Pathways to Impact

Pathways to Impact: Engaging Young People in Global Change Research

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A cornerstone of KAUST’s character is a collaborative learning environment, encouraging KAUST students to consider how their ideas can change the world. By developing this talent in high school and university undergraduate students, a cohort is trained to tackle graduate level studies available at KAUST and elsewhere, and contribute to sustainability research in the long-term. This foresight has not been lost on the Integrated Ocean Processes (IOP) Lab, which seized the opportunity to participate in several talent development programs offered at KAUST over the summer. 


Saudi Research Science Institute (SRSI)

SRSI is an intense, six-week training for STEM high school students to work on an independent research project under the guidance of KAUST Faculty and researchers. Research Scientist Dr. Joanne Ellis and GIS specialist Ms. Ute Langner saw an opportunity in their coastal research work. As Joanne explains, “coastal zones are highly populated regions of the world that are under increasing pressure from human activities. Hence there is a high demand for spatial and environmental data to aid in coastal management. Satellite imagery and GIS can provide the consistent geospatial framework necessary to map changes in important coastal habitats”.  However, the usefulness of satellite-derived habitat maps needs to be validated, and this became the aim of an SRSI project. 

Arfah Imran, a dual Canadian-American citizen, has lived at KAUST for three years and will be entering her final year at KAUST’s K-12 School. With a passion for science and especially biology, she is in the right place working in Professor Burt Jones’ lab. The aim of her research is to demonstrate whether data collected from satellite sensor images can accurately be used to map and monitor coastal ecosystems in the Red Sea. “Although I have never worked with satellites or learned a lot about marine organisms, I am excited to be working and getting to know more about the Red Sea and the research team’, explained Arfah. “Half way through the project, I have already learned new methods for data processing and analyzing through different accuracy assessments, and will present my results in a poster, a research paper and give an oral presentation. My mentors throughout the program have been instrumental to accelerating my learning”.


Work Internship and Student Experience (WISE) Internship

Through the WISE program in 2017, the IOP Lab has had the good fortune of hosting two WISE associates. Preksha Shah and Fatima Mahmud were selected to support the IOP Lab by developing a Story Map to tell the story of an international research program on BioArgo floats. The BioArgo float program is a global network of chemical sensors to observe carbon, oxygen and nitrogen cycles in the ocean. In partnership with Villefranche Laboratory in France the IOP Lab participates in the network via two floats released in the Red Sea. Preksha and Fatima are telling the story of the BioArgo program using ESRI’s Story Map, an online tool for communicating using maps, images and text.


Fatima Mahmud, who grew up in Dubai before coming to the KAUST School six years ago, is in her third year at the University of California, Berkeley. As a double major in Environmental Science and Molecular Environmental Biology at Berkeley’s College of Natural Resources, she is passionate about the environment, sustainability, conservation, social justice and visual arts. “This project work with GIS software I have found interesting, especially as it would be something vital for me to know in my field of study’, stated Fatima. Her ambition is to pursue research in the environmental field, trying to tackle and find solutions to the issues of today’s world. The WISE internship opportunity is a rung on the ladder to her aspiration.


Preksha Shah, a 2017 graduate of the KAUST School, was an active participant in Model United Nations and last year participated in SRSI. Of the WISE internship, Preksha explained, “I am establishing a connecting bridge in the form of a Story Map between researchers in the lab and other people in KAUST who wish to learn about BioArgo Floats”. Preksha will head to Spartan Health Sciences University this year, and will be well equipped to absorb and translate scientific principles as she pursues her degree in medicine



KAUST Gifted Student Program (KGSP)

Ute Langer, GIS Specialist with the IOP lab, was thrilled to collaborate with Professor Michael Berumen’s lab, the lead host of KGSP participant Alya Nowilaty. Alya is a junior at George Mason University in the field of Computer Science. Her nine-week project sought to integrate whale shark movement data into a GIS system. As Ute explains, “Alya’s project re-evaluated old satellite tracking data from 2009-2012 employing recent methodologies that incorporate Hidden Markov Models (HMM) and GIS to do more accurate and focused track reconstruction than previously possible, build movement likelihood surfaces, and conduct environmental and ecological analyses.” 

It was clear in the KGSP selection process that Alya’s education in mathematics, computer science and an interest in bioinformatics was a great combination for this project. “We now have a suite of Python-tools and a data set of whale shark daily likelihood surfaces that can be analyzed over sea surface temperature and chlorophyll data from satellite imagery from re-analysis modeling surfaces of various environmental parameters”, explains Ute, “to understand the movement patterns and life history of the world’s largest fish.“ Alya returns to George Mason University with a new skillset, and perhaps even a passion to return to KAUST in the marine bioscience field.



Marine Research Capacity Development

Marine science at KAUST is an area of special focus – and global significance – in need of attracting top talent to this largely undiscovered frontier of research. KAUST’s training programs, such as the SRSI, WISE and KGSP, expose young people to the abundance of opportunities in STEM fields.

“These extraordinary young women are forging their own careers in science, and we are delighted KAUST has provided an opportunity for the IOP lab’s researchers to interact with them all”, said Prof. Burt Jones. “Developing this talent early through dedicated schools and university apprenticeships is a significant step to build the capabilities of the next generation of science leaders”.

The spirit of discovery, collaboration and curiosity for doing things that matter was abundantly evident in the IOP Lab this summer.