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Commencement

​​​​​​Distinquish Guest Speaker - Commencement 2013


Professor Robert H. Grubb
Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at Caltech
2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry

Commencement Speech
December 14, 2013
Thuwal, Saudi Arabia

Chairman of the Board of Trustees, His Excellency Ali Ibrahim Al-Naimi,
Distinguished Members of the Board,
President Jean-Lou Chameau,
Executive Vice-President Nadhmi Al-Nasr,
Members of the Senior Leadership,
Distinguished members of the faculty and staff,
Honored members of the fourth graduating class of KAUST and your families….

You are part of a grand and successful experiment. Only a few years ago, I was here for the opening of this university. Most universities take generations to develop and grow- this institution has made amazing strides toward the development of world-class research facilities and laboratories in only four short years.

That is a short time to turn a distant dream of the King into reality. You are adventuresome students who can change the world. You bet your future on a new institution that had no past nor pattern. Your success in completing your degrees at this institution and the international exposure you have experienced will prepare you to be citizens of the world. Your adventuresome spirit will take you a long way.

This is President Chameau's first big event. You are lucky to have him here. At Caltech, he guided us through very serious financial times and left us in great shape for the future. He shielded the faculty so we could focus on our science and technologies. While he was at Caltech, he listened to the faculty and helped us realize our largest dreams. I am sure he will do the same here! I appreciate his leadership in helping me on my own long journey to this day at KAUST.

My journey in science began when I was in high school. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik - the first satellite in space. This event changed America, because suddenly the US was not the dominant science center. The Soviet Union had been devastated during World War II so the US was shocked when they beat us into space. There was an immediate response in the US to train more scientists, to establish our dominance in space, and to develop the technology required for security. The decision to build broad scientific infrastructure and to train scientists broadly changed the path of science in the US and the world. The cold war in large part was a war of technology. My generation of scientists was trained as part of this effort and our careers have been shaped and supported by the patterns established during that period. I was lucky that my career overlapped with these developments. I am not sure that a person of my background would have had the opportunities to be a scientist if I had started my career at a slightly different time. Looking back at the way it has worked out- this support of science may have been a reasonable exchange for expecting to be at war at anytime.

You, however, are now facing an even more daunting task: how to power the world without killing it.

As stated by Carl Sagan, "Anything else you are interested in is not going to happen if you can't breathe the air and drink the water. Don't sit this one out. Do something. You are, by accident of fate, alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet."

Fortunately there are students like you who have made the commitment to excellence and have chosen to be educated at an institution that is focused on the areas of strategic importance - Water, Food, Energy, and Environment. You will have to be the leaders who educate the remainder of the population - starting at an early age - and keep the tradition of education strong for future generations, while keeping in mind some of the lessons we have learned more recently about how to conduct our race for discovery in a responsible way.

It is important that this institution has made a commitment from day one to be a sustainable institution. In most places, oil is turned into energy and carbon dioxide. Here, it is transformed into knowledge and the technology that will aid in solving the global warming crisis. Most of your research programs are designed to develop sustainable technologies and to provide the pathway to the new step - change inventions that will lead us toward this goal.

For example, at KAUST's opening I discussed the design of the buildings with the architect and he pointed out how he had used old Bedouin principles of ventilation in the design of the major buildings on campus and combined these principles with the most advanced solar cells. That is only one of the major innovations the founders incorporated into the design of the buildings and it is how the university works. This focus has not changed. The topics of the multidisciplinary research programs have been chosen to cover all the areas of sustainability from food to energy. By making multidisciplinary research part of the initial design of the institution, the problems of disciplinary silos can be avoided and students can be trained in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, many older institutions have administrative separations of classical disciplines into "silos" that inhibit facile interactions and prevent interdisciplinary research.

You could not have picked a better team than Doctors Chameau and Carmichael to continue this emphasis on sustainability and the creation of teams to solve critical problems. While Dr. Chameau and Dr. Carmichael were at Caltech the whole culture of sustainability changed. They oversaw the construction of a number of buildings with Platinum and Gold LEED ratings - hard to do with science and engineering buildings. Every roof was covered with solar cells and as a result, the Princeton Review named Caltech on the "2013 Green Honor Roll."

To develop the technology behind sustainability, Jean-Lou established the Resnick Sustainability Institute that is an interdisciplinary program focused on the utilization of the sun as a major energy source through solar devices.

This is a legacy that will continue to guide the Caltech community and I'm sure the same and even stronger emphasis on sustainability will continue to be a critical part of KAUST under their leadership.

You have been trained in the principles of sustainability. Deciding if a reaction or approach is "green" is a very complex question. In my own work, for example, some of our chemistry is being used to convert seed oils into chemicals and fuels. The seed oils are a renewable source of carbon, but does this make it "green"? First of all, the process must be economically viable - that is the easy part. The remaining issues are a complex mixture of science, technology, and sociology factors that all need to be taken into account when weighing all the issues that determine the overall sustainability and evaluating the time span required for an environmental pay off. Each decision will require students like you who have been trained in broad areas so that you can evaluate the subtle social, scientific, and economic factors that go into making sustainable decisions. No matter what you decide to do with your education - you should keep the principles of sustainability as a focus.

I was able to pursue a general set of reactions for over 44 years to follow one surprising result after the other. At each stage of my research we were able to obtain support mostly from federal agencies to keep the work going. I am not sure the present generation of young faculty will be able follow dreams for so long - except possibly in institution such as KAUST with its funding of longer term projects.

When I started work in the topic of olefin metathesis in 1969, I never dreamed that we would be able to understand this reaction in any detail. To date, not only have we learned the details, but also we have learned to control and use the reaction well beyond our highest expectations. It has been great watching the science grow from curiosity into a host of products that have helped develop new plastics technology, more environmentally conscious ways to control insects, new methods for the conversion of renewable resources and better ways to make more affordable drugs. The reaction continues to surprise us and reveal new and exciting possibilities. That was one of the wonderful aspects of the system of research that developed in the US in the 60s and 70s - it allowed the exploration of a fundamental problem, just because it was interesting, with some vague notion that the work might be useful one day. My students have been the key to my successes. They provided the enthusiasm and hard work to convert our joint ideas into reality.

The future of KAUST and its reputation will be a direct result of your and the future students' contributions to the research environment at KAUST. A research institution is known for its students. Your successes here will play a major role in the recruitment of the next generations of students to build on the outstanding foundation you have established at KAUST.

For you who have decided to go into scientific and engineering research and to take on the exciting journey of fundamental research, I hope that you have the opportunity to follow these through . . .with only ONE limitation -- do good science! Strive to do interesting and creative and responsible science to the highest standards - not because there is a direct application, but because you are fascinated by the prospect of discovery. Step-change technology typically comes from a totally new approach to a problem, not a tweak of old technology. I am not sure that present politicians quite get it. However the structure at KAUST allows for long term planning and research of the type that can lead to these major jumps in technology.

One big change from my graduate student time, has been the ability of academics to be involved in the movement of their findings into commercial applications. Science that has a practical long-term application can also lead to fundamental new insights and results. Many of you are poised to make the critical decisions that will require the integration of ideas and visions from many areas of academia. The area of sustainability provides some of the biggest tests of this inter-disciplinary approach. Others of you will choose to train the next generation of students to be able to fully exploit the advantages that you have helped to create.

I was lucky and found a topic that led to the big prize. The real joy has been the excitement of discovery and watching my students and coworkers make new discoveries and to grow as scientists. I wish you well in your chosen careers and hope that you are also "lucky" and can identify a passion that will take you on an exciting journey.