QNRF Newsletter Archive

Majd Sakr, Ph.D. Giving Qatar a technological and entrepreneurial edge

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Majd Sakr, Ph.D., Assistant Dean for Research at CMU-Q
Majd F. Sakr, Ph.D., is the Assistant Dean for Research at Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q). He is also the co-founder of the Qatar Cloud Computing Center. In addition to working at CMU-Q and Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, he has held appointments at the American University of Science and Technology in Beirut and at the NEC Research Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. His research specializations include data-intensive scalable computing, computer micro-architecture, compiler optimizations, scientific computing, embedded systems, reconfigurable systems and human-robot interaction.

Q: Why do you think that this university in particular, Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) was brought here to Qatar to help establish its knowledge-based economy and future?

A: Carnegie Mellon is known for several things when it comes to research. It’s known for carrying out bold and impactful research with a multi-disciplinary approach. These elements describe our method to identifying relevant problems that are worthy of a large time and effort investment and will be most beneficial to the region that we are in.

Simply put, nature and the world around us do not follow a single specific specialty, hence the research at Carnegie Mellon follows suit by being multi-disciplinary in order to build a team with the necessary expertise to solve important problems.
In Qatar, CMU-Q plays an important role in training future talent, building science capacities and focusing on solving regionally relevant problems within the science ecosystem that QF is putting in place. This ecosystem is gaining momentum and traction, which will enable Qatar to go through an accelerated phase of progress toward major scientific discovery. Carnegie Mellon is delighted to be playing an important role within this unique idea spearheaded by the Qatar Foundation.

Q: What are the main lines of research taking place here at Carnegie Mellon?

A: Areas of research are shaped by our strategy, the availability of research funding, having a critical mass of expertise, as in faculty and scientists, and the needs of the region. The areas of research at CMU-Q are primarily the areas where we have majors and faculty expertise: computer science, information systems, business administration, biological sciences, English and Arabic language development and pedagogy, statistics, and others.

"They say ‘we’re going to
move everything online,'
and they hunker down,
and they close the doors,
they design it and they move
all of their processes online,
something that took many
years in other well established
funding institutions."—Majd
Sakr, Ph.D., on QNRF.

Q: Can you give me a few examples of the research projects underway?

A: Computer science is one of our big areas of research, which includes human-language technologies, applied robotics, cloud computing, networking, programming languages and security and others.

Let’s start with Human-Language Technologies with a focus on Arabic. Carnegie Mellon is world-known for its language technologies institute. Compared to English, there’s very little research that’s been done on the natural language processing of Arabic. It makes a lot of sense for us to invest and develop capacity in this area, which we have. We have a group of faculty and scientists who are working on various research projects such as the automatic translation of English Wikipedia to Arabic.

Then we have applied robotics for Qatar. In one of our applied robotics projects, our experts are building robots to autonomously inspect oil and gas plants and pipes that could have a high percentage of H2S, which is very lethal, even at small parts per million. This will increase the safety and reduce costly maintenance time at gas plants. This initiative shows the local and regional relevance of our faculty’s research.

In the new field of cloud computing, our faculty are working on consolidating a variety of scientists’ computing needs into a single location, or data center, which can be accessed through a high-speed and high-bandwidth connection. Why is this important? Qatar is a small country, aiming to do science that is regionally relevant. Rather than scientists having a bunch of different computing systems for each different scientific group in Qatar, we can propose a large public computing system that scientists can access from anywhere.

Such a system will offer the flexibility, elasticity and rapid provisioning to meet many of our computing needs. The cloud computing research here at Carnegie Mellon is a part of a larger consortium of researchers at Texas A&M University at Qatar and Qatar University. We call it Qloud with a Q.

We also have systems faculty who are developing intelligent sensor networks which are coupled with social networks for a slew of intelligent services. We have faculty working on the development of new programming languages to make web services more secure. Others are developing intelligent e-tutors that aid students’ learning.

Our business faculty are primarily studying entrepreneurship. They focus on the relative contribution of knowledge-based, entrepreneurial companies to the economies of Qatar and other nations. They study the economic, cultural and policy factors that encourage or discourage entrepreneurial success. What nations are most effective in entrepreneurial wealth creation? Why are some nations more effective than others in this important area?

Q: Let’s talk about students. What would you say is required of computer science students in terms of how they think?

A: Students nowadays are technologically savvy, but that does not mean that they necessarily understand computing. What we do at CMU-Q is focus on developing the students’ ability to think logically, algorithmically, to find good solutions to problems.

This method of thinking is not taught in high school. You’re taught math, you’re taught science, biology, physics, chemistry, but you’re not taught algorithmic problem solving. You’re not taught computational thinking. That’s a critical element of what we do with our students from the freshmen year, and you see the students making a transformation into becoming confident problem solvers.

This is what we do in the classroom. What we do outside the classroom is we engage students in research at a very early stage. Students learn the scientific method, they also learn to understand a problem, its specifications and identify and evaluate possible solutions based on a set of criteria. This process allows students to explore and evaluate a set of approaches, through which they research and learn. One of the benefits of being involved in research is that it promotes unstructured learning in the students. This is critical for the students’ development.

Q: Would you talk a bit about some of the other centers you are working with around the world?

A: Our Arabic language technology faculty are working with the Language Technology Institute in Pittsburgh, and Columbia University researchers, making up the most active language technologies programs in the world. One of our direct collaborators, Nizar Habash, is one of the most prominent language technologies experts and is a collaborator on one of our projects that aims to identify and reduce errors in automatically translated text.

In robotics we work with the National Robotics Engineering Consortium, NREC and with Shell on Sensabot, a robot that does maintenance chores at an oil/gas plant. For cloud computing we work with Garth Gibson on the CMU main campus and part of the Intel Science and Technology Center in Cloud Computing, on developing science clouds. We also work with scientists at the Argonne National Labs and the University of Chicago on similar topics.

We’ve also been tracking our impact regionally, with collaborators in Africa, India, Asia and Australia. In addition to our closer neighbors at Qatar University and Texas A&M at Qatar, we consciously work toward collaborations with labs in the Gulf and Middle East. This year, I went to KAUST [King Abdullah University of Science and Technology] in Saudi Arabia three times, and MASDAR [Institute of Science and Technology] in Abu Dhabi to initiate collaborations. New York University faculty came to visit us from Abu Dhabi as did faculty from AUB [American University of Beirut].

Carnegie Mellon is in Qatar, and we'd like to develop an ecosystem in the region that is collaborative and competitive. Science works in our ability to collaborate and work together. For us to effectively do science in the Arab world, we have to not only do it in Qatar at the world-class level, we also have to develop it as a collaboration with our neighboring countries.

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Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar
Q: Can you speak of any challenges that you have faced and how you have overcome them?

A: Doing science in a new place can pose different types of challenges. For example access to certain technology is not as readily available as if you were in San Francisco. Here, we have to be a little bit more patient, and plan for the future by accounting for delays in the delivery of equipment that we need. One approach to this is to decide what portion of our work can be done here and what portion can be done by collaborators abroad.

Another challenge is to identify and attract talented personnel. No matter how good your lab is, no matter how great your infrastructure is, you still need the talented, driven, ambitious human being who is interested and passionate about a certain research problem and wants to work in Qatar to find a solution. And while it continues to be a problem, we are progressing towards a maturity level that has enabled us to attract talented individuals to come to Qatar to do research – this is much easier than it was five years ago.

Q: QNRF’s programs are five years old. Can you say a little bit about the support that they’ve provided?

A: Simply put, without QNRF funds, we cannot attract top-quality faculty to come to the Qatar campus, we could not retain them, we could not be doing the high-quality research that we do here.

This is my sixth year here, and I have observed that the success of QNRF is due to the fact that they’re quite bold in the decisions that they make. They say ‘we’re going to move everything online,' and they hunker down, and they close the doors, they design it and they move all of their processes online, something that took many years in other well established funding institutions.

Then, every year, after every program cycle, QNRF asks the faculty for feedback. And they’ve incorporated faculty’s suggestions. The faculty noticed, through changes implemented, that their feedback was being listened to, and that has created a very nice synergy in the collaborative atmosphere between faculty and QNRF.

We consider Carnegie Mellon a partner for QNRF. What we do is we sit regularly with the QNRF leadership, and we talk about methods of improvement. Sometimes you hear comments from the research community: ‘Oh, QNRF’s not the National Institutes of Health,’ and then we say ‘wait a minute QNRF is five years old, and they’re not trying to be anyone else, they’re trying to be QNRF.’ This is what’s unique about them.

Dr. Sakr, we thank you very much for this interview and wish you, and all Tartans, the best of luck with your future research.

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