Sunday, January 10, 2010

Saudi Arabia: a lesson in contrast

Dr. Randi Rotjan, Saudi Arabia Expedition

Okay, I'll admit it: I had a fairly romantic view of Saudi Arabia before arriving. Camels, sand dunes, stunning mosques, palm trees. After a mere 24 hours here, I've seen plenty of palm trees, stunning mosques, a sand storm (but no dunes), and no camels (but I've been told that farm camels do roam about). In a less rosy sense, I also imagined men with guns, lavish wealth, and crazy drivers - all of which I've seen. However, I've also been delighted to see a Saudi Arabia that I never imagined - and though I'm thrilled to head out to sea tomorrow for some amazing science, I am also sad to be leaving this strange and fascinating place so soon.

I've had the pleasure and privilege of being hosted by the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), which is itself a lesson in contrast. KAUST is a western-styled campus that, though only opened September 2009, has the promise to become a major player on the world stage of science. KAUST has recruited students, staff and faculty from some of the best institutions on the planet, and has enticed collaborators and colleagues with their vision of big science, limited only by ambition, and unlimited by scarce resources.

Almost literally an oasis in the desert, KAUST has sprung up practically overnight. The KAUST groundbreaking ceremony was in 2007; 2 years later, there are the makings of a small city that will eventually host 20,000+ students, faculty, and staff within its egalitarian walls. Located near Jeddah (Saudi's most liberal city), KAUST hosts a lovely library, generously-sized laboratories, a golf course, a stadium, several fitness centers, a supermarket, health center, housing... it is truly a [heavily guarded] city onto itself. The architecture compliments the landscape in that it is replete with natural materials, but it stands in stark contrast to the oil industry of Saudi fame.

KAUST has fashioned many of its buildings to be extremely environmentally friendly, showcasing solar and convection energy. Indeed, the campus has been awarded a platinum LEED rating for its green architecture and construction. Construction, however, is the #1 activity of KAUST these days, not yet academics, as most of the university is still being built and the first class of masters students has not yet graduated.

The biggest challenges of KAUST are logistical at this stage. Unlike any other institution in the world, KAUST has the money to realize its vision, and they are building the infrastructure to do so. What KAUST is lacking is experience - they are struggling to rapidly put systems into place to deal with purchasing, foreign visitors, security, etc. For example, one of the staples of laboratory science, ethanol, is in rare supply here. Ethanol is a form of science-grade alcohol used to preserve specimens (among other things), but in a country where any form of alcohol for consumption is illegal, there are very strict controls. Though not alcoholic in a human-consumption sense, the acquisition of ethanol has proved to be a major challenge and has left some KAUST biologists with the almost comical scenario of having every imaginable scientific luxury - sequencers, NMRs, HPLC's, and any other equipment acronym you can name - without having one of the most standard lab reagents.

KAUST buildings and library.

My world is about to change once again, as we're headed to the boat, where I will spend 10 days at sea. Onboard, I will have limited internet. I will go from wearing an abaya to wearing a wetsuit. From being a tourist to being a scientist. From knowledge of seas that I know to seas that I don't. Yet, with all of these changes, there is one stable constant: Saudi Arabia is a place where nothing is blackand white - but - there is no shortage of contrast.


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