United Arab Emirates UniversityA unique environment for cutting-edge research

A unique environment for cutting-edge research


Ambitious specialists will find a supportive community in UAEU, where data and smart technology maximise interdisciplinary collaboration

With the rapid development of communication technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence, researchers across a wide range of specialist fields find themselves addressing increasingly similar challenges. What will autonomous driving mean for data protection? And how can communications technology help to make transportation safer?

For Manzoor Khan, founder and head of the Connected and Autonomous Mobility research group at the Roadways, Transport, Traffic Safety Research Centre (RTTSRC), United Arab Emirates University (UAEU) provides a unique environment for researchers like him to find the answers.

Having lived and worked in Berlin for more than a decade, Dr Khan moved to UAEU in 2019 because of the opportunities it presented for research. "I was looking for a new challenge,” he says, “I considered several options to see what kind of resources were available, but UAEU stood out for being the largest state university in the region and for its high ranking.

“At UAEU, I thought, ‘they are forward-thinking and they understand what I want to do’. I knew if I were to leave Berlin to go anywhere it should be here.”

After several years of managing large-scale research programmes in Europe, Dr Khan’s own research is currently focussing on autonomous driving and 6G – two areas which he says are fast becoming the backbone of societal development. “Anything that is being commercialised now is already old news – the research is almost there for 5G, now we are moving on to the next thing,” he explains.

To assist researchers in doing that, Dr Khan came up with the idea of turning the UAEU campus into a “living laboratory”. “The way the campus is designed is very open and interconnected,” he explains. “It provides individuals with the ability to meet people very easily and cultivate interdisciplinary projects organically. It occurred to me that if we could create a ‘smart corridor’ where everything talks to each other, we could have one big playground for all disciplines to play in.”

The idea behind the smart corridor is that all campus infrastructure is able to collect data, for instance footfall and traffic on the roads. The campus therefore creates its own database which researchers from any discipline can make use of. It was a bold initiative that demanded a lot of support from the UEAU, he admits, but because of the positive attitude of the university’s leaders, it began to be realised within a matter of weeks.

“I just dropped into the vice-chancellor’s office, he listened to the idea and liked it,” says Dr Khan. “He said, ‘OK, talk to the finance officer – let's do this’. That's how easy it was. There's a lot of trust at UAEU and that gives you a real confidence boost. If managers know you are capable of doing something, you will shine.”

The UAE is shifting away from oil and gas exports to become a knowledge economy, increasing demand for research in information technologies. As a result, UAEU has access to resources that would not be possible in most countries. “Money for research is never a problem, the sky is really the limit,” says Dr Khan. “Another thing that makes the university an excellent place for those with ambition, is that we have a mechanism of incentivisation in place,” he explains.

“If you produce good research, they will push you to publish it – which is good for everyone.” A bonus system rewards UAEU researchers financially for their publications, and regular awards ceremonies recognise the hard work taking place in the institution’s many research centres. “That support in terms of promoting researcher visibility is a real incentive,” says Dr Khan.

Thanks to this campus-wide level of ambition, opportunities for new research are expanding by the day. “UAEU wants to reach the same global international quality standards as the top institutions from around the world, and they know that access to resources is key to getting there,” says Dr Khan. The university also places an emphasis on hiring the best international talent, creating a diverse workforce in the process, which “has the effect of reducing the time it takes for UAE’s research to catch up with the world’s leading research institutions”.

As any ambitious researcher will know, time spent applying for grants and permissions can be an added stress and a cause of frustration. But UAEU prides itself on the support given to researchers through its centres for research. Each centre has its own team dedicated to handling paperwork and administrative matters, as well as connecting researchers to industry and other stakeholders.

“You could call it a bridge between core research and communicating with industry,” says Dr Khan. “The research centres work hard to translate the needs of both industry and the community. In this way, we can steer the research in a way that works for everyone.” When planning Dr Khan’s “smart corridor”, a roundtable discussion for industry and local authority stakeholders was organised within days – demonstrating the willingness of businesses and government policymakers to collaborate.

RTTSRC aims to become recognised as a national centre of excellence in terms of shaping the future of mobility and transportation infrastructure. Dr Khan recently helped to oversee its restructuring, to reflect the rapidly evolving transport and communication market. “We drew up subgroups within the field and set targets for the overall goals of the centre,” he explains. “It means we are free to create any proposal for research we want to pursue while also helping to meet the university’s wider sustainability goals.”

Before coming to UAE, Dr Khan admits he had read “some negative perceptions”. The reality, he says, “is so different. The country’s education system is so open: I am free to express anything I want.”

The ability for researchers to progress quickly in their careers runs in tandem with that, Dr Khan adds. “UAEU helps people up the career ladder and trusts them to take responsibility. It’s a really exciting place to be learning and pushing the boundaries of research in the information age.”

Find out more about working at UAEU. 

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