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Engineering Qatar's Knowledge-Based Economy

By Richard Cunningham

Research spending has topped $577,000 per faculty member, there's a new master's program and the school has received more than $100 million in research grants since 2003, but that's only part of the story at Texas A&M University at Qatar. Here, in a region that straddles the world's largest reserves of oil and gas, some of the brightest young minds are looking beyond the petroleum age.

In 2001, Texas A&M became one of six U.S. universities invited by Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development to establish branches in Qatar. All six schools are located in Education City, a 14-square-kilometer campus near the capital city of Doha. Texas A&M University at Qatar opened in 2003.

Each university — Weill Cornell Medical College, for example, or Georgetown School of Foreign Service -— provides its own area of excellence. For its part, Texas A&M offers undergraduate degrees in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and petroleum engineering.

"This fall we're adding a master's degree in chemical engineering," says Mark Weichold, the university's dean and CEO. "Qatar Foundation has placed the pursuit of knowledge at the center of its society and economy. The introduction of our master's program is the start of a new era for Texas A&M University at Qatar and for the State's thriving industrial and commercial sectors."

Of the 450 undergraduates in engineering, 43 percent are from Qatar, with roughly equal numbers of men and women.

"I'm very proud of the number of Qataris we have in our program, and of the number of female students," Weichold says. "Since we opened, this campus has produced more than 200 engineers. About 100 of those are from Qatar, and half of the Qataris are women."

The university's facilities and operating expenses are paid by Qatar Foundation. Research grants come from Qatar Foundation, corporations and private institutions. The result is a world-class university with unique opportunities for its diverse student body.

"With 450 students and a faculty of 75, the smaller classes have even attracted engineering students from College Station," Weichold says. "Since the courses are identical, students can come for a semester or two without interrupting their degree plans."

"The beauty of this exercise is the mixing of various cultures. That's the best way to understand geopolitics. The friendships the students have developed are transforming for these young men and women."

The quality of the undergraduate and graduate programs are exactly the same as they are in College Station. Beyond that, students from both campuses benefit from collaboration on an international scale.

In 2011, for example, 10 senior chemical engineering students from College Station and 10 from the Qatar campus participated in the International Design Projects competition. Last year's corporate sponsor was ExxonMobil. This year Fluor sponsored the event and based the design challenge on one of its recent engineering projects. Divided into groups of four, each team designed a portion of an aromatics processing facility. The challenge was to work together to create an integrated solution. It gave students the same collaborative experience they will soon have as professional engineers, including trips between Qatar and College Station to meet with colleagues.

"The beauty of this exercise is the mixing of various cultures," says Kem Bennett, who was vice chancellor and dean of engineering during the establishment of the branch campus in Qatar. "In my opinion, that's the best way to understand geopolitics. The friendships the students have developed are transforming for these young men and women. Many have said to me that it was the most wonderful experience of their life to have been immersed in another culture."

Students at the Qatar campus also benefit from working directly on some of the largest engineering projects in the world. In a current research program with RasGas, the world's second-largest producer of liquefied natural gas, researchers in the Petroleum Engineering program are investigating an accurate, nonintrusive process that will allow RasGas engineers to detect the presence of water in natural gas pipelines.

"I believe that our work on the RasGas project and the expertise of our faculty and research teams is contributing to Qatar's growth and economic expansion," says Kenneth Hall, the university's associate dean for Research and Graduate Studies. "That is reflected in the extraordinary amount of research funding we receive."

Through the end of 2010, Texas A&M University at Qatar had some $70 million in external research grants. In May 2011, it was awarded another $27.5 million to fund 30 new initiatives. The increased funding will open more areas of specialization, including process systems and environmental engineering, safety, catalysis and fuels.

"Our new graduate program was the missing piece of the puzzle," Hall says. "With that in place, I think that Texas A&M University at Qatar is just now hitting its stride."

Dr. Mark H. Weichold
Dr. Mark H. Weichold
Dean and Chief Executive Officer
Texas A&M University at Qatar