KAUST Change Makers Awards honor alumni

The KAUST 2022 Alumni Change Makers Award recipients stand proudly with University leaders on stage at the inaugural gala event, hosted by Alumni Affairs. From left to right: KAUST Provost Lawrence Carin;Luca Passone, Special Recognition; Grant Hill-Cawthorne, Social Impact; Ahmad Showail, Leadership and Impact; Luisa Javier, Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Yasmeen Najm, Special Recognition; Abeer Al Doghaither, Special Recognition; Lina Eyouni, Special Recognition; KAUST President Tony Chan; and KAUST Dean of Graduate of Affairs, Brian Moran. (Not in attendance: Yu Li, Special Recognition; Aubrie O'Rourke, Special Recognition; and Jian Pan, Special Recognition). Photo: KAUST

​King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) has announced the winners of the KAUST Alumni Change Makers Awards, an awards program that recognizes the impacts being made by alumni at a local, national and international level in a range of areas of great importance to KAUST and the Kingdom.

The inaugural gala event, which took place on November 4, 2022, honored alumni in three categories: Leadership and Impact; Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Social Impact, with additional Special Recognition awards given to alumni making an impact in their communities around the globe.

President of KAUST Professor Tony Chan commented, "The talent pool KAUST creates in-Kingdom and internationally is exceptional. We want to shine a light on the incredible work being done here and around the world."

Saudi talent Ahmad Showail wins the first Leadership and Impact Award

Ahmad Showail, KAUST alumni recipient of the Alumni Affairs Change Makers Award for Leadership and Impact. Photo courtesy A. Showail

Ahmad Showail, Fulbright scholar and assistant professor of computer engineering at Taibah University, Saudi Arabia, was honored with the KAUST Change Makers Award for Leadership and Impact. A former doctoral and master's student of KAUST, Ahmad has recently returned to Saudi Arabia after conducting research as a visiting Fulbright scholar at the University of California Irvine (UCI), working with KAUST alumnus Dr. Faisal Nawab, now an assistant professor at UCI. Showail is working on Internet-of-Things software solutions that offer cutting-edge technology for increasing security and privacy.

Part of the founding class, Showail remembers how exciting it was when KAUST was formed.

"When the King announced KAUST, the dream came true for me. Receiving a world-class education from a reputable university while being next to my family is what I was looking for," Showail said.

Giving back to his community is important for Showail, which is why he wanted to return to Medina and work at Taibah University. "I was responsible for and am very proud of the technology incubators at Taibah University, which are promising and doing very well."

Showail was also involved in the establishment of computer science and cyber studies at the University of Prince Mugrin (UPM) in Medina. 'By the time I left UPM, the cyber security department in the college of computer science was by far the biggest in UPM, with more than 500 students — an increase that makes me very proud."

His current project at UCI involving the Internet-of-Things will deliver important results for managing Medina pilgrims. "With the help of researchers at UCI, I want to understand the local context and do something useful for the visitors and pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia."

KAUST alumni and attendees gathered to celebrate recipients of the KAUST 2022 Alumni Change Makers Awards at the inaugural gala event, hosted by Alumni Affairs on the KAUST campus, Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. Photo: KAUST

Head of UK Parliament Research Grant Hill-Cawthorne honored with award for Social Impact

KAUST alumnus Grant Hill-Cawthorne is the managing director of Research and Information, House of Commons, and House of Commons Librarian, United Kingdom. Hill-Cawthorne, who earned a Ph.D. in bioscience from KAUST, received the KAUST Change Makers Award for Social Impact.

Grant Hill-Cawthorne, KAUST alumni recipient of the Alumni Affairs Change Makers Award for Social Impact. Photo courtesy G. Hill-Cawthorne

Hill-Cawthorne's career in medical microbiology got its start through a meeting with KAUST professor Arnab Pain, who had been a leader in the bioscience program at Cambridge where Hill-Cawthorne completed his medical training. Hill-Cawthorne said, "Arnab wanted to start a pathogen research group at KAUST, and I was looking for the opportunity to do a Ph.D., so it seemed like a great way to help set up his lab while conducting research."

After graduating from KAUST, he took his talents to Sydney, where he worked on infectious diseases. "I actually started teaching Australians how to deal with pandemics at The University of Sydney many years before COVID hit," Hill-Cawthorne said. "In this role I even taught many of the up-and-coming New South Wales health officers."

When an opportunity opened in UK Parliament to head the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, it was a perfect fit for Hill-Cawthorne's expertise and interest. He now oversees 220 people in the Research and Information team in UK Parliament.

'For me, it is important for any member of parliament (MP) standing up in the Chamber to be able to use our research, whether they are the Conservative Party, Labour Party or Scottish National Party. That means we write completely impartially."

During COVID, Hill-Cawthorne's background and education in virology not only helped deliver rapid response research on COVID-related topics, but it led him to be on the central group within Parliament, advising the speaker and the people that run Parliament on how to keep Parliament safe, and ensuring that evidence and research guide public policymaking — the heart of UK democracy processes.

He recalls KAUST being a place of freedom for students. "What was most beneficial about being at KAUST was that the research there could be limitless. It was a good opportunity for me to design experiments and learn the ropes while making a big impact."

CEO and Co-Founder Luisa Javier of Wayakit receives Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship Award

Luisa Javier, KAUST alumni recipient of the Alumni Affairs Change Makers Award for Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Photo courtesy L. Javier

After finishing her Ph.D. in 2021 and master's degree at KAUST in 2011, Luisa Javier founded various start-ups, culminating in the Saudi-based company Wayakit, which offers a range of biotech cleaning and disinfecting products.

Luisa believes a career in science is much more than academic research. "It's about being a translator between the science and business worlds," she said.

Her interest in filling this role began when she was in high school in her native Mexico, where an entrepreneurial mindset was actively encouraged, and grew stronger at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM), where she studied industrial engineering. She found KAUST to be the perfect mix of research and innovation to feed her passions.

"My objective when I came to KAUST for my Ph.D. in 2018 was to use science to continue developing products," she said. "For me, KAUST feels like home."

Wayakit is a biotech company with the vision of "integrating science into products for cleaning and disinfection, to provide sustainable hygiene to more people." Javier is proud to report that "business is good and growing in the Kingdom, with really good partnerships, especially in the aviation sector." She is further encouraged by the emphasis Saudi Arabia has placed on economic diversification, which she feels is generating powerful momentum for more businesses like hers.

"I'm a believer, not only in KAUST, but also in Vision 2030," she shared, explaining that much to the disbelief of many people around the world, the Kingdom is now at "the top level of the world for female entrepreneurship."

Javier intends to expand the reach of her entrepreneurial impact and bring Wayakit cleaning products to more people, providing a choice that does not compromise efficacy or sustainability. "Providing that choice to people is what wakes me up every day," she said.

Special recognition awards: talented Saudi and global alumni making impacts

KAUST President Tony Chan addresses alumni and attendees at the inaugural KAUST 2022 Alumni Change Makers Awards gala event, hosted by Alumni Affairs, presenting awards to alumni recipients for Leadership and Impact; Research, Innovation and Entrepreneurship; and Social Impact, with additional Special Recognition awards given to alumni making an impact in their communities around the globe. Photo: KAUST

Also recognized as making an impact in their communities are alumni working around the globe.

Making an impact in Saudi Arabia is Abeer Al Doghaither (Ph.D. '15) for her role as president of Dar Al-Hekma University. Her vision as a university president is to "change lives, transform perspectives, develop our society, and prepare a brighter future for generations to come by graduating accomplished women, leaders, and entrepreneurs." 

Lina Eyouni (Ph.D. '21) was recognized for being the first Saudi woman to graduate with a Master of Science degree in marine physics from King Abdulaziz University; the first Saudi woman to graduate with a PhD in oceanography from KAUST; and the first Saudi woman to become a certified, remotely operated vehicle pilot. She currently works as a physical science environmental manager at the Saudi giga project, the Red Sea Development Company.

KAUST Gifted Student Program (KGSP) alumna Yasmeen Najm, (Ph.D. '19, M.S. '13) was honored for her work in sustainability as the innovation lead of Hydrogen and E-Fuels at NEOM, where she uses her research to preserve the climate and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Dr Najm also contributes her time in giving back through volunteer leadership for KGSP and KAUST initiatives.

Luca Passone (Ph.D. '18, M.S. '11), is the co-founder, chief technology officer and general manager of the Saudi Arabian start-up FalconViz, a leader in surveying and mapping. His graduate studies in computer science and earth science at KAUST were the foundation for his entrepreneurial success in 2015, when he co-founded FalconViz, one of KAUST's oldest and most successful start-ups.

In the global sphere, Aubrie O'Rourke (Ph.D. '15), a project scientist with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center in the United States, is recognized for her advocacy for young women choosing careers in science, and for being a mentor to many current and former colleagues.

As president of KAUST's Chinese Alumni Chapter, Jian Pan has contributed his time and leadership in giving back to KAUST. In 2020, Jian facilitated the Chapter's support to KAUST including a donation of 2,000 surgical masks for KAUST's frontline workers. 

Yu Li (Ph.D. '20, M.S.'16), an assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, China, was honored for his research developing computational tools to identify antibiotic-resistant genes, which led to his being recognized in Forbes "30 Under 30 Asia" list (2022).