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March 12, 2010

Jean Fréchet Heads To Saudi Arabia

Appointments: UC Berkeley chemistry professor will shape development of King Abdullah University of Science & Technology

Sophie L. Rovner

Brand New The main KAUST campus, seen from atop the Administration Building, lies along the Red Sea. J. B. Picoulet/S. Lourié J. B. Picoulet/S. Lourié View Enlarged Image
Brand New The main KAUST campus, seen from atop the Administration Building, lies along the Red Sea.
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Fréchet Courtesy of J. Fréchet/UC Berkeley

Jean M. J. Fréchet, a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and a faculty senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is taking on a new academic adventure. Earlier this week, he was appointed vice president for research at King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (KAUST), in Saudi Arabia. Fréchet will assume his duties in June but will also maintain his UC Berkeley ties.

"Jean Fréchet is a dedicated educator, outstanding researcher, and great entrepreneur whose multidimensional profile will broaden and deepen the critical links among KAUST's activities in research, graduate education, and economic and technology development," says KAUST President Choon Fong Shih. "Fréchet will add tremendous value to KAUST's efforts in scientific advancement and technological innovation."

His widespread interests and experience no doubt made Fréchet an attractive candidate for KAUST. In addition to his work in the lab, Fréchet has been active in the business world, helping to found companies including the pharmaceutical firm Ardelyx and consulting for companies including Novartis, IBM, and ExxonMobil.

Yet this new chapter in Fréchet's life almost didn't get written. He was initially sounded out by some discreet headhunters but didn't take their interest seriously. Once he started exploring the university on the Web, however, his mind-set changed completely. And when he visited the campus, which opened in September 2009 and occupies nearly 14 sq miles in Thuwal, "my jaw dropped," he recalls. "It's a brand-new campus along the Red Sea, and it's gorgeous. They have built a facility that is better than anything I've ever seen."

KAUST has no classical departments, Fréchet notes. Instead, the institution—which is a graduate-level research university for science and engineering—is built around multidisciplinary research centers that focus on topics such as catalysis, water desalination, or plant-stress genomics. The freedom to build a new system from scratch without the encumbrances of tradition and bureaucracy that have overtaken universities elsewhere is "enormously attractive," Fréchet says.

His duties are somewhat fluid, but he expects to oversee the development of the research centers, in part to make sure that their focus is broad enough. He says he also hopes to help create connections between the centers to "make sure they are not individual islands" as well as to the external world so KAUST researchers and students maintain international visibility and relationships.

Fréchet will be on leave from UC Berkeley for the next 18 months but will maintain his lab there and will be able to check in frequently via video link.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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