FACULTY IN FOCUS
Patience and Perseverance – Paving the Path to Discovery.
Professor Khaled Salama has visited 73 countries so far, and he intends to visit many more. This fondness for travel and exploration is a natural companion for his love of scientific discovery, which he actively nurtures through his work at KAUST.
Having considered a career in industry after he graduated from Cairo University, Salama found his way back to academia through a master’s degree and subsequently a Ph.D. at Stanford University in California. The shock of going from a huge city like Cairo to a small city like Palo Alto was not all about the move to California that Salama had to get used to; “in Cairo,” he explains, “I was the top student in my class, in Stanford I was in a class of students who had all been top student their class, so it was very competitive.”
Studying in the heart of Silicon Valley was almost like a dream come true for Salama, who had been fascinated by Information and Communications Technology (ICT) from a very early age; “I grew up at a time where ICT was booming,” he shares, “so I was very excited about being part of the journey.” It was while at Stanford that Salama heard from some Saudi Arabian friends about King Abdullah’s vision for the university that would become KAUST, and saw an opportunity to be involved in realizing that vision. Salama sent an email to the then-Provost, Professor Fawwaz Ulaby, that would adjust the course of his career and bring him to the shores of the Red Sea as one of KAUST’s founding faculty.
At the heart of his research is the study and development of biosensors which can be used to test tiny amounts of blood, sweat, or even tears for markers of disease in the human body. A recent innovation by his department allows for a handheld device to detect COVID-19 from a simple swab, down to the exact strain, with greater than 90% accuracy. The impact this technology could have on the global healthcare industry is clearly to be seen, and coupled with Salama’s genuine passion for science, it is a powerful motivating factor.
In addition to the science itself, Salama is devoted to his students like a father is to his children. “I call them ‘the kids,’” he says with great affection. He cares not just about their success at KAUST, but about their future careers. When one student was faced with the choice between an easy, well-paid job and another more challenging opportunity, Salama was sure that she would find greater success and reward by accepting the latter, which she did, and he is proud to report that her career has prospered as a result.
Salama is a great believer in the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, and he’s proud to be working at KAUST where it is supported and funded so fully. “I think worldwide right now,” he offers, “people have started to realize that interesting research is happening at the interface between fields. This is where some exciting things are happening, and people are now looking into it with more care.” Work of this kind is something Salama has embraced for years; even his Ph.D. combined biology and electronics, and for that reason, he felt he wasn’t taken seriously by some people. “But now,” he says, “if you’re not doing it, there is something wrong.”
An example of one such collaboration has been with fellow Faculty in Focus participant Professor Mohamed Eddaoudi. “I worked with him a lot on gas sensors,” explains Salama, who approached Eddaoudi about a new material he had developed, mostly for use in energy applications. Salama believed it could also be used for sensors, and suggested they collaborate on developing a device that could detect abnormal levels of pollutants from passing cars. “He got really excited,” says Salama, “and it took us nearly three years before we got it to work,” which for an engineering project is a long time to wait. “We had to be patient, and we had to persevere, but when we got to try it, it became amazing.”