Saudi Arabia's biggest experiment in higher education, the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, has just opened its doors to an international student body, as we reported earlier this month. The King has gambled billions of dollars on raising a university out of the desert that he hopes will compete against other top-notch institutions worldwide. Intellectual freedom isn't exactly the first thing that jumps to mind when one thinks of Saudi Arabia, and for a country whose technological contributions basically begin and end with oil, the hurdle is significant.
In recognition of this challenge, the king has recruited an international collection of about 70 faculty members (rumor: an assistant professor makes about US $200 000) and built laboratories with staggering price tags. The campus supercomputer, Shaheen, is the fastest in the Middle East and had a starting price of about $50 million, which will certainly grow. A nanofabrication clean room, one of the cleanest clean rooms in academia, came with a price tag that was “much, much larger than Shaheen,” according to Khaled Salama, an electrical engineering professor at KAUST.
I'm attending the inauguration ceremonies this week and got a quick tour of some of the university's laboratories, including the supercomputer and the clean room. From my perspective, if you've seen one clean room, you've seen them all. What did draw my attention were the visualization labs, which are using Shaheen's computing power to add a visual dimension to large data sets. The first example I'm posting here is of a visualization of the human brain, where researchers are attempting to trace how signals travel between different regions by mapping the flow of water through the brain.