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Masdar Institute students experience innovation and entrepreneurship at MIT

Masdar Institute PhD students at MIT for the fall term, conducting research and attending classes
Masdar Institute PhD students at MIT for the fall term, conducting research and attending classes
Photo: MIT and Masdar Institute Cooperative Program

What attracts students from all over the world to Masdar Institute, a seven-year-old, research-focused technology university in the United Arab Emirates?

Ask that question, and some current and past students cite the graduate school's customizable interdisciplinary PhD program, or one of its nine engineering and computer science master's degree programs. Others say they were attracted by unique research opportunities, many addressing energy, water, and "smart" technology issues with both regional and global significance. Many mention the institute's emphasis on sustainability.

But one attribute that just about every student mentions is the Abu Dhabi-based institute's affiliation with MIT. The MIT and Masdar Institute Cooperative Program (MIT&MICP) helped the United Arab Emirates (UAE) launch the university in 2007, and researchers from the two institutions have worked together since then on projects addressing key strategic research areas.

An important part of the collaborative relationship is the role MIT plays in providing a number of Masdar Institute students with unique hands-on experience, training, and exposure to its world-class faculty and innovation ecosystem.

For example, Masdar Institute sends a group of PhD candidates to MIT each academic term, where they take courses and conduct research (12 students are currently participating for fall term 2015). Additionally, MIT hosts an intensive workshop program each summer for up to 16 Masdar Institute master's degree students, and individual students make ad hoc visits to MIT, lasting anywhere from a week to an entire term, to participate in research projects.

Masdar Institute's leadership views such cooperative efforts as crucial to the rapid growth and success of the young university, which marked two milestones in 2015: the awarding of its first PhDs and the graduation of its fifth class of master's degree recipients. "Since its initial foundation, Masdar Institute has followed MIT's model for establishing a research-driven academic institution," said Behjat Al Yousuf, Masdar Institute's interim provost. "Students and faculty have numerous opportunities to collaborate with MIT, and these opportunities have accelerated Masdar Institute's progress towards becoming a world-class university."

The collaboration factor

Masdar Institute's ongoing relationship with MIT was among the UAE school's many appealing factors, according to one of the 11 Masdar Institute PhD candidates who spent spring term 2015 at MIT. As a husband and a father of young children, one student thought hard before leaving his full-time job with a UAE energy company to pursue a PhD focusing on smart-grid technologies. Ultimately, he said, "I decided the chance to work with visionaries was worth the loss of pay." Through his Masdar Institute PhD studies, he was able to take courses on energy-market regulation and power systems at MIT. "Both classes were tough but rewarding," he recalled, adding that he found the global focus of the regulatory class especially valuable for his future studies and career.

"I arrived here knowing what MIT could offer me," said another visiting Masdar Institute student, an electrical engineer studying for a PhD focusing on materials science. In his case, what MIT offered were opportunities to study with Eugene Fitzgerald, MIT's Merton C. Flemings-SMA Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, and to test a device of his own design in an MIT lab.

That PhD candidate's experience at MIT in spring 2015 also included courses in materials science for renewable energy and nanostructure fabrication. He found both deeply satisfying, because, he said, MIT professors approached classes as engineers, not just lecturers. "They ask, 'How would you solve this problem?'" he said. "They're looking for practical answers. It's not black-and-white; it's not right or wrong. The professor is very open to listening to alternate solutions as long as you state your assumptions."

However, visiting Masdar Institute PhD students unanimously described the MIT experience as challenging. "MIT is demanding, and we were pushed hard," said another member of the spring 2015 cohort, a PhD candidate with a mechanical engineering background who took courses in geophysics and soil mechanics. "But in the end, we've learned so much." Masdar Institute officials noted that, thanks to their university's intensive admissions process and course requirements, the institute's PhD students are fully prepared for such challenges before they begin their MIT studies.

If there was anything that surprised the visiting PhD students, it was the accessibility of MIT staff and professors. Several said they're used to working closely with faculty members at Masdar Institute, which has about 500 students, but they didn't expect the same level of availability at MIT, with its enrollment of more than 11,000. The electrical engineer summed it up this way: "I'm impressed with the amount of time that MIT professors dedicate to their students — and not just in the classroom. They're available to students and they reply to emails the same day. They'll spend extra time to give you help with a problem set." Several other Masdar Institute PhD candidates expressed high praise for the staff of both institutions. Typical was this comment from the smart-grid specialist: "I felt very well supported by MIT and Masdar Institute."

MIT faculty also benefit from working with the visiting PhD students, said Duane Boning, MIT professor of electrical engineering and computer science and director of MIT&MICP. "Many faculty have seen it as a way to foster the relationship with Masdar Institute and Abu Dhabi, and to mentor and influence the careers of these students," Boning said.

An "amazing" experience

In recent years, Masdar Institute has sent groups of master's degree candidates to an annual 10-day summer workshop on and around MIT’s campus. The program, part of a larger Masdar Institute strategic plan to develop "the exemplary global leaders of tomorrow," is designed to expose Emirati students to MIT's diverse entrepreneurial culture, enriching their studies at Masdar Institute — and, ultimately, enhancing their potential to "give back" to the UAE as highly trained professionals.

The intensive workshop, under the auspices of MIT&MICP and produced by MIT Technology Review and the MIT Enterprise Forum, provides visiting students with hands-on experience in entrepreneurship, innovation, and emerging technologies. In addition to attending classroom lectures and seminars, participants visit local business incubators and startup companies. They also gather regularly to hear guest lectures, review their experiences, and discuss books and case studies illustrating important lessons for new entrepreneurs.

The combination of structured study, dynamic interaction, and hands-on activities serves workshop participants well, Boning said. "They get a wider view of the innovation system and environment than they've typically had before. It tends to energize and motivate them at a really important stage in their careers," he explained.

Interviewed on the final day of the summer 2015 program, several visiting Masdar Institute students summed up the MIT-based workshop in a single word: amazing.

Among them was a master's candidate who is studying engineering systems and management. "There's so much passion and energy here," said the student, who opted for the workshop's Smarter Cities track. "I have met so many people. This is going to help me when I go back to Masdar Institute.” Like the visiting PhD students, she found an unexpected blend of expertise and accessibility at MIT: "People here are very experienced, but they are also really willing to help you and answer questions. They have the knowledge, and they're willing to share it."

For a Masdar Institute PhD candidate who accompanied the master's degree students to MIT, the trip's real value was the chance to mingle with local innovators who participated in the program. "They're younger people, our age, and they actually work as entrepreneurs, managing their own businesses," he said. The most important takeaway advice he received from those meetings: "If you have the idea, go ahead and do it. You'll acquire the knowledge you need along the way."

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