Friday, February 26, 2010

Red Sea at our Fingertips

I went snorkeling with two friends this morning in a lagoon near KAUST. The guy at right is a marine scientist who studies coral reef conservation and loves fish - I think if he could grow gills and live in the water he would. He was our informal guide on this trip and talked about the coral, crabs and snails, stingrays, and especially the fish as if they were all dear friends of his.

We just walked to the edge of the water and jumped in - it was great! I finally got a chance to use my underwater camera (a gift from my parents). The lagoon was shallow and a little murky. These pictures are not nearly as dazzling as those I hope to show from the big reef when I get a chance to go, but it will give you a shadow of an idea of the life that is just beneath the surface of the Red Sea.

There is a small blue fish at the bottom left in this picture. This was the only shy little fish I was able to capture on film today - I promise to have more next time!


Saudi Arabian customs is one of the slowest and least flexible institutions I have ever dealt with. My lab group has a critical order sitting in Jeddah for five weeks - we have called to check on the paperwork and asked how long it will take to clear numerous times. Last week, I got this email:

Hi Nathan,

I have been informed that the authorization for the release of the shipment from customs has been delayed. Our customs agents are required to submit more paperwork and the delay will be at least 2 weeks.

I will check again at the end of the week and update you.

Our case is not unique. The King has invested so much money and effort into this project, but stone-wall bureaucracy in the customs office continues to frustrate us all by stifling research. Major reforms are needed even in government customs offices, for KAUST's research mission to thrive. I hope they don't kill us with paperwork before that reform comes.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

My Research Project

Contrary to what one might think from reading this blog, which is full of weekend stories and social interactions, my purpose for pursuing a graduate degree at KAUST is not to have fun in Saudi Arabia, sight-see in the Middle East, get paid a graduate stipend, or learn Arabic. I am not even in school to attend classes - mixed or unmixed - though I have been mostly satisfied with quality of the lectures so far. I was recruited to KAUST, along with so many other students, staff, and faculty, to do research in hope of discovering new things. I haven't said much about research on this blog for two reasons: (1) biological research was a little slow in getting started at KAUST and (2) I don't think you have the patience and the enthusiasm to read dozens of blog entries about my daily work.

My research project, however, is pretty unique and I'll try not to bore you with too many details. I am working with a small research team to develop microbial fuel cell (MFC) which harnesses bacteria's metabolism to produce small amounts of electricity from sugar and other carbon sources. MFC technology has potential to be used in wastewater treatment, but there are still many challenges to implementing this technology on an industrial scale.

This is a simplified drawing of the MFC process, taken from a research article by Bruce E. Logan et al published in 2006. An MFC has two electrodes - an anode and a cathode. Bacteria growing on the anode donate electrons to the circuit if there is a voltage difference between the anode and the cathode. The voltage difference is created by an electron acceptor at the cathode, which can be oxygen, iron, nitrate, or any of a number of elements. The membrane is a barrier which prevents the electron acceptor from diffusing from the cathode to the anode, but allows ions, such as hydrogen, which are byproducts of the bacteria's metabolism, to pass from the anode to the cathode.

Microbial fuel cells can be modified by including a third chamber for salt water, and used to desalinate water without adding any heat or electricity - in fact there is still a small net electricity production in this laboratory demonstration. This reactor is called a Microbial Desalination Cell (MDC). The picture here is taken from a research article by Xiaoxin Cao et al, published in 2009. Salt (sodium chloride) is removed because of a chemical potential difference. Negatively charged ions, such as chlorine, migrate to the anode, while positively charged ions, such as sodium, migrate to the cathode. As ions migrate, the water in the middle chamber becomes purer.

These are not mature technologies and there is no 100% guarantee that MFC and MDC technology will be appropriate for water reuse and desalination in the future. There are still many challenges with bacterial community stability, sustainable cathode design, and scale-up losses. However, MFC and MDC technology is versatile and I am excited to work in a new and potentially promising field. If some small thing that I do at KAUST can someday lead to making more fresh water available for people in countries that need it, I will consider my time and efforts here to have been well spent.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saudi Rap

I bought a CD yesterday... and I have to say I am a fan. Qusai was born in Riyadh, raised in Jeddah, and learned his craft in Los Angeles. He's definitely no Tupak; his style fits his Saudi heritage - and a blend of Middle East and Western rhythms gives his rhymes a unique sound.

I like Arabic music a lot, not just rap but more traditional Debkat and other stuff too. However, Saudi Arabia is not known for musical taste and talents. There is an uneasiness in Saudi Arabia (and even at KAUST) about playing music in the public sphere, because some conservatives believe that music is "idle talk" and would take offense.

So in the KSA there are no public concerts, no music festivals, and not even soft background music in malls and grocery stores... which, if one comes from a musical culture, is really a pretty strange transition. I have heard that in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon music remains a part of everyday life - why is KSA different?

The moralist might say that there is lots of "bad" music available, and the public should not be exposed to "bad" music. But it doesn't make sense to hush all music if one thinks that some is bad. Music is one of the most powerful forms of emotional and spiritual expression than man is capable of; when there is a festeval or a wedding, music feels natural. Music makes thoughts, words, and even people, come alive.

I haven't found much in the Quran which references music - either good or bad. Maybe someone who knows more than I can point me in the right direction. There are a few verses about singing praises to God; minaret callers certainly follow these guidelines when they sing the call to prayer.

The Bible (Torah and Injeel) is a bit more clear on the subject of singing. Music is an integral part of the Jewish and Christian religions and traditions. The words sing, song, and music appear 188, 115, and 106 times in the Bible - almost all in positive contexts.

I love music, and even if I can't go to a public concert right now, I will keep singing until the day that I die. Life is too good to stay silent.

إن شاء الله

The Arabic phrase, insh'allah, can be either full of meaning or meaningless - it depends on the context and on the person who is speaking. Insh'allah is one of the most common Arabic phrases used in everyday conversation. Uses range from "insh'allah I will meet you at 8:00 for football," to "insh'allah you will have a healthy child soon." Insh'allah means, "if it is God's will." The correct use, according to my Arabic friends, is to wish someone good fortune in an endeavor, or to assure a friend or business associate you will do everything in your power to complete a task.

When I hear insh'allah from upper management though, I am sometimes discouraged. If someone says insh'allah he can mean that he really does not want to do this thing or that it cannot be done... in other words, the commitment or deadline will only be met if there is divine intervention.

So to take insh'allah as "yes" or "for sure" every time is too optimistic. "Inshallah, the labs will be open in August 2009," or "insh'allah you will have all of your books for the fall semester," or "insh'allah the gym will be open next week"... are all improper uses of insh'allah.

I still like the phrase insh'allah - we have a similar concept in the New Testemant (Injeel), as found in the book of James, chapter 4.

Insh'allah reminds us that in life, we do not have the final word. Insh'allah means that I realize I am not all-powerful and I do not know everything; I am only a man. I will do everything in my power, but I am only a man. If God allows this to happen, it will happen. If he does not, then it will not.

That reminds me of a story from early in Christian history. After Jesus was taken up to heaven, the religious leaders in Judea wanted to kill the Christians, but there was one religious leader named Gamaliel who spoke out against the persecution.

Acts, chapter 4:

So... insh'allah I will graduate in May, inshallah I will get a good job afterward, and insh'allah I will see my family again soon. Ultimately though, it matters more what God wants more than what I want, and that is comforting in a way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lab Training

Today I had a laboratory training session on three different instruments: total organic carbon and nitrogen analyzer, uv-visual light spectrophotometer, and a spectroflourophotometer, all of which were delivered and calibrated yesterday. There is beginning to be more activity in the labs as equipment, chemicals, and biological reagents come into the Kingdom. The equipment is making the KAUST labs look more like a real research university, but there is still quite a bit of work to be done.

Supply chain problems continue to plague biological researchers who cannot get restriction enzymes, microbial samples, and other products. The big problem is that there are lots of problems. Moving requests through the central ordering system has been a slow process and some things just never were ordered. Once things are ordered, Saudi Arabian customs has also been massively inefficient in letting materials across the border. In the shipments, some items have been misplaced for weeks before they are finally found in a random warehouse in Jeddah.

Weeks may not sound too bad to the casual observer, but high-tech biological researchers who have come to KAUST are used to one-day shipping. Many of the biological samples and reagents are ruined if they spend more than a few days in transit... three weeks in a customs office will totally destroy a shipment of enzymes or microbes.

But things are improving. My research team will start to reproduce some basic experiments next week (insh'allah) and we should be able to move in a forward direction by mid-semester.

How long will it take to move at full speed though? I don't know. Not until next fall at the earliest for chemical and biological sciences, insh'allah. The whole ordering and customs system has to be completely redone for research to really work here at KAUST.

Continued New Year Celebrations

Chinese New Year became one of my favorite holidays when I lived in Beijing for many reasons: food, fun, and fireworks... and the celebrations last more than a month! Chinese New Year is kind of like Ramadan, when most people take a break for a few weeks to visit with family and enjoy the holiday. The Chinese students hosted a wonderful outdoor dinner for their peers this evening. The dumplings, fried rice, meat, and steamed vegetables were very tasty. Thanks guys!

I hope you can tell that these students are not Chinese... guys from Jordan and Lebanon can also get into the spirit of the Chinese New Year!
In addition to food, there was Chinese caligraphy (everyone wanted their name painted in Chinese characters), some cultural quiz games, hot air balloon launches (shown above), prizes...

... martial arts demonstrations (above), and traditional music (below). Good job guys, we had a lot of fun!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Faith and Science - Why get a Ph.D?

One of the most inspiring spiritual talks I have heard in a while was in the Physiology and Metabolic Engineering Class. Surprising?

Next time we will probably discuss genetic engineering for stress tolerance, but this morning, Ray Bressan, shown here, gave a charismatic chalk-talk explaining why we should all aspire to get our Ph.D. "tickets." According to Dr. B, a Ph.D. is not an accomplishment, it is not something that is necessarily earned, it is essentially a piece of paper which gives a person the ticket or the license to discover things - and sometimes get paid for it.

Ph.D. stands for Doctorate of Philosophy coming from "philo" from the Greek meaning loving and "sophia" meaning wisdom, so one who earns a Ph.D. is one who is recognized as "loving wisdom."

So what is wisdom? Wisdom is more than knowledge. Knowledge is what people "know." Wisdom is a respect for God and his creation, which includes many things we do not know. The Bible says that the "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The Koran has a similar definition.

Therefore by definition, someone who has earned a Ph.D. is a lover of wisdom, who respects God's creation and realizes there are many things that are not known. Do I have to go to school for more than twenty years of my life to recognize that?

But the Ph.D. is also about seeking to understand what is unknown - that is where science comes in, and there are a whole history of persons from the West and from the Middle East who have influenced scientific thought and the scientific method to become what it is today.

So is a Ph.D. right for me? I am not sure what the future holds yet; I need to focus on finishing the masters first and see what doors that will open. Right now, only God knows what the future holds for me.

I can say that in my experience, religion and science, faith and reason are complimentary rather than contradictory. Science can measure and explain creation, but it can never quantify or explain God - that is why we have faith. Faith alone, on the other hand, is not a satisfactory system for building an oil refinery, or planning a city's highway system, or writing a system of laws and government. God gave us a mind so that we could understand some things, but we will never fully understand everything. The deeper one delves into the realm of physics, or of genetics, or of human thought, the closer reality comes to exceeding the human limits of thought and imagination. Faith and reason are inseparably entwined.

Campus "Art"

One of the indicators that the KAUST campus is coming closer and closer to completion (insha'allah) was the sudden appearance of strange pieces of sculpture at random across the community. These inspired pieces range from interesting to just plain strange... some of these I really have to wonder "why did they put that there?" But then according to the architects who designed KAUST, that was partly the intent. The metaphor goes something like this: along the path to discovery, you often come across things you don't recognize. For better or for worse - it worked. KAUST campus definitely has its own unique style.

Is it a snake? Is it a human head? Whatever it is, somebody probably paid too much for it... Many of these funny shaped stones sprouted up in gardens and grassy areas while we were away during winter break.

Though most students immediately think "football," (translated "soccer ball" in the United States dialect) this shape is actually most closely related to the Western wiffle ball, which is like a baseball except it won't break any windows. Maybe is is meant to be an atom or something? I don't think atoms look like that, so I'll argue that the artist was trying to promote wiffle ball - I don't think the sport has caught on in KSA yet.

Is it a telescope or a giant robotic ant? I change my mind every time I walk by. Maybe we can just split the difference, launch it into space, and call it the first KAUST satellite.

Again, I am not really sure what the message is here. If you look closely, you will see that the metal has little hands and is wearing high heels on its little feet. I guess it is a female metal ring-thing welcoming us to... eat at the restaurants? Interesting, but a little creepy at night.

These don't make sense at all. The loopy metal mesh on the ground is in the middle of the sidewalk and cannot be seen until the pedestrian stumbles onto it. The pointy metal mesh on the left is poorly placed because it is sticking into the sky interferes with the sunset view from inside the main diner.

This is an eight foot tall picture of the king himself made out of old computer parts with paint splattered over them. His beard is actually a collection of motherboards. I like the reuse theme and the creativity, but I am not really sure what inspired it.

I think these shapes are inspired by diatoms - microscopic, calcium carbonate shell-forming plankton which naturally exist everywhere at the ocean surface. I like these, but their placement is again, kind of random.

What do you think? As for myself, I would rather have the art than not. The sculptures create a very unique character at KAUST. I do hope that they didn't pay too much for some of this weird stuff though...

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Happy Year of the Tiger!

We celebrated the coming of the Chinese New Year with dinner today. The New Year festivities this picture was taken right at the turn of the new year at 7:00 pm Saudi Time (midnight China time). The dumplings for dinner were awesome. : )

Sunday, February 7, 2010

American Journalist Visits Yemen

Thomas Friedman, one of my favorite opinion writers, wrote a thoughtful article about Yemen today, which is definitely worth a read.

Mr. Friedman said that Yemen was, "not what I had expected."

I cannot count the number of times I heard a foreigner say that about Saudi Arabia, or any other country in the Middle East. Similarly, I have heard the same thing about KAUST from visiting professors who have come during the WEP, and about the USA from students here who have visited.

A wise man once commanded his followers not to judge each other, because we will also be judged; the same measurement we use on others will also be used against us. If I have learned anything in my travels, I have learned that I cannot make judgements against people if I have never visited their country, lived in their culture, or walked in their footsteps; and fully understanding those things can take a lifetime.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the USA, are all very complicated countries. They have diverse populations with diverse needs. Much is said and thought about these three countries and the people who live in them by those who have never even visited for a single day. This stereotyping is not right, but it is the way people are.

On a bleaker note, Mr. Friedman speculated that Yemen might be the first country to completely run out of water in 10 to 15 years. This would be a terrible tragedy, and I do hope that in the next decade some of the research thrusts at KAUST can help to make desalination and reuse technologies cheaper and more accessible before Yemen, and other countries in the region, reach a water crisis.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Driving to the Desert

Two weeks ago, I went to the desert. True, KAUST, and most of Saudi Arabia, is already "in the desert," but this particular place is one of our friend's childhood favorites.

Going to the desert is not about sand and scenery as much as it is about good food and coffee, and good company. In this picture, my friend is serving Arabic coffee and teaching us some of the customs which come with this traditional drink. We also prepared and ate a barbecue fit for Bedouin princes and princesses, and stories under the sunset and stars were perfect evening entertainment.

The weather was perfect for it too - and completely different then the deep freeze I was in just a few weeks ago! Short sleeves were comfortable in January, and in the shade of the mountains we didn't sweat much either...

... except when we had to push the suburban out of some sand, but even that is kind of adventure is expected when going out to the desert!

My Wife Comes to KSA!

My wife (right) and one of our friends while shopping in Al Ballad in Jeddah.

Isn't she cute in her abaya? (Don't worry, Love, I won't suggest that you start wearing it in New York!)

Carissa finally had a chance to come to KSA for a two week visit during the Winter Enrichment Period, and we had a blast! We had dinners and games with friends, shopping in Jeddah, a barbecue in the desert, and lots of fun just hanging out together. Being married at KAUST is not half-bad and Carissa said she wouldn't mind living in the KSA if work or study opportunities keep me here long term.

Unfortunately for me, my best friend returned to New York when classes began last week; she is pursuing a Ph.D. at Cornell.

A word on abayas:

It is not necessary for women to wear abayas at KAUST. While considerate attire is officially encouraged, wearing abayas is purely a matter of personal choice. When traveling outside of the KAUST compound, to Jeddah to go shopping for example, abayas are pretty much required.

Hijab (the head scarf my wife and her friend are wearing) is not mandatory for non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia, but interestingly, the girls elected to cover their blond hair to avoid gawkers in the street. Two girls with uncovered blond hair is a bit of a jaw-dropper in the Kingdom.

In some ways, social sensoring has made Saudis naive and sheltered and interestingly, this is most common argument I have heard for continuing to enforce strict dress codes on women - that the society cannot deal with women in jeans and a t-shirt because it would be sensory overload.

So beautiful and independent-minded wife actually felt more comfortable in Hijab than out of it while we wandered Al Ballad, but friends and family shouldn't expect her to change fasion sense State's-side.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


Students and faculty are in the throes of what is now the third week of the Winter Enrichment Period or WEP. The WEP principal is actually very good, though in practice student experiences have been mixed.

The WEP is four weeks long, between the end of the fall and beginning of the spring semesters, and a variety of courses are offered to students free of credit, tests, and homework (though there are exceptions) which range from entrepreneurship, to Arabic music, to marine science classes. Some KAUST professors offered seminars, but the bulk of the teaching was actually done by visiting professors from Cambridge, Cornell, MIT... the list goes on.

A complete listing of this year's WEP schedule is available here as a google document, though it is a little difficult to use because of the information overload.

Some courses were well attended, and some were not. I know that "Technology Entrepreneurship," taught by a visiting professional from the Thunderbird School of Management, was overwhelmingly popular, but then some of the more focused talks, such as "Advanced Finite Elements with Applications to Numerical Reservoir Simulation," might have only been attended by a few bright students who could really relate to the material.

Only four of the available courses required homework, and I am in two of those. While some students spent their evenings creating new WEP euphemisms such as the "Winter Em-boring Period," or racked up dozens of medals and free t-shirts at WEP athletic competitions, I was in the library scrambling for academic journal articles and plowing through assignments every day. I even missed the basketball tournaments, and that was very sad.

Overall though, I enjoyed the WEP. One of the side benefits for students who have taken the initiative is networking with partners who came to KAUST for WEP. I was even encouraged by one partner to apply for a Ph.D. in his lab - and I have started the application process.

As for courses, many were great... there is plenty of room to improve upon for next year.

Most of the students have enjoyed this "enriching" period, but I think that the real enthusiasts are somewhere in the staff offices. Marketing here was a bit extravagant - we even have two WEP buses!