Two Cultures – One Goal!

October 11, 2017 | Marion Schuller

interview – Dr. Abdallah Azzeer is Director of the Attosecond Science Laboratory (ASL) at the King Saud University (KSU) in Riyadh. In his interview with MPQ Newsletter, he speaks enthusiastically about the relation between the MPQ and the KSU, the first attosecond flash achieved in the Arab world, and the wonder of international science.

It is important to him to build the best environment for the next generation of scientists in the field of attosecond physics.

What was your first contact with the MPQ?

In 1989 I met Prof. Theodor Hänsch when he was awarded the King Faisal International Prize in physics. I think that was the moment everything started. We had a dream of building up a facility with a specialized laser scientist, and an opportunity presented itself in 2008. In the framework of our program, called the Nobel Laureates Program, we provide exchanges between the KSU and Nobel laureates to improve scientific opportunities in Saudi Arabia. By then I knew Prof. Hänsch very well, and he contacted our rector to explain how we could improve the standard of our research. He suggested his colleague Prof. Ferenc Krausz visit the KSU. It must have been April 2008 when we met him the first time. He gave a talk about attosecond physics, and I discussed with my colleagues the possibility of setting up a project with him.

The collaboration has now existed for a few years. What would you say distinguishes the collaboration with the MPQ?

A lot of things. In summer, for example, we had the opportunity for undergraduates from the KSU to come to the MPQ and receive training at a scientific workshop. Our students gained new experiences, insight into how research is done in Germany, and the opportunity to receive training in a good scientific environment. Our scientists were able to exchange information and ideas, and published numerous joint publications.

Besides joint publications, what common goals do both institutions have?

To do fundamental research on utilizing attosecond technology for application in physics and medicine. When we try to build any laboratory facility, we do not intend to compete with other institutions. We try to build up a professional environment to attract other research areas globally.

You know, physics is an international subject. On the one hand we are exploring matter. On the other hand we started to focus on cancer research one-and-a-half years ago. Both topics are relevant for the whole world.

Can you tell us more about that particular project?

The medical project began an exploration into the early detection of cancer. We asked ourselves how we could utilize the infrared spectrum to explore biomarkers of cancer. Our team is very interdisciplinary – we have people from the College of Medicine, the College of Pharmacy, the College of Computer Science for Data Mining, and from medical physics, and together we brainstormed each part of the implementation. To attack a very dangerous disease like cancer, we need early detection, and that can only be realized with broad knowledge.

The team is not only interdisciplinary but also international. I guess it is not easy to work together on one subject from different parts of the world?

Yes, that is right – although it works. We have specialists from Germany, from France and other countries, but everyone works in his own field. Some of them also have their own medical projects in a Center at the KSU, which works directly with patients. From there we receive cell samples and use them for our tests. Luckily we have the opportunity to sit together often, so that the different sciences can cross paths. That is the beauty of science – to recognize one big problem and to try to solve it all together, no matter what your nationality or scientific background is. We all speak the same language and we all have the same goals.

The ASL is an important milestone in the collaboration. Can you tell us about it?

First we had to build up the beamline and calibrate everything in there with the help of the scientists in our collaboration. It is now running very well. It is ready to have more students working there, more research has to be done, and we have recruited more scientists to work with us there.

How many people currently work at the ASL?

At the moment, six people. But with time, I am sure there will be more.

Attosecond physics attracts many scientists. What fascinates you the most about it?

I don’t ask myself what is fascinating. It is new information hidden behind other information that arouses my interest. This is the curiosity of the scientist – the more he knows, the more he wants to know. When we reach an attosecond, I am looking toward the zeptosecond. Attosecond physics is opening a new field of science for the next generation. And we want to be a part of that process. We should all invest in science for the next generation.

This year the collaboration had its first achievement with the first isolated attosecond pulse in the Arab world. What does that mean to you?

Everybody was very excited about it. We achieved it very quickly, although we had some problems with temperature stabilization. We spent a lot of time in the laboratory. When you want to fight for your goal, it is not easy, believe me. There is doubt and fear around you, but you have to stay strong and focus on what is important. There are always bumps in the road, but I believe that when you have a goal, you will reach it someday. That is my philosophy. I have now worked in this field for more than twenty years, and I suffered a lot when I was working at the ASL with the technicians and the students. But suffering gives you a lot of experience on how to handle small problems. Fortunately, at the moment, everything goes perfectly.

How is the scientific exchange between the two countries Germany and Saudi Arabia organized?

We travel several times a year to meet each other. In the beginning, it was more than ten times a year. We have regular workshops, and we communicate via email to update each other regularly. Additionally, some of our students are based in Germany, and on the other side, scientists from the institute are working at the ASL in Riyadh.

How is the teamwork with those scientists going?

Excellent – and even better than that. We have a good time together in the laboratory. I know some people come here with a lot stereotypes, and I can’t blame them. It is human behaviour. Often when people connect with other cultures, they wonder about the dark side of it and what did the media tell them about it. But our country has a beautiful side, which people have to explore. It is always difficult to see the big picture when you look at it through a small hole. But the scientists from the MPQ are open-minded and the teamwork with them is just fantastic. The first question I am often asked by foreigners is: why are women not allowed to drive a car in Saudi Arabia? But to be honest, do you think if we simply let women drive, it would solve all our problems? No. There are more important issues to talk about first. You can’t compare cultures one to one. We should rather focus on what is common between us and not on the differences, and that happens at the ASL.

So they have been able to adjust themselves to the cultural circumstances in Riyadh?

Definitely. Last time, they were invited during Ramadan, which is a strict time and people are fasting. But the scientists were not expected to fast. All of them were very respectful, and asked me if they were allowed to drink water. And of course it was no problem. We don’t force you to fast. We also have exceptions for people from our culture. You are forbidden to fast when it could hurt you, for example if you have to take medication. In that case you have to pay around 10 Riyal a day (editor’s note: 2.40€). To fast is not to punish yourself, it is to restrict yourself, and to think about what is important in life. The scientists were very interested in our customs. Benni did even try to fast a few days. From my point of view, I can say they adapted to the culture, and to be honest, I think they liked it.

The laboratory was built at the men’s campus of the KSU, but our female scientist Dr. Nora Kling was allowed to work there. Did that result in any problems?

It is not only allowed, it is common – since 1991. Everyone thinks women are forbidden from coming to the men’s campus, but that would mean it is something strict. For over twenty years, women have been visiting our campus to use the facilities there, for example the Nanotechnology Laboratory. The separation of the universities is not to discriminate. It was built like that around thirty years ago. Even today they have separated schools in other countries as well. But slowly we mix it up, especially for research. For this reason it was at no point a problem working with Nora – quite the contrary.

What are the differences between physics in Germany and in Saudi Arabia?

There is no difference between the German or Saudi Arabian focus on theoretical or experimental physics. But the scientific environment is much broader in Germany – they have historically been able to gain more experience.

What is your wish for the future of the collaboration with the MPQ?

We wish to extend the research, to give even more young scientists the opportunity to increase their knowledge and be part of our collaboration. We hope to be successful with our medical project, combat cancer and improve our way of living in general.