Thursday, 27 January 2011

The Science at Kaust

You may have heard of KAUST - the new Saudi Science and Technology University - but you are unlikely to have read about the kind of research that goes on there. Happily, an article that provides exactly this information has been written by Sarah Houlton in “Chemistry World” magazine (August 2010 issue)

The article points out that the University has sprung up in an incredibly short time - with its official opening just two years after the foundation stone was laid.

It is a research university (so it’s students are all studying for PhD’s or are on masters courses) that is organised as a series of interdisciplinary research centres focused on specific projects such as Water Desalination, Clean Combustion or Plant Stress Genomics. This is in contrast to most Universities that are organised on a departmental basis (engineering dept, chemistry dept, biology dept etc).

Jean Fréchet, Vice President of Research at the University was previously at the University of California at Berkeley. He comments that “Here, we are starting with (this) multidisciplinary approach to look at specific problems. For example. . .one research centre focuses on water desalination and reuse. This will take chemists, biologists and engineers, and the structure brings all of these together into one entity”

The University will take perhaps 5 years to reach its full capacity of some 250 faculty members and up to 2,000 students. Fréchet comments that, “We want to operate carefully, bringing in maybe 35-40 people a year”. As the number of staff and students increases, the number of research areas will also increase, from the current nine to around 20.

Commercialisation of the fruits of research is something that all universities are keen to ensure. At Kaust this is facilitated by the availability of seed funding and by the presence of an industrial park that is currently being set up. Companies such as Dow Chemical are also building a presence there, although Fréchet comments that, “we’re not looking for production facilities, we are only interested in R&D”

To give a flavour for the kind of staff who are being recruited, the article gives the example of Suzana Nunes and Timothy Ravasi.

Suzana was previously head of the membranes for energy department at the GKSS Research Centre in Germany. At Kaust she is working in a project to develop new polymers and nanocomposites for fuel cells and water treatment. She comments of Kaust that, “The academic freedom is important. . .and the facilities here are excellent”.

Timothy came to Kaust from the University of San Diego and is a systems biologist looking at the marine environment in the Red Sea. Interestingly, he points out that ,”It’s much easier to get a grant in the US on a hot topic like cancer than to study coral reefs”. He adds that, “I couldn’t have done this [research] in the US as I wouldn’t have had the money. Here I can”. (you need to be a member to view most articles)

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