and reflecting on my visit to the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Five days ago ‘computer problems’ nearly prevented me entering this famously high-security state, but early frustration was more than compensated for by a fascinating trip that included a dusty desert, a hard-working supercomputer and an artistic taxi partner – more on those later.

I was invited to visit Saudi Arabia by Prof Georgiy (Gera) Stenchikov, a world-leading atmospheric modelling researcher who heads KAUST’s Earth Science and Engineering Faculty. Being fairly ignorant of life in Saudi before my visit I was very interested to see and learn everything I could during the week.

KAUST campus2
Some central campus buildings

KAUST is an extraordinary university: established in 2009 and built from nothing in 18 months, it occupies a 36 km2 site on the Red Sea coast and boasts beautiful architecture, with labs and facilities which must rank among the world’s best. KAUST’s core research themes are water, food, energy and environment and I needn’t have worried that its generous funding, based on oil revenue, would supress debate on the necessity for the world to move towards a low carbon future.

The 7,000 residents of KAUST are not subject to some of the constraints on behaviour that apply outside its high-security perimeter. It is the first mixed-gender university campus in Saudi Arabia, with male and female students and staff able to study, work and socialise together. On campus women are also allowed to drive and aren’t required to wear the abaya, a full length gown that is compulsory for women in other parts of the country. The proportion of women on campus is similar to what we see at Imperial, making up roughly 20% of physics and 50% of biomedical science students.

I was there, along with a number of international visitors, to present at the Winter Enrichment Program (WEP), a two-week event that offers a wide range of science, arts and culture as extra-curricular material open to all members of KAUST.

An international outlook

KAUST office
With Gera Stenchikov in his office and its fabulous view over the Red Sea, including of the KAUST “Breakwater Beacon”.

My host, Gera, has contributed to understanding of the effects on climate of sulphur compounds that are ejected into the stratosphere by major volcanic eruptions, and the effects of other atmospheric particulates. A major focus of his current research is dust blown off the desert and its many impacts including on the performance of solar photovoltaic panels.

With its generous stipends, subsidised accommodation and superb facilities, KAUST is able to attract very able international students, who make up over two thirds of its 900 students. I had some interesting discussions, especially on UV radiation, with members of Gera’s research group which numbers about twenty postgraduate students and post-docs from almost as many countries. They tell me their university has recently installed a Cray XC40 supercomputer which, with 64,000 cores, claims to be the 7th fastest in the world. They use the computer’s unparalleled processing power to model and predict the complex movements of dust and winds across the desert region.

Bringing together science and culture

Our workshop at the WEP covered a range of issues surrounding aerosols, particulate and climate, and attracted around 200 attendees over its two days. I gave the first talk, an introduction for the non-expert to the physics of climate. Other international speakers followed on topics including the role of dust in amplifying cooling during the last glacial maximum and in providing nutrients for ocean productivity, atmospheric particulates and health, and geoengineering through stratospheric sulphate injection. I also joined a panel of female scientists from around the world for a lively discussion on women in science and engineering.

Elsewhere in the schedule, a KAUST schoolteacher talked about the plasticity of the teenage brain and how climate change provided a topic that challenged pupils to engage with both broad and narrow thought. Former Berkeley professor Tad Patzek, now Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering at KAUST, talked about plans for unconventional energy alternatives, which would bridge the gap between our existing, fossil fuel heavy, energy mix and a low-carbon future. Energetic student attendees kept us all on our toes, during the wide ranging question-and-answer sessions.

KAUST palm mast
Spot the door in this “palm tree” which is actually a mobile phone mast.

Outside of the science programme highlights for me were “On the Trail of the Glaciers”, an interactive photography exhibit that allows you to walk through time to witness glaciers retreat, and a performance of Hamlet by a visiting troupe from the Globe Theatre in London. The latter was part of the Globe to Globe project which is presenting the play to every country in the world over a 2 year period, and was well received by the international audience at KAUST.

I was lucky enough to share a taxi  with Dom Dromgoole, the Globe’s artistic director. He described to me the great challenges involved in creating and transporting an entire theatrical production which would suit every venue from an empty mud field to the most sophisticated theatre. Comparable, I thought, to the complexity of running and expanding our busy Institute at Imperial.

I now return to a chilly London, and my awaiting inbox and meetings, feeling “enriched” as a result of the trip and more aware than ever of the truly global need for our work on issues related to climate change and the environment.

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