What international partnerships has Khalifa University signed?
LAURSEN: As a start-up institution, international partnerships are very important to us and we tend to be quite strategic about establishing them. There are two major ones that I would like to mention. The UAE is developing a nuclear industry and the capability to generate nuclear power and Khalifa University has turned out to be the educational wing of that effort. We’re developing a master’s program in nuclear engineering and we’re doing that in collaboration with KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology). That’s a very high level collaboration, obviously university to university, between Khalifa University and KAIST, but also, of course, both of our governments are very interested in that partnership. So that partnership is advancing nuclear education, focusing initially on master’s degrees, and further down the road on developing capacity in other areas of engineering that will feed the nuclear industry and the associated research that comes along with that. The second partnership that I would mention is one with Georgia Tech (The Georgia Institute of Technology). The Georgia Tech partnership was very important to us initially because we built a seconding arrangement into it where Georgia Tech faculty who were interested in being involved in the partnership could actually spend one or two years being seconded here at Khalifa University. Three of our department chairs in the last academic year came to us through the seconding arrangement. That partnership has provided some of the initial academic leadership we've needed to get started. We see this partnership expanding in the future into student partnerships. We’re looking at ways to exchange students, undergraduate students initially, and as we become more aggressive in developing our graduate programs, it’s also going to give us a mechanism for the faculty in both institutions to develop joint research projects. It will also enable us to have good co-mentors for the graduate students that come into Khalifa University and to associate ourselves with a world class engineering institution.
What direction will future partnership take?
LAURSEN: In the future, we want to be quite flexible about the way we approach partnerships. Some of them will be rather large scale, like the two that I’ve mentioned. We have a number of other academic partnerships today that sometimes even happen at the department or the laboratory level. They tend to have to do with advancing specific research agendas and giving us the initial bandwidth in the early days to get going. Additionally, they facilitate interactions between our faculty and the technical communities they are operating in.
What role is Khalifa University playing in the development of the UAE’s nuclear energy program?
LAURSEN: The immediate dimension and the immediate need here is to produce the leaders who will eventually operate these plants and who are cognizant of state of the art procedures, not only in operation procedures but also in disaster response procedures. Human factors are becoming a very important feature of operating nuclear power plants these days. A lot of this is done through simulation, so if one looks to learn from what happened in Fukushima, or if one goes back a little bit further to Three Mile Island in the United States, one can learn a lot about the way people reacted to the information that was given to them. You have an extremely high-tech environment in which you’re operating in. Engineers will tend to slap sensors on this and control systems on that but you also have to understand how people will respond to the data and you actually have to train them to respond in a more effective way. One of the research projects we've taken on in that effort is developing the next generation of simulators that can help us understand better how nuclear power can be made to be safer than it already is. We undertake research projects with the collaboration and co-sponsorship of ENEC (Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation), which is the nuclear power operator here in the UAE, and also FANR (Federal Authority of Nuclear Regulation), which is the primary regulator of nuclear power. Generally, when we identify research projects, we take the approach of going to our stakeholders, the people who are going to hire our students, and we really try to engage their technical people and find out what research efforts can we do that will not only advance the mission of getting these plants built and operated safely, but also that can really be cutting edge in the international community. Nuclear engineering, let’s be honest, is an opportunity area for the Middle East. Not only is it an imperative, environmentally and in terms of power, but it’s also an area that, for political reasons largely, is not viable in many parts of the world. This is an area where the UAE can really jump in and distinguish itself and find itself a place fairly quickly.
How important is research in tertiary education?
LAURSEN: Research is just vital to the higher education enterprise and particularly vital to us in our mission. It’s not an accident that for Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, that research was made explicit in the title. It has implication on the type of faculty that you recruit and I believe that it has strong implications all the way through the educational enterprise, up to and including the undergraduate population. What I see in engineering, so much of our challenge today is to educate engineers who are going to be innovators and leaders and who are going to be able to use their creativity, often times in the technical sector, but quite frankly, oftentimes not. So they really need to have an exposure to the process of inquiry, not just learning from a book, or learning to design, prototype, or work in a team, all of which is very important, but also having this sort of uncomfortable feeling and excitement of going into an area where nobody has gone before and discovering something new because we believe that’s part of what makes leaders.
What are the main challenges facing institutions who want to conduct research?
LAURSEN: It’s much easier to say you want to be a university that does research than actually do it. I think we’re experiencing that. There are challenges associated with setting up what we really see will be a regional center of excellence with an international reputation as a research university. Probably the main challenges facing us in that the federal infrastructure for supporting basic research is just in its infancy. I think it is coming. Obviously Sheikh Nahyan and others have recognized the importance and it is something that people are working on. Coming from my experience in the United States, a young faculty member will take the presence of the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes for Health as a given and that’s where they’ll look for the support of their work. Those sorts of constructs are just in their infancy here. The good news is that it is recognized that there’s an imperative to get these mechanisms set up. We, together with the other universities in the country and governmental leaders, are working really hard to push that agenda, but it doesn't exist today or at least it doesn’t exist in a mature way. I think that’s a very important challenge for us. Along with that, our students and our stakeholders, some of them by virtue of their interaction with industrial entities in Europe and Asia and the US, have a little bit of a sense of the research enterprise, but it is still a little bit new here. There’s an educational role to be played too.
Nuclear engineering, let’s be honest, is an opportunity area for the Middle East. Not only is it an Imperative, environmentally and in terms of power, but it’s also an area that, for political reasons largely, is not viable in many parts of the world. This is an area where the UAE can really jump in and distinguish itself and find itself a place fairly quickly.
What can be done to encourage more research in the UAE and the region?
LAURSEN: It’s very important for us, as a university building a research enterprise, to do a good job communicating to people about why research is important. I think the set of opportunities in front of us is quite good. I've already mentioned our activities in nuclear engineering and it has been pretty clear the role that research can play and there are real resources behind that. But if one looks at healthcare, if one looks at the semiconductor industry, people on the industrial side are already realizing that universities want to work with the stakeholders locally and produce viable mechanisms that will not only produce future employees for them in terms of people capable of doing world class research, but that we can start to create an innovation economy as well. That’s a goal that I think is very ambitious but I think is very achievable. But you have to have the basic capability to do that research and develop that capability that people want to buy and that you can go and market and that’s what were in the process of doing. At Khalifa University, we’re putting a great deal of emphasis right now on near market research incubators. We have one in place already called EBTIC (ETISALAT BT Innovation Center). It’s a partnership between Etisalat, British Telecom, and Khalifa University, and is jointly funded by all three. It is basically driven by research questions and problems that are brought to us by those two telecommunications operators. We recruit jointly the researchers who work in that institute. They produce a lot of published research, they mentor graduate students and in some cases undergraduate students, which is fantastic. But we’re also sure that we produce results that somebody cares about and that’s a model that we’re looking to propagate.