Friday, September 25, 2009

KAUST Symposium: Sustainability in a Changing Climate

We, the "KAUST-ians," were exhausted after the big inauguration event which kept us out until well after midnight, but the KAUST Inaugeration Symposium scheduled for the following day was too good to miss. The symposium was a huge deal just by itself. Twelve leading academics were invited and the discussions revolved around two broad topics: the role of science and technology in sustainablity and food and water in a changing climate. Of course the lighting and effects were immaculate and the food was good (and plenty of it) too. Nadmi Al-Nasr summed up my own thoughts well when he said in his closing remarks that it was "crazy" to host two events like the inaugeration and the symposium in two consecutive days. Though perhaps overshadowed by the festivities on the previous day, the symposium was both enlightening and enjoyable. I am glad we had the opprotunity to attend.

The big names which spoke and answered questions are:

His Excellency Ali I. Al-Naimi, Chairman of the KAUST Trustees Board and former Chief Executive of Saudi Aramco
Choon Fong Shih, KAUST President
David Keyes, Symposium Chair and a KAUST Dean
Frank Rhodes, KAUST Trustee and former Cornell University President
Samuel Bodman, former US Secretary of Energy
Lord Alec Broers, former Chairman of the House of Lords Science Committee, former President of Cambridge University
Sir Roy Anderson, Rector of the Imperial College of London
Stephen Sample, President of the University of Southern California
Chen Ning Yang, Nobel Lauriate
Elias Zerhouni, KAUST Trustee and former US NIH Director
Nina Federoff, Science and Technology Advisor to Hillary Clinton
Wolfgang Kinzelbach, Professor at ETH Zurich
Robert Grubbs, Nobel Lauriate, Professor at CalTech
Tony Haymet, Director of Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Kazuhiko Takeuchi, Vice Rector of United Nations University in Tokyo

Dinner was an impressive affair. We had lobster tail, one of my favorites! I had to take a picture of these two swan ice sculptures at the buffet line.

The symposium was great, but I was so tired that I dozed during one or two of the talks. There was plenty worth staying awake for though! After all of this week's craziness, I am glad that all of this pomp and circumstance is almost over. After today, the important delegates and guests will leave and we can get back to some kind of "normal" here at KAUST. I look forward to being a student again. Next week, all I have planned is going class, doing homework, and just hanging out with friends.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

KAUST Inaugerated... Finally!

The beacon during inauguration practice on Tuesday. Volunteers were told not to bring cameras to the event itself, but I got some good shots of the laser show the day before.

The KAUST inauguration was everything it was advertised to be! I won't bore you with the ceremony details - if you are interested you can start skimming through the hundreds of articles online. I'll just share some of the highlights of my experience.

I got a late start and rushed to get to the volunteer pick-up point where we waited for another hour (the organizers were even later than I was) to take the ten minute bus ride to the tents (pretty typical of this crazy week.) The late start meant that everyone in charge was stressed and about to snap, but somehow the students and faculty standing volunteers made it to the exhibition tent just before the first guests began to arrive. The exhibition tent displays were really cool, but our job was less than glamorous - just stand around and talk to people.

I loved it. I chatted with several visiting professors, took pictures for some important Saudis (they brought their cameras...) and conversed with the regional UNESCO director.

Just before the King came, we learned that there was in fact room for the student volunteers to watch the ceremony and eat dinner afterward. The ceremony was cool! There were lots of long speeches, some impressive visual effects, a play, a poetry reading, some Quran quotes, and most importantly, we saw the King in Person!

The ceremony ended with a fireworks and laser show which eclipsed the night sky. Dinner afterward was good, and I had a live interview with the Saudi National News.

All in all, a good day. Was the king's party worth 100 million (or more) dollars? I don't know, but it sure was impressive, and KAUST got the recognition it deserves.


The housing (which I vented about in the Sept 21 post) is not yet finished and cannot yet receive (and in my opinion should not receive) LEED Platinum certification. In stark contrast, the quality of design and construction of the academic campus is excellent. I am proud that the academic buildings have earned LEED Platinum certification, a high honor for sustainable design.

To date, the residential construction deserves no awards.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The King is Here!

Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud arrived at KAUST today! The more I learn about King Abdullah, the more I have grown to like his policies, his savvy politics (necessary in such an idealogicly diverse country), and his progressive vision for the country. The King deserves a Nobel prize for bringing us together here in Saudi Arabia from different countries and cultures to learn more about the world through science... and to learn more and build bridges between each other's cultures while we are here.

The media is also here in full force. I had an excellent and enlightening conversation with John, the Director of Crossroads Saudi Arabia. I will be interested to see the commentary on his blog as this week unfolds. I also had my picture taken by the media as I was studying at the library (there is proof I study!) and walking around campus. Tomorrow will be crazy, but I am excited to see and be a part of the show.

In just the past few days, dozens - if not hundreds - of articles have been generated by news outlets worldwide. If you are interested on the perspectives of the world media, a Google news search for "KAUST" yields quick results.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Eid Mubarak...

This is not the notice you would want to see on your door when returning home from the holidays. My neighbor, a fellow student, left KAUST for the holiday to spend quality time with his family and especially his wife, whom he was planning to bring back to KAUST for their home in another city.

Yesterday, while he was away, a water connection burst loose on the second floor of his apartment and flooded the entire house. Another neighbor noticed water pouring out from underneath the front door, and immediately called 911.

The water is off, and maintenance cleared the sludge out of the apartment, but damage was already done. This is one of the saddest of the pathetic housing stories so far. A man spends all month cleaning and preparing his home for his bride to come live with him, to have this happen. They will be relocated to another apartment, but relocation just means more maintenance problems, more insect infestations to deal with, and more uncertainty about basic comforts and safety.

Ironically, this happened the same day that our university president announced via email that KAUST's campus had recieved LEED Platinum certification, the highest environmental sustainability award achievable for new construction projects.

"LEED provides independent validation that our buildings were designed and constructed to the highest performance levels in energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction, improved indoor environmental quality, and stewardship of resources and sensitivity to their impacts. "

Hopefully this award was not made prematurely.

So much effort has been expended on the awards, the recognition, and the public relations. Students and faculty are still waiting for our relief from unreliable and sometimes dangerous living conditions. My apartment is great - I have been lucky so far - but who knows, maybe tomorrow my pipes will burst too.

Things should get better for all of us when the inaugeration is finally finished. Maybe then we can concentrate on the basics. Maybe then students, faculty, and staff can find some kind of "normal" together at KAUST.

Eid Mubarak!

Things to be thankful for this Eid:

1. My beautiful wife.
2. My functional apartment.
3. Great friends, professors, and classes.
4. Easting and drinking while the sun is up.
5. Sleeping while the sun is down. : )

Yesterday marked the beginning of Eid al Fitr, the end of Ramadan. We celebrated in typical Saudi Arabian style with friends, lots of free food, music, and give-away prizes!

In one day our topsy-turvey eating and sleeping schedule turned right-side up again! Break-fast (Iftar) was at 8:00 am instead of 6:35 pm, lunch was at 12:00 pm instead of 12:00 am, and dinner was at 7:00 pm instead of 4:00 am. I woke up before noon and got ready for bed before midnight!
One my Chinese friends kindly demonstrated how excited she was about breakfast.

A variety of food was arrayed in a variety of ways for us. The presentation was at least as good as the taste in this case.
Cake for breakfast? Eid Mubarak!

Apparently KAUST employs a melon sculptor just for special holidays. This guy carved these melons into beautiful flower and bird shapes (these were not for eating).

Among the evening festivities held in Discovery Square were a magic show, some traditional music and dance, and a camel ride.

Here, my German friend is showing off his free cone-head hat...
A fad which also caught on with the Egyptians. Eid Mubarak!

KAUST Inaugeration Crunch

In just two days, thousands of VIP's, heads of state, corporate leaders, and academics will come to KAUST as the king's guests. Millions of dollars have been spent for this show to make sure that the guests are impressed by the scale and vision of this university. The three stages of the inauguration will be held in three temporary structures or "tents," the exhibition tent, the ceremony tent, and the dining tent. Each of these is built to accommodate and entertain the king's thousands of guests, but none of them is completed yet. This is a picture of the front of the exhibition tent, where I will be volunteering on the 23rd.

As you can see, forklifts are still moving crates and building supplies around and the inside still has plenty of work to be done. If I was in the US, I would say that at least two more months are needed before everything could be ready - but I have learned not to underestimate the speed with which things are built here in the Middle East. On the 23rd, the structure will be complete and the show will be spectacular, but a part of me is still concerned that too many shortcuts will be taken in the rush to complete everything. When the guests arrive I pray that the AC will work, the displays will not short out, and bits of the ceiling will not fall down onto the crowd below (ala student and faculty housing).

The ceremony tents have been constructed across the bay from KAUST campus with a nice view of the beacon, the library, and the lab buildings, all seen here.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Night on the Town in Jeddah

I am a winner! Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire" earned me a third place trophy at the US Consulate's 2009 Karaoke Night two days ago. Karaoke was only one of many activities that night... my longest yet in Jeddah.

The consulate officer, Martin Quinn, invited US KAUST students for an informal visit. Once we arrived and cleared security, Mr. Quinn himself welcomed us and engaged us in informal discussion which ranged from cautionary advice about living in Saudi Arabia to our feelings about adjusting at KAUST. The consulate is watching us very closely - we are the largest delegation of American students ever to live and study in Saudi Arabia, and Mr. Quinn expressed that he very much wants us to adjusting well, and that KAUST's success is important for both the US and Saudi Arabia's interests.

After our conversation, we went to the Marine House for dinner and to mix with other expats who had come to participate in the First Annual Marine House Karaoke Night. Unfortunately, security did not allow my camera in, so what happened at the consulate will have to stay at the consulate.

My fellow Americans returned to the bus at midnight, but I and my friend Richard broke off from the group to go shopping with some friends in Jeddah.

After a quick meal at Fudruckers, Richard and I acted as fashion consultants for my friend Mohammed who desperately needed a suit for the inauguration that is in just three days. Unfortunately, we didn't find one that night - they either didn't fit at all or were too expensive. Mohammed almost settled for an Armani suit which fit perfect and looked sharp, but would have set him back 3300 Riyals (about $800).

After the suit stores closed at 2:30 am (Peak Ramadan business hours are generally 8 pm - 3 am) we went grocery shopping to pick up some things that are not available at the little campus market (like cheese - whoop!) Outside the store, the owner of this Lotus sports car caught me gawking and suggested I climb inside for a closer look. It made for a good photo-op.
We finished grocery shopping at 3:30, less than two hours before sunrise, which didn't give us enough time to return to KAUST before the fasting period started again, so we stopped in at a local restaurant (which was packed with people!) and gorged ourselves on chicken and rice before making the drive back to campus.

Here we are eating on the floor, Saudi style!

This is what the sky looked like right before I went into my house and collapsed from exhaustion. This was a fun night, but I will be very glad to see schedules return to "normal" after Ramadan ends (tomorrow!) I do prefer to have most of my waking hours coincide with daylight hours. This was not one of those days.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

KAUST Community

I heard a KAUST administrator say recently, in response to the gripes (and there have been many) about housing problems, unfinished research labs, and other things, that our greatest challenge this year is to build and nourish the new KAUST community. I can't speak for the whole campus staff and faculty, but for the students... mission accomplished!

I am living with, hanging out with, and studying with the brightest, most flexible and resilliant peers I have ever met. These guys and girls rock and if the professors and staff are half as cool as they seem to be in the classroom and in their offices, I am sure they are gelling quite well, too!

I just wanted to let everyone know that things are not all bad here. It is easy to point out the negative environmental things which are affecting all of us, but KAUST's greates achievement so far has been to gather so many stellar individuals together in this place.

The fist picture is from a social gathering where a group of friends came together as family to learn from each other and fellowship together. Even in Saudi Arabia, we have not given up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but are encouraging each other more and more.

This second picture, taken by my friend Ernesto Sandoval during one of the recent celebrations in our town square, tells our story very well. We, the KAUST students, are diverse, full of life, and excited about the opprotunities ahead. The only problem with this picture is that you cannot see the girls (they didn't want to climb all over the statue like the guys did, go figure). All is still exciting here in SA!

Camel Talk

Michel de Groot for The International Herald Tribune

Those of you who know me very well know that I love fine cheese. Good cheese is rare and expensive at our campus grocery, so I have been forced to go without. I never stopped to consider the other though... there are foods here that are impossible to find in the West. For example, if I was from the Middle East trying to find good camel's milk I'd really be out of luck!

The Camel as a Cow, a Cautionary Tale

From now on I'll be on the lookout for - and I will appreciate - camel's milk. ; )

Saturday, September 12, 2009


I'm not usually one to overreact, but there I was, sitting upstairs and pecking away at my computer when I hear the three frantic rings at the doorbell. I jumped out of my seat and before I was halfway down the stairs, three men had burst into my apartment through the (locked) door.

My family and friends back home know that Texans don't react well to people barging into homes uninvited.

They must have been a little startled at my surprise; one of the men mumbled something about a housing contract, which I said I had already signed a week ago, and then they turned around and left.

Pretty weird, right? So I did what any good American boy would do... I called the cops before they could break into my neighbor's house, too.

Campus security responded beautifully. A car was here in less than two minutes and I even received a call after the incident was resolved to make sure everything was still ok.

Turns out it was just three very impatient members of housekeeping who probably were told to go door to door to every house and see if anything was wrong - whether or not residents were home. I wonder how many families they will freak out today before changing their methods.

Oh well, just another day, just another adventure!

Friday, September 11, 2009


This is the spoils from my first grocery run at KAUST. Most of the items should be familiar. I steer clear of the sheep brains and stick with what I know when I am cooking for myself. One of the most exciting finds, which I forgot to include in this picture, is authentic Bull's Eye BBQ Sauce!

I won't be cooking much at home though because all of the food on campus is free for students and faculty for the foreseeable future (groceries are cheap, but not free). The restaurants haven't installed the infrastructure to charge us for meals yet anyway (cash registers, meal plans, etc). Free food is quite a treat for the inaugural class!

Growing Pains

New things and new ideas are always difficult when they have first begun. People come into a new organization each with their own expectations and their own ideas, and if there is no precedent or time-tested procedures in place, the people must constantly negotiate with one another. And this is only the beginning. There are other degrees of complexity as well. Nothing is ever completed soon enough (housing and labs). New infrastructure always some kinks to work out (bad internet connections and unreliable toilet paper supply). If the people involved are multi-cultural then there are also a host of communication difficulties, issues of cultural freedom, and even food preferences that have to be negotiated as well.

There are many books written about these things - written about the difficulties of starting a new organization. None like KAUST has ever existed before. This is a ten billion dollar project. It is amazing that we are all here; men and women students and faculty from 70 different countries all sitting in the same classes, eating and living together. It is amazing that we are doing all of these things in Saudi Arabia, which is probably the most culturally conservative nation in the world. KAUST is unique among universities and institutions. Rarely is so much money and effort invested in so few with the hope of affecting so many more.

Still, there are distractions: administrators are threatening to renege on KAUST's promise to pay for our flights home over winter break, the international girls are frustrated with segregation in the gym and other places on campus they did not expect, some of the more conservative administrators are worried that the students already have too much social freedom, and the housing and infrastructural unreadiness of the whole place is wearing on everyone. On top of all of these concerns, the king and all of his stately guests will be attending a highly rehearsed and security-tight inauguration celebration in just ten days, and everyone at KAUST is freaking out about that.

I am optimistic. After the king's party, international and domestic attention will be diverted from us and we can start to quietly work out some of the necessary compromises for issues which are simmering below the surface. Once everyone has a bit more time, livable housing, and construction slows as more and more buildings are completed; then we can reach some kind of "normal" baseline here where everyone can be content. Until then, I expect a tense ten days for students, faculty, and especially the staff.

For more information on the ceremony itself, and to see a very impressive bit of public relations campaigning, visit

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

When in Rome...

Thought you all might enjoy seeing pictures of me in my thobe. The model I own is actually from Qatar - each country's style is a little bit unique and people from this area can tell them all apart. Lots of the students here wear the traditional dress during the month of Ramadan. I have heard that some will wear it less frequently when the month is over. I made myself quite the novelty when I broke out the thobe for opening day festivities... I must have had my picture taken by a two dozen different cameras that evening at dinner!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Moved In!

Yesterday I finally moved into the new apartment! All of us students have been going a little stir crazy in our hotel - I was living at the Intercontinental for almost three weeks. The hotel was nice, but not like having my own place.

Not many students in the states get a king sized bed. All of the student flats are two story townhouses, this is some of the nicest housing I have seen anywhere. All of the furniture, sheets and towels, artwork, and everything else in these pictures (except the books on the shelves) came with this apartment. They are treating us really well!
I have a balcony too!
There are three types of housing: male, female, and married/family housing. The single gender housing areas are strictly segregated - not even visitors of the opposite sex are allowed to visit. Saudi Arabian culture keeps very rigid gender boundaries, and even having men and women in the same classrooms at KAUST is a radical step here. I have been placed in the married housing, which means that my wife is allowed to stay in my house when she visits in January. 
The kitchen is nice, and each house even has its own washer and dryer - this is really much more space than I could ever need or use by myself.
Not everything is perfect, because the contractor was in such a rush to finish building these apartments and get us moved in, almost every house has minor problems with plumbing leaks, dead electrical outlets, or broken appliances. Mine were no hot water, no telephone or TV connection, and no dinner knives, but everything besides the dinner knives was fixed yesterday. One of my friends' apartment had no electricity, and another was missing a bed, so I could have been much worse off.
This is my closet, more than enough space for my small wardrobe!
And this is my wife's closet. : )


These are the classes I will take, starting next semester. In Saudi Arabia, the work week stretches from Saturday to Wednesday, with Thursday and Friday as our days off.

Statistics and Biostatistics

Fundamentals of Bioprocesses


Molecular Genomics

Call me crazy, but I am seriously geeking out about this schedule. I can't wait for school to start!


This university campus looks so cool I had to throw up a few more pictures I have taken this week. Hopefully these can communicate a hint of the size and sleek design of every building at KAUST.
The lighthouse beacon standing at the tip of a peninsula which protects KAUST's harbor club will be one of the iconic symbols of the university. Presently, the construction crews are working at a ridiculous fast pace to finish the beacon before King Abdullah and his guests come to campus to celebrate KAUST's innaugeration on the Saudi National Day, September 23rd this year.
The neighborhoods are vast and very nice. Here you can see the KAUST mosque standing out in the distance.

Much is still under construction, and hundreds of buildings (mostly housing) remain off limits until they can be finished sometime next year.


This Wednesday was the last in a very long series of days designed to inform, instruct, and enrich the KAUST students by talking at us for seven hours a day about topics such as school dress code, 1001 different library programs, how much longer construction will last on campus (no one really knows yet) and cultural diversity. This ritual, widely practiced at other higher educational institutions worldwide, is called new student orientation.
We may look a little loony, but if we weren't allowed to have a little fun along the way, we might have gone completely out of our minds.
As it was, however, we all just suffered from acute stir-craziness. The occasional workout helps burn some of that nervous energy off.
Orientation did have a slumbering effect on some of my peers - here are two friends exploring the napping potential of one of the library's unique architectural features.

Orientation is done! Now that the dust has settled, I have my class schedule, my books, and I am moved into my new apartment. No permanent harm done, and we are all eager for classes to start this Saturday!

Horsing Around

Last week we were taken to see the Arabian Horses at a Jeddah equine club, the horses were beautiful, and we even got to ride them (kind of).
This beautiful horse even smiled for the camera!
Interesting Saudi Fact: it only rains twice a year and I saw some this night! If this year follows that standard, I will only see it rain once or twice more in the next fifteen months!