Getting to know Masdar Institute

Three weeks have gone by since I arrived here, and the date that I head back to Brown is beginning to loom on the horizon. However, I have a lot to do before I leave- both in terms of people I have yet to talk to and biomaterials I have yet to study.

For the past week, the city has felt very empty since many people took a vacation after Ramadan ended. On top of that, towards the end of the week we ran out of the supplies necessary to run our experiments, and attempting to restock was a lesson in the young and perhaps overly bureaucratic infrastructure of this university. However, it is important to keep these critiques in perspective. I was recently told that when Masdar Institute first opened, it had to set its own restrictions on hazardous waste disposal since the UAE was so new to this kind of research that it did not provide any itself. A great reminder of how different this university is from the one I am familiar with- perhaps closer to a start up company than anything else in many ways!

The most striking difference, especially for me since I come from a physics background, is the lack of basic science taught and investigated here. This institute is looking for new technologies, and it wants them fast, which is the basis of their engineering-only curriculum. Although I am obviously biased, I am skeptical of the idea that it is possible to create applications for knowledge without first mastering the theoretical foundation of that knowledge. Masdar Institute has taken a bet that it is not necessary.

Now the supplies drama has been resolved, and we begin this week with many new faces around campus and many new tips to use in our atomic force microscope! The lull in research activities gave me a chance to talk to many of the professors and administrators here, for which I am grateful. The people here took a risk when they accepted a job at a university that did not yet exist, and I think because of that, all of the faculty that I have talked to have very interesting and well-thought out opinions. The end of this week leaves me feeling more optimistic about the ultimate fate of the city project.