Dear KAUST community,
I am writing to give you an update on how things have been going within KAUST Research and to let you know about some of the projects that continue to progress in this time of great upheaval. It’s hard to believe that it is almost a month since we first started using Zoom for meetings. Not a day goes by now for me without one or indeed many Zoom calls taking place. My own experience is that it works well for short meetings with a small number of participants; there might be a lesson in that!
Many of us are living unusual lives at the moment either because the house is full all of the time or conversely we are the only ones about. My own wife, Bev, went back to the U.K. shortly before regular flights were stopped in order to be there for when our youngest daughter was sent back home from her medical studies at the University of Sheffield as they shifted into the virtual world. I should have been heading home this Thursday and was planning to visit my mother in Dublin next week. Many family plans will have been similarly disrupted throughout the community. It is a testing time for everyone, and looking out for one another is something that we can all appreciate right now.
KAUST Research has kept track of and reacted to the COVID-19 pandemic to help secure the safety of our community while trying to maintain as much activity as reasonably possible. KAUST Research Center conferences were adjusted to replace missing speakers and to allow others to talk remotely and then eventually postponed to a future date at which travel will be possible again. When a decision was finally reached to move much of KAUST research into hibernation, it was done following extensive consultation with colleagues across the University, and we were careful to also let our external partners know of the impact that it would have on the many projects that they sponsor. This was done slowly at first—in the Festina Lente style noted by Professor Carlos Duarte—by asking for volunteers to be in a first wave before moving to a general hibernation. The latter became necessary as the situation escalated through supply chain and procurement concerns; the unavailability of staff to maintain and look after laboratories amid the constraints of social distancing and KSA government instructions for vulnerable groups; then the majority of the workforce being required to stay at home; the instruction from the VPAA that students should stay away from campus; and finally general safety concerns on working in spaces largely uninhabited by others.
The hibernation was no small undertaking, and I would like to personally thank everyone who assisted in this process, ranging from research teams in the collective Research Center laboratories through the Core Labs to individual faculty laboratories. Not everyone found this a straightforward process, especially when decisions needed to be made on sacrificing samples and long-running experiments that could not be suitably hibernated. The last laboratory was hibernated on March 26, only two weeks after the exercise started. Those whose research is principally computer-based have been least impacted, especially given the excellent IT support available from the team led by CIO Jason Roos and from the Supercomputing Core Lab led by Dr. Jysoo Lee. Associate VP for Research Dr. Justin Mynar led the overall hibernation effort, with great support from Dr. Jason Serin and Dr. Manus Ward and team members, together with the research safety team led by Jerry Gordon, under the guidance of VP (HSE) Erik Talley. I am very grateful to Justin and the rest of the KAUST Research team for achieving this exercise in a safe, efficient and carefully executed manner. I would also like to thank CFO Rob Fekete and the Procurement team for their great support to ensure the continued supply of essential materials.
While much of the University’s research continues to be in hibernation, KAUST Research is directly responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in a very positive and practical manner. The quick establishment of the Rapid Response Research Team (R3T) is a testament to our KAUST researchers and their willingness to contribute to tackling the global pandemic.
Current R3T COVID-19 research and translation activities underway at KAUST, which are supported by the Biological Core Lab and through a small set of re-opened faculty PI laboratories, include:
- Improving existing RT-PCR tests and developing new rapid tests for COVID-19
- Local synthesis of reagents for COVID-19 testing, including enzymes and fluorescence markers
- Sequencing coronavirus genomes to better understand the COVID-19 disease and, through geographically distinct mutations, its spread around the globe
- AI for the potential repurposing of existing drugs that may be relevant to interrupting COVID-19 disease progression
- Machine Learning for the analysis of patient Computed Tomographic lung images
- A global dashboard for COVID-19 (launch date April 9)
In this work, we are benefiting from close engagement with the KSA Ministry of Health and Center for Disease Control, and with global research partners, including the University of Oxford.
In addition, work has been started to support the development of prototypes for assisted breathing devices and for personal protective equipment. This work is being undertaken with support and guidance from the Olayan Group, the KSA Industrial Clusters team, McLaren F1 and KSA National Guard Health Affairs, and includes:
- The design and fabrication of Face Shields for use by frontline hospital staff, including a partially 3D printed design from McLaren and a fully laser cut, clip-together design from our own Core Labs workshops.
- The design of assisted breathing devices based on the mechanical actuation of an "ambu-bag" inflation vessel.
Again, we are very grateful for the support of all of our external partners in these projects.
Should you be interested to discuss COVID-19 research, please get in touch with the VPR Research Planning and Partnership Office: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please further note that the Saudi Arabian government has launched a COVID-19 Research Grant Program through KACST that may also be of interest. Additional information on applying for this program will be available from the Pre-Awards team in OSR.
In addition, please do attend the special COVID-19 Sci-Café today, Wednesday, April 8, from 4:00 – 5:00 p.m. organized by Carolyn Unck and featuring panelists Professors Takashi Gojobori, David Ketcheson and Arnab Pain, with moderator Dr. Naadiya Carrim; tune in to the KAUST Official Facebook page or YouTube channel. This will be an excellent opportunity to learn more about KAUST’s R3T COVID-19 activities.
We are experiencing an extraordinary period in our lives, and how we react to and address the challenges that we face will help define KAUST Research for years to come. The path to a return to normality is uncertain at this time, but let’s try to make that path one that is as full of discovery and learning as possible.
With best wishes,
Vice President for Research