Career stories

Finding Academic Freedom in Saudi Arabia

As Professor Antonio Adamo describes it, his choice was either to become a principal investigator or run a bed and breakfast. He was approaching the end of his second postdoc, a time when many young researchers have to make a decision about whether to take the next step in their academic career and pursue a PI position or do something else entirely. “You know everyone wants to run a bed and breakfast nowadays, at least in Italy,” he says, laughing.

Around the same time, he attended a talk in Italy given by a senior faculty member from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). The last slide of the presentation showed KAUST’s campus in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia, from the seaside. “I saw the picture and said, ‘Oh my god. What is this place?’” says Antonio. He wrote to the professor expressing his interest in KAUST and a junior PI position there. Six months--and one big publication--later, Antonio was on his way to Saudi Arabia for a three day, on-campus interview at KAUST. The result was a job offer as a junior PI, which he gladly accepted.

KAUST from the water (image courtesy of KAUST)

“The research they allow me to do here at KAUST is unique,” Antonio explains. His group researches the mechanisms that cause glucose dysregulation, which leads to the development of type 2 diabetes. A person’s risk of developing type 2 diabetes is affected by a combination of genetic background and environment, which includes things like lifestyle, exercise, and sleep. Antonio’s group investigates how environmental factors lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

To study this, the researchers start by taking a skin biopsy from patients with a genetic condition that gives them a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They then turn the cells they collected into stem cells by using a reprogramming technique to take the cells back to a pluripotent state. Pluripotent stem cells are incredibly useful for researchers because they can be turned into any other type of cell. Antonio uses the pluripotent stem cells to create pancreatic cells, liver cells, and muscle cells--three cell types in which insulin resistance usually occurs. From there, he exposes the cells to glucose and studies what exactly causes the different cell types to fail to process glucose.

In addition to working with induced pluripotent stem cells, Antonio also uses human embryonic stem cells to study the role of enzymes in regulating certain tissues’ response to glucose. 

“These lines of research are both very expensive. There is no way I could have done this if I weren’t at KAUST. As long as your dream is feasible, KAUST will support you. It’s the reason I came here,” he says.

Accepting a job at KAUST offered Antonio the opportunity to challenge himself and prove himself as a PI. The university gave him what he needed to establish himself as a young PI: the freedom to pursue the research he wanted, a larger research group compared to his colleagues in Europe, and opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration. With all the resources he could need at his disposal, it was up to Antonio to prove his value and succeed as a PI--or go open that bed and breakfast.

Antonio is currently an assistant professor in KAUST’s Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering (BESE) division and he credits KAUST’s investment in him as part of why he was able to achieve his goal of becoming a PI. It’s a very exciting time for biomedical science researchers like Antonio to be working in Saudi Arabia, thanks to the recent Health Initiative launched by the KAUST Board of Trustees. The country’s Ministry of Health has made health research a priority for and as a result, KAUST’s BESE division is aiming to increase the number of faculty and students by 50% in the coming years.

“Things move very quickly here. It’s not like Europe where things can take a decade to become a reality. Here, in 12 months, the landscape changes completely,” Antonio explains. “I’m very happy to be here at this time.”

 The STEMD Lab (image courtesy of Antonio Adamo)

Header image courtesy of KAUST

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King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Established in 2009, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is a graduate research university devoted to finding solutions for some of the world’s most pressing scientific and technological challenges in the areas of food, water, energy and the environment.
Title Finding Academic Freedom in Saudi Arabia
Posted on May 27, 2019 at 08:00 am.
Category Career stories
Tags Biomedicine, Regenerative Medicine