Stefan Arold

“Understanding how proteins function is important not only for understanding life but also disease."


What can scientists learn from artists? Stefan Arold has an answer.

More than a decade ago Stefan Arold, a professor of bioscience, saw how—unlike many other parts of the world—the Middle East was investing heavily in education, science, and technology. Upon further investigation, he discovered an alluring job posting in 2012 at KAUST, a research university located at the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia’s Western Province.

German-born and well-traveled, Arold had worked in Japan, France, UK, and the US. However, he had not been acquainted with Saudi Arabia. What drew him immediately to KAUST was the University’s mission seeking to be “a beacon for peace, hope and reconciliation.” Arold was inspired by the fact that KAUST, and hence the kingdom, acknowledges that science and education create these benefits for humanity. Wishing to be part of this mission, coupled with a love for discovering different cultures, he applied.

Arold earned his PhD in 1998 from the University of Montpellier, France. After finishing his postdoctoral research at the University of Oxford, UK, in 2001, he held faculty appointments in the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. He is now the Associate Dean of Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division at KAUST.

As a trained physicist working in life sciences, Arold’s research focuses on molecular biophysics, more specifically on the three-dimensional structure of proteins. Proteins are the most sophisticated and complex molecules of living organisms, and their structure holds the key to how they work. “Understanding how proteins function is important not only for understanding life but also disease,” he says. Through his collaborations with clinicians, he works to uncover the causes of illnesses and how to treat them.

Arold’s team also investigates how the proteins’ astonishing functions can be harnessed for biotech applications. According to Arold, the Red Sea at KAUST’s doorstep is “a source of highly unusual proteins” and, as researchers understand how they work, they can use them to make industrial processes faster, more efficient, and greener. Jointly with marine scientists, Arold is, for example, looking into PETases, a recently evolved protein that can digest plastic. His team is also working with material scientists to integrate proteins into transistors to obtain next-generation sensors that are fast, cheap, and highly sensitive.

Arold’s move to KAUST was not part of a planned journey; and neither were his previous employments in Houston, Oxford or Montpellier. Arold admits that he stopped rationalizing his career after his first thoroughly planned step­—to become a mechanical engineer—started with an internship that was so “disillusioning and boring” that he switched to physics. Since then, his philosophy has shifted to rather “recognizing the doors of opportunity that open before us”. And that seems to have worked out well.

KAUST provides Arold with first-class scientific facilities, but also with a community of outstanding and inspiring colleagues and a funding scheme that allows pursuing out-of-the-box research. The resulting environment allows scientists from different backgrounds to synergize and thrive.

He also speaks very highly of the advantages KAUST provides him as a parent. Among these is a safe and peaceful environment for his family, and convenient on-site schools and playgrounds for his twins. Growing up as part of an enrichingly diverse population on campus also creates “kids without borders”; possibly an important contribution to KAUST’s mission. “Everything is made to be easy and relaxing,” he explains, “It’s nice not having to worry about things outside your job.”

Arold’s views on life and science are influenced by art and music. His wife is the head of KAUST’s Office of the Arts. She organizes art programs, including music and theater productions and art exhibitions, which bring inspirational Saudi and international artists to the campus. She also signed him up for a piano improvisation at the latest KAUST TEDex event, “an exhilarating experience, way out of my comfort zone”, he admits.

Having been immerged in art and music, much to the credit of his wife, has widened his perspective of the world. “Artists have this fantastic capability of seeing us and our surroundings differently, and of communicating their observations in a way that makes us think and inquire about ourselves.” Arold says and adds that “scientists have much to learn from artists about the creative process and how to communicate complex concepts”.


His personal and professional travels in Saudi Arabia allowed Arold to discover the many aspects of the local culture, from the thriving and creative atmosphere in the cities, to the magic silence of the desert, where petroglyphs tell the stories of the people and animals gone for millennia.