Chelsea “Chip” White, the Schneider National Chair in Transportation and Logistics and former H. Milton and Carolyn J. Stewart School Chair of Georgia Tech’s Stewart School of ISyE, recently returned after spending a year in Abu Dhabi assisting in the launch of an industrial and systems engineering department and Logistics Institute at Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research. In his role, White recruited faculty members for the department’s first year and helped attain initial departmental accreditation. Additionally, he assisted the faculty in identifying research projects and potential sponsors which provided the basis for the Logistics Institute. Now back at Georgia Tech, White looks forward to supporting the development of the academic unit and center at Khalifa University whenever possible.
Abu Dhabi, the largest of the seven emirates in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), approached Georgia Tech to help build the educational base Abu Dhabi needs to transition from an oil-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. White was not the only Georgia Tech professor at Khalifa University; professors in Tech’s biomedical engineering and aerospace engineering schools also spent last year helping Khalifa University build academic programs and recruit faculty.
Learn more about White’s residence in Abu Dhabi in the interview that follows.
ISyE: Describe the student body and campus at Khalifa University. How does it compare to Georgia Tech?
CW: As this is only their third year, Khalifa University has a small student body population, and most are undergraduates. Compared to Georgia Tech, the student body and campus itself is much smaller, comprised of only six buildings. Unlike other academic institutions in the region, Khalifa University is research intensive and multi-cultural, and the first public co-educational university in the UAE. Seventy percent of the students are Emirati, citizens of the UAE.
ISyE: What are some of the challenges involved in building a university from scratch?
Coming from Georgia Tech where regulations, policies, administrative procedures, and faculty governance have been established for decades, it was challenging to develop and implement such practices in a new university.
Some things that are very common in the university system here are issues there because of their culture and laws. For example, in the UAE, non-Emirati can have work visas for a maximum of three years, which brings into question whether or not tenure, in some form, is a viable concept. It will be interesting to see how they grapple with this and other challenges.
ISyE: What would you consider your most significant accomplishments while in Abu Dhabi?
My most significant accomplishment was hiring the new faculty and achieving initial accreditation. Also, we were able to begin the process of getting the new faculty started on research projects. I made contacts with several government agencies and private firms to solicit what research would help them better perform their missions. We are off to a good start for what we have set out to do.
ISyE: Now that you’ve spent a year in an oil rich country, what is your opinion on fuel conservation?
I think we would be very wise to be a more energy independent country. Interestingly, the UAE is more invested in solar energy than we are per capita, and they realize the limitations of fossil fuels. Also, they are very interested in conservation and have tremendous respect for the environment, providing a good example for the rest of the world to emulate.
ISyE: What are some of the challenges you faced working in a different time zone and a different work week structure?
The weekend in Abu Dhabi is Friday and Saturday, with the work week being Sunday through Thursday. That means there were only three overlapping days between here and there, which made my work week stretch out to almost seven days a week as I was very actively engaged in research with Eastern Time Zone colleagues. In addition to the work week difference, I was eight hours ahead of my research colleagues and graduate students in the United States, making it challenging to communicate. In a way, my day started twice. I would get up and be at Khalifa University at 8:00 a.m. UAE time. When I left work at 5:00 p.m., it was 8:00 a.m. or 9:00 a.m. in the U.S. As my day was ending in Abu Dhabi, the day for my colleagues and graduate students back in the States was just beginning. This is when emails would start coming in and I would have Skype meetings with those in the Eastern Time Zone.
ISyE: Did you stay in the expat bubble or immerse yourself in the nation’s culture?
Only 10% of people in Abu Dhabi are Emirati, the rest are expats. We lived in the Shangri-la Hotel which would be considered an expat bubble.
Three blocks away from the Shangri-la was a co-op where one could buy food or clothing. When we shopped there, we were often the only non-Emirati there.
Dubai was less than two hours north of Abu Dhabi. There, we would shop at one of their large souks, which is a traditional Arabic market. We attended the Al Dhafra Camel Festival, an annual celebration where locals participate in activities such as camel races, trading, and camel beauty pageants. It was one of many very interesting opportunities for us to engage in the Emirati culture.
During Ramadan, the Crown Prince of UAE, hosts Iftar lectures, which occur right before Iftar, the evening meal when Muslims break their fast. I attended two lectures in Abu Dhabi. One lecture was on the Future of Sustainable Transportation, and another lecture I attended was entitled Fundamentalist Islam versus Modernist Islam. There were approximately 400 people there, mostly Emirati. The lectures and the related social interactions were fascinating.
We also enjoyed expat activities in Abu Dhabi. During our stay, we were able to experience events such as a Formula 1 race, a tennis match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the world's top two tennis players, and attend a concert guided by cellist Yo-Yo Ma. We were within seven minutes of walking distance to 14 restaurants. Several of them were noted as being the finest in the region.
The expat culture is quite different than living here in the U.S. In the expat community, there are only other expats. So, it promotes a social cohesion that we do not experience here. While we are delighted to be back, we miss the friends we made while there.
ISyE: What did you enjoy most about the culture of Abu Dhabi?
It is a very exciting time to be in the Middle East and Abu Dhabi and experience its healthy and vibrant culture. The people of the UAE are very family oriented and have strong family traditions. I respect them tremendously for that. I enjoyed getting to know them and look forward to going back.
ISyE: Was the trip a success?
No matter how you define success, the answer is yes. Professionally and personally, it was a success. We are still basking in the glow of an idyllic year in Abu Dhabi and the sense of accomplishment as well.
ISyE: How will you apply what you learned in Abu Dhabi to your work at Tech?
One thing I became aware of while working at Khalifa University, is that if you are building a university to be an agent of social and economic change, the focus on research should include, perhaps emphasize, innovation. After my experience in Abu Dhabi, I am more inclined to believe the focus of our work should be to continue past the idea stage, and work towards creating a product, service, or process that will make a societal impact. Rather than stopping after our research has been published, our goal should be to put our research into practice.
Spending a year in Abu Dhabi, I have come back with a refreshed cultural and geopolitical point of view. The more we appreciate and respect other cultures, the more we realize that there are more similarities than differences between us. The people of that region are doing remarkable things and there is much to be learned from their culture. I wish Khalifa University all the success in the world.
Industrial and Systems Engineering