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Achieving agricultural sustainability through seawater

Even though our planet is called “Earth,” over 70% of its surface is composed of water. Our continued existence depends on this vital resource but it is a staggering fact that only 1% of that water is directly accessible for human use. That is mainly because about 98% of the world’s available water is salty. This means that merely “2% of the Earth’s water is fresh water; but half of it is frozen in the form of glaciers and icebergs,” as Mark Tester, Professor of Bioscience at KAUST and Principal Investigator of the Salt Lab, explains.

The scarcity of fresh water supplies, surface water found in lakes and rivers as well as underground sources, poses a major challenge in the face of a growing world population set to plateau at 9 billion people by 2050. Fresh water is an essential part of our agricultural production infrastructure required to feed ourselves. Indeed, no less than “70% of the water that we use on the planet is used for agriculture. Moreover, 40% of our food is produced under irrigation,” as Prof. Tester outlines.

Global climate change is compounding the problem of water scarcity by altering rainfall patterns, reducing rainfall in previously well watered regions. The already limited supply of fresh water is also increasingly affected by salinity. “It would be wonderful if we could unlock at least a fraction of the rest of the vast amount of the world’s water resources,” as Tester further posits.

“So, in the context of needing to produce 70% more food by 2050, we have to both stop the reduction of yield already suffered from brackish irrigation water, and also unlock some of the other 99% of the water that we’re not able to use at the moment. Both of these things call out for our ability to increase the salinity-tolerance of plants.”

Making Our Current Plants Better

Prof. Mark Tester and his group, as well as other KAUST faculty members’ groups, are actively conducting experimental research in the University’s well-equipped greenhouse to find solutions to tackle our expanding food security challenges.

“We need to raise our ability to increase food supply,” said Tester. “We need innovation in plant science, modern plant breeding (e.g. quantitative genetics) and genetic modification.”

Prof. Tester’s group is primarily focused on studying how salt-tolerant plants are able to survive in harsh environments and then using that knowledge to make less salt-tolerant plants grow better in difficult conditions.

“We are trying to improve plant yields in sub-optimal conditions – where the soil is salty or when the water used to irrigate the plants is salty,” as Prof. Tester clarifies. His group essentially looks at the “naturally occurring variability in plants.”

How are some plants naturally able to better grow in salty water while others are less able to thrive in saline conditions? “I want to know what genes are in those tough plants that are missing from the less tough plants,” said Tester.

A Greenhouse Like No Other

These efforts, combining the observation of naturally occurring variations, the discovery of characterizing genes, and the measuring of the salt tolerance of plants require that KAUST plant scientists be able to grow plants in a controlled environment. These tasks are performed in the KAUST Center for Desert Agriculture (CDA)’s high quality 1600-square-meter greenhouse.

Prof. Mark Tester pointed out a unique feature of the greenhouse: a seawater tank. “We can water plants with seawater in this greenhouse. That’s pretty unusual,” he exclaimed. The filtered seawater greatly facilitates salinity experiments.

Another particular feature of the CDA greenhouse, unique to it’s location in Saudi Arabia, is that the water is actually cooled as it arrives from the desalination plant. This is to prevent the water warming the roots of plants in the soil – roots are used to be in the cooler soil, and are particularly sensitive to being warmed.

Different Approaches to Tackling Abiotic Stress

Given the fact that a quarter of the food that we produce under irrigation is already affected by salinity, a number that is rising rapidly, finding effective ways to use seawater to grow plants is of primary importance.

Prof. Tester recognizes the value of research towards this common sustainable agriculture goal also being conducted by fellow KAUST faculty members such as Prof. Heribert Hirt, who looks at solutions to increase plants’ tolerance to drought and heat, and Prof. Magdy Mahfouz, whose research interests focus on genome-engineering across plant species.

“Together we form a package of different approaches. All the approaches are good. There’s no one right approach. One might be better than another for particular circumstances, but they can all make a valuable contribution to improving crop growth in tough conditions,” said Prof. Tester.

How Plant Science Can Improve Food Security

Among the plants being cultivated and studied in the CDA greenhouse are rice plants. Demonstrating some of the crops that have grown in this controlled environment, Prof. Tester points out how “this one species of rice feeds half of the planet. It’s really important because it feeds the poor half of the planet – mainly in Asia and Africa.”

Taking into account the vital importance of rice crops to continue feeding the world’s growing population, it’s particularly significant that rice plants, as most crop plants, are salt-sensitive. They are indeed easily negatively affected by high salinity.

So Prof. Mark Tester and his team are studying the more salt-tolerant crops, such as barley and tomatoes, in order to better understand how they tolerate salinity, and then use that knowledge to improve other vital crops for our increasing food demands.

For instance, his team is growing a particular type of tomatoes, found on the Galapagos Islands, which are amazingly able to grow right at the edge of the sea and flourish in saline water. “We’re trying to discover the genes that are in these Galapagos tomatoes that allow the plants to grow in these crazy tough conditions,” said Tester.

“We want to use that knowledge to make commercial tomatoes even tougher,” he adds. By extension, “we can then turn our attention to rice and potentially improve its salt-tolerance.”

Source : KAUST News

In-house or Outsource? A case in favor of developing long term partnerships.

By Syed Faisal ur Rahman

Often audit or management consultancy firms and related service oriented businesses face issues of managing huge client work load for a certain time of the year like financial year end or time for appraisal and hiring.

This creates a tricky situation for companies with limited budget. In this situation, normally you either need to go for hiring more people to deal with the work load or burden your current work force to the limit. Hiring people for short term is challenging as not many well qualified people will agree to work as short term employees and in case of hiring new permanent people to cater short term demand is a costly process. The situation is even more challenging in developed markets where hiring costs are relatively higher than developing countries.

A much more cost effective and efficient solution is to make right outsourcing partners in same region or in other regions. There are BPO firms in developing markets which are capable of providing quality services related to IT, data entry, recruitment and even provide services in data analysis and market research. In-house development of products in a developed market is a big decision in terms of financial and managerial commitment involving several costs and risks.

However, for small tech firms with limited risks and costs, developing products on small scales is often just a decision to commit for a particular set of technologies in developing some particular tools. The drawbacks for them are their lack of exposure to corporate sector, their capacity to convert their products for larger scales and their limited market presence. Long term service based and business process outsourcing partnerships can solve problems of high costs for big business services firms in developed markets and lack of market exposure problem for smaller tech firms.

I have worked in both developed and developing markets with roles involving management, product development, data analysis and research, and in my view many companies in developing and developed markets don’t achieve their full potential only because of their lack of readiness for cooperation and conservative management structure.

Major hurdles are trust and lack of understanding about capabilities of potential partners. The solution to this problem is to take smaller steps and gradually move towards bigger products and services. At the same times managers from both sides need to develop their understanding about the capacity, talent pool and management culture of their partners.

In my humble view, we can achieve a lot more than we usually do if we just try and understand the capabilities of our potential partners and actively look for good long term partnerships based on trust and mutual respect.

How to build a proactive workforce

Building a proactive workforce is every manager’s dream as it can boost a company’s performance, but a new study has found if job satisfaction is low those ‘agents of change’ quickly lose that can-do attitude.

Researchers followed 75 workers for two years, measuring their job satisfaction levels and how proactive they were.

They found that those with high levels of job satisfaction remained proactive two years later, but those with low levels tailed off in terms of proactivity. Interestingly there was a group who had high job satisfaction but did not promote change in their organisation and still didn’t two years later.

The study by Karoline Strauss, of Warwick Business School, Mark Griffin and Sharon Parker, of University of Western Australia, and Claire Mason, of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, also looked at how adaptive workers were and discovered that the easier they adapted to change the more likely they would remain proactive over the long term.

“Proactivity is important for innovation and implementing organisational change,” said Dr Strauss, who is part of the Organisation & Human Resources Management Group at Warwick Business School.

“So it is important to sustain a proactive workforce and we have found that job satisfaction is important, not just as an instigator of proactivity, but as a force for maintaining momentum.

“There has been research showing that job satisfaction leads to a more compliant workforce, and we did find that highly satisfied employees who had not tried to promote change at work were unlikely to do so in the future. But we also found that those with high levels of job satisfaction who were proactive maintained that over two years.

“Low levels of job satisfaction may motivate high levels of proactive behaviour in the short term as workers looked to change things to become more satisfied, but this is not sustained over the long term. Our findings suggest that these workers will either succeed in changing their environment at work and so no longer see the need to seek change, or fail, become frustrated and not persevere with their proactive behaviour.”

Management research has found that effective change in an organisation requires proactivity among the workforce to be maintained over a long period. As well as job satisfaction the study on an Australian healthcare organisation, entitled Building and sustaining proactive behaviors: the role of adaptivity and job satsifaction and published in the Journal of Business and Psychology, discovered adaptability was also an important factor.

“If employees do not adapt to change, they are consequently unlikely to support proactivity,” said Dr Strauss. “This research found a significant positive link between a worker’s adaptivity and proactivity.

“Those who fail to adapt to change seem to be less likely to initiate change in the future as they may see change as threatening and may lose confidence in their own ability to be proactive. Irrespective of their past proactivity we found that employees’ proactivity may decrease if they fail to adapt to change and that may impact on a company’s performance and profitability.”

Dr Karoline Strauss also teaches Organisational Behaviour on the Warwick MBA by full-time studyWarwick Executive MBAWarwick MBA by distance learning and Global Energy MBA. She also teaches Management, Organisation and Society on Warwick Business School’s Undergraduate courses.

Source: Warwick Business School

Visual control of big data

Data-visualization tool identifies sources of aberrant results and recomputes visualizations without them.

By Larry Hardesty


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – In the age of big data, visualization tools are vital. With a single glance at a graphic display, a human being can recognize patterns that a computer might fail to find even after hours of analysis.

But what if there are aberrations in the patterns? Or what if there’s just a suggestion of a visual pattern that’s not distinct enough to justify any strong inferences? Or what if the pattern is clear, but not what was to be expected?

The Database Group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory has released a data-visualization tool that lets users highlight aberrations and possible patterns in the graphical display; the tool then automatically determines which data sources are responsible for which.

It could be, for instance, that just a couple of faulty sensors among dozens are corrupting a very regular pattern of readings, or that a few underperforming agents are dragging down a company’s sales figures, or that a clogged vent in a hospital is dramatically increasing a few patients’ risk of infection.

Big data is big business

Visualizing big data is big business: Tableau Software, which sells a suite of visualization tools, is a $4 billion company. But in creating attractive, informative graphics, most visualization software discards a good deal of useful data.

“If you look at the way people traditionally produce visualizations of any sort, they would have some big, rich data set — that has maybe hundreds of millions of data points, or records — and they would do some reduction of the set to a few hundred or thousands of records at most,” says Samuel Madden, a professor of computer science and engineering and one of the Database Group’s leaders. “The problem with doing that sort of reduction is that you lose information about where those output data points came from relative to the input data set. If one of these data points is crazy — is an outlier, for example — you don’t have any real ability to go back to the data set and ask, ‘Where did this come from and what were its properties?’”

That’s one of the problems solved by the new visualization tool, dubbed DBWipes. For his thesis work, Eugene Wu, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science who developed DBWipes with Madden and adjunct professor Michael Stonebraker, designed a novel “provenance tracking” system for large data sets.

If a visualization system summarizes 100 million data entries into 100 points to render on the screen, then each of the 100 points will in some way summarize — perhaps by averaging — 1 million data points. Wu’s provenance-tracking system provides a compact representation of the source of the summarized data so that users can easily trace visualized data back to the source — and conversely, track source data to the pixels that are rendered by it.

The idea of provenance tracking is not new, but Wu’s system is particularly well suited to the task of tracking down outliers in data visualizations. Rather than simply telling the user the million data entries that were used to compute the outliers, it first identifies those that most influenced the outlier values, and summarizes those data entries in human readable terms.

Best paper

Wu and Madden’s work on their “Scorpion” algorithm was selected as one of the best papers of the Very Large Database conference last year. The algorithm tracks down the records responsible for particular aspects of a DBWipes visualization and then efficiently recalculates the visualization to either exclude or emphasize the data they contain.

If some of the points in the visualization suggest a regular pattern, the user can highlight them and mark them as “normal data”; if some of the points disrupt that pattern, the user can highlight them and mark them as “outlier data”; and if the pattern is surprising, the user can draw the anticipated pattern on-screen.

Scorpion then tracks down the provenance of the highlighted points, and filters the provenance down to the subset that most influenced the outliers. Their paper introduces several properties about the specific computation that can be used to develop more efficient algorithms for finding these subsets.

Scorpion, Madden says, was partly motivated by a study conducted by a researcher at a Boston hospital, who noticed that a subset of patients in one of the hospital’s wards was incurring much higher treatment costs than the rest. Any number of factors could have been responsible: the patients’ age and fitness, the severity of their conditions, their particular constellations of symptoms, their health plans, or perhaps something as banal as their proximity to the hospital — nothing could be ruled out.

After six months of work, the researcher concluded that most of the variance in patients’ treatment costs could be explained by a single variable: their doctors. It turned out that three doctors on the hospital staff, in an effort to leave no stone unturned, simply prescribed more interventions than their peers.

As an experiment, Wu and Madden turned Scorpion loose on the researcher’s data. Within five minutes, it had concluded that the data point most strongly correlated with the increase in patients’ treatment costs was the names of their doctors. Because it was combing through a massive data set and, like all big-data search algorithms, had to sacrifice some precision for efficiency, it couldn’t pinpoint just the three doctors identified by the six-month study. But it did produce a list of 10 doctors most likely to be responsible for cost variance, and those three were among them. “You would at least know where to begin looking,” Madden says.

Source:  MIT News Office

The art of translating science into business

“There are many things which can go wrong when starting a company; but the worst thing that can go wrong is to not do it,” said Prof. Karl Leo, Director of KAUST’s Solar & Photovoltaics Engineering Research Center, when speaking at an Entrepreneurship Center speaker series event this past spring. Wearing the dual hats of scientist and entrepreneur, Prof. Leo is the author of 440 publications, holds more than 50 patents, and has co-created 8 companies which have generated over 300 jobs.

A physicist by training, Prof. Leo highlighted the point that he is primarily a scientist who stumbled onto business by chance. “For me it’s always started with and been about the science,” he says. All his spin-off companies came about as a result of basic research he and his group conducted on organic semiconductors. Speaking specifically to the young KAUST researchers hoping to emulate his success as academics and entrepreneurs, Prof. Leo said: “The message I want to pass along is if you really want to do things, just be curious. Don’t say I want to do research to make a company. Do very basic research and the spin-off ideas will come along.”

The Growing Influence of Organic Semiconductors

Prof. Karl Leo started doing research on organic semiconductors about 20 years ago. He has since been passionate about this field’s developments and future potential. Despite his early skepticism resulting from the ephemeral lifetime of organic semiconductors in the ’90s, the performance levels of LED devices for instance have gone from just a few minutes of useful life then to virtually not aging today. “In the long-term, as in 20 to 30 years from now, almost everything will be organics,” he believes. “Silicon has dominated electronics for a long time but organic is something new.” Organic products have evolved into a variety of applications such as: small OLED displays, OLED televisions, OLED lighting, OPV and organic electronics.

Organics, as opposed to traditional silicon-based semiconductors, are by nature essentially lousy semiconductors. Mobility, or the speed at which electrons move on these materials, is a really important property. However, when looking at the electronic properties of semiconductors, carbon offers interesting developments for the performance of organics. For instance, graphene, which is a carbon-based organic material, has even higher mobility than silicon.

One of the companies Prof. Karl Leo co-founded and began operating out of Dresden, Germany in 2003, Novaled, became a leader in in organic light-emitting diode (OLED) field. OLEDs are made up of multiple thin layers of organic materials, known as OLED stacks. They essentially emit light when electricity is applied to them. Novaled became a pioneer in developing highly efficient and long-lifetime OLED structures; and it currently holds the world record in power efficiency. They key to Novaled’s success, as Prof. Leo explains, is “the simple discovery that you can dope organics.” This was a major breakthrough achieved simply adding a very little amount of another molecule.

This organic conductivity doping technology, used to enhance the performance of OLED devices, was the main factor leading to the company being purchased by Samsung in 2013.

Organic Photovoltaics: Technology of the Future

Following the successful commercial penetration of OLED displays in the consumer electronics market, Prof. Karl Leo has since turned his focus on organic photovoltaics. “I think organic PV is something that can change the world,” said Leo. Among the many advantages of organic photovoltaics are that they are thin organic layers which can be applied on flexible plastic substrates. They consume little energy, can be made transparent, and are compatible with low-cost large-area production technologies. Because they are transparent, they can be made into windows for instance, and also be manufactured in virtually any color. All these characteristics make organic PV ideal for consumer products.

Again based on basic research conducted by his group, Prof. Leo also started a company,Heliatek, which is now a world-leader in the production of organic solar film. Heliatek has developed the current world record in the efficiency of transparent solar cells. The company also holds the record for efficiency of opaque cells at 12 percent. Leo believes that it’s possible to achieve up to 20 percent efficiency in the near future, which will be necessary to compete with silicon and become commercially viable.

Don’t Believe Business Plans

Prof. Leo explained that the experience he and his team gained from launching a successful company like Novaled helped them to both define the objectives and obtain funding from investors for his solar cell company, Heliatek. “Once you create a successful company, things get much easier,” he said. But Leo also cautioned the budding entrepreneurs in the audience to be willing to adapt as they present and implement their ideas.

“If you have a good idea and you are convinced you have a good idea, never give up,” he said. But being able to adapt to market needs is also crucial. For instance, Leo’s original business plan for Novaled focused on manufacturing displays. But the realities of the market, and the prohibitive cost of manufacturing displays, convinced his team that the smarter way to go was to supply materials. At the end of the day, what really succeeded in getting a venture capital firm’s attention, after haven been told no 49 times, was his team’s ability to demonstrate the value of the technology.

“Business plans are useful but they must not be overestimated,” said Prof. Leo. Business plans are a good indicator of how entrepreneurs are able to structure their thoughts, identify markets and create a roadmap, but “nobody is able to predict the future in a business plan; it’s not possible.”

Source: KUST