THE Oxford Center for Collaborative Applied Mathematics (OCCAM) from UK’s Oxford University and colleagues from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) recently organized the first Study Group with Industry in Saudi Arabia. The meeting, which was held at the KAUST campus, brought together academic mathematicians from around the world and people from industry based in Saudi Arabia. It was a four-day event to tackle topical problems arising from the business of each of the participating companies.
The Study Group was preceded by a full-day symposium entitled “The impact of Applied and Computational Mathematics in the 21st Century”. The speakers talked about the power of mathematics in explaining the physical sciences, climate change, oil extraction and biological sciences, as well as highlighting the power of modern statistical methods.
I met with Dr. Chris Breward, a mathematical modeler from OCCAM and one of the organizers of the Study Group at the Jeddah Hilton and he explained further: “Mathematical modelers are people who look at the real world and try to explain it using mathematics. A ‘Study Group with Industry’ is a meeting where industrialists bring business problems for mathematicians to try and help them with. In this context, industry has a very broad definition – (it can be) any activity with social or economic impact. It could be a government department, or a private or public company. Study Groups were pioneered in the UK by Oxford University in the 1960s and they now take place in over 20 countries around the world. They have become the premier way of bringing these two communities together.”
A team of over forty experts from 12 different countries were flown into Saudi Arabia by OCCAM and combined with a host of people from KAUST, as well as around 10 from other universities across the Kingdom. Breward explained how the Study Group works: “It involves intensive brain-storming. On the first morning of this four-day event, people from industry turned up and described their problems. After lunch we formed into nine problem-solving groups, one per problem. The key to this is to let the mathematicians go into whichever room they choose. Through iterative questioning they extract the salient points and determine what the key issues are. It is essential that the mathematical modelers communicate in the language of the person that they are working with. They then try and formulate that problem using mathematics. The power of maths is that it is a logical extraction – or abstraction of the real world, I guess – and you can then bring all your knowledge to bear from having studied the abstract to give answers in the concrete. So we then spent a couple of days teasing out the nature of the problems, and a couple of days doing the maths. Teamwork is essential to make good progress. Finally, on the last afternoon, we reported back to the companies what we thought were the answers to their questions.”
Organizations who sent representatives to attend the Study Group included local companies Abdul Latif Jameel Co. Ltd, ARAMCO, and SABIC, and international companies General Electric and Schlumberger. Problems ranged in variety from ALJ’s request to analyse whereabouts to open new vehicle showrooms, to General Electric’s query “Can you detect from images of the brain whether or not there is a blockage in a certain place in the blood flow?”, and SABIC’s query on achieving a balanced distribution of different sized iron ore pellets as they descend from a conveyor belt into a furnace where they are transformed into iron.
Resolutions to all of these diverse problems were provided using mathematics. Breward concedes that mathematicians are not generally good at using experiments in their work but will occasionally resort to simple ones to get their minds working on the right track. “For example,” he explained, “with the problem about the iron furnace, I went off to the supermarket on Monday, and bought some green peas, some couscous and some bottles of orange squash. We cut the tops off the bottles and dried them out, and then put a suitable mixture of green peas and couscous into them, and we watched how they moved because we wanted to get some physical insight into the problem because there is no way that SABIC could look inside the furnace because it is too hot, and there is no other way to see inside. So we did a very simple illustrative experiment to give us insight as to what was going on inside the furnace. SABIC said that they were amazed to have seen us do this experiment and they are going to go back and reproduce it properly in their experimental labs.”
In all, over 100 participants attended the Study Group. “We had one student that we had brought with us from Oxford, then there were 32 KAUST students that signed up for the event. They were a mix of nationalities, including Saudi, because KAUST is an international University,” Breward said. “Part of the success of these meetings is that we have young researchers and established people all interacting on an equal footing. It is one of the very few scientific events that I have been to where everybody is equal because we are brainstorming, and everyone’s ideas are valued, so we encourage our graduate students, and our young post-doctoral researchers to really get involved and help us drive the problems forward.”
– Saudi Gazette