Entering phase 3 of re-opening: Experiences and lessons learned at HBKU’s research institutes
August 06 2020 02:31 AM


With Qatar now in Phase 3 of its re-opening, we spoke to all three research institutes at Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU). Senior representatives of Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI), Qatar Biomedical Research Institute (QBRI) and Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI) shared their thoughts on lessons learned from the pandemic, reasons to be hopeful and cautious, and their predictions for what the future may hold in their respective fields.

lDr Ashraf Aboulnaga, Senior Research Director at QCRI:
Since the pandemic’s onset, QCRI has worked tirelessly to support Qatar’s response. We developed artificial intelligence (AI)-based technologies for several problems such as modelling and visualising the outbreak’s progress, analysing public reaction on social media, organising scientific literature for medical research, contact tracing, and monitoring social distancing. We were very happy to see these technologies utilised by Qatar’s health authorities, and some even adopted by other nations.
Likewise, we are proud of the resilience shown by our staff and their adaptability working from home. We modified work processes and put in place the necessary supporting technologies, quickly returning to full efficiency. We also paid close attention to the well-being of our staff, for instance by developing a “buddy system,” ensuring that every employee has at least one colleague for regular exchanges.
Looking beyond QCRI, it’s encouraging to see countries worldwide embracing science as the primary means to respond to the outbreak. The effectiveness of Qatar’s response to the pandemic and how it is now controlled, provides reason to be positive. However, we have to remain vigilant since the disease is still with us, and infection rates can again rise if we are not careful.
From a technology perspective, the response relied heavily on technologies that support global logistics, video conferencing, social distancing, and medical research. As technologists, we were delighted to see these proving to be up to the challenge and crucial in ensuring an appropriate response, which will play an even more prominent role in the future.
As we go through the phases, we should seize the opportunity to rethink our work and social practices, making them more flexible and resilient. It also is an opportunity to cement the role of science and technology in achieving resilience, globally.

lDr Omar El-Agnaf, Executive Director at QBRI:
Through Covid-19, QBRI has learned to be adaptable and prepared for any eventuality. Although working remotely has meant less time to conduct research in laboratories, it has afforded our scientists the opportunity to devote more time to analysing data and developing scientific research papers. Furthermore, the global crisis has enabled QBRI to collaborate with local entities to mobilise resources in support of national efforts in the fight against the pandemic. While QBRI’s research is focused on non-communicable diseases, the global spread of Covid-19 has encouraged our institute to utilise existing expertise to support national needs and rethink our future research priority areas.
During this time, QBRI has played a key role in raising awareness and keeping the wider community informed about Covid-19 through the distribution of well-researched, reliable and trusted information as well as the hosting of webinars relating to the virus. Most importantly, tackling the pandemic has underscored the importance of working together and combining expertise to yield tangible results in diagnostics and testing. Adopting an interdisciplinary approach and focusing on capacity building are integral to the success of collective efforts in tackling the virus.  
Covid-19 has also highlighted the crucial role of the biomedical field and science and research in times such as these. Overall, there are many invaluable lessons learned that will inform how QBRI enhances its existing efforts to manage any future outbreaks, and we will continue to develop new diagnostics tools, such as the Covid-19 test kits developed in collaboration with Hamad Medical Corporation, and to revise plans to assess core research areas from various perspectives.   

lDr Marc Vermeersch, Executive Director at QEERI:
Over the last few months, we at QEERI saw the real meaning of resilience and innovation. With the onset of remote working in March 2020, QEERI quickly shifted gears and focused on how we can adapt our research work to support Qatar tackle the pandemic. Although stepping away from their labs was difficult for our scientists, it was not a time to slow down and we are truly proud of how our team has stepped up to the challenge.
Moving forward, as Qatar and the world starts approaching the ‘new normal’, we need to think about what our approach to research is going to be. We may see a massive shift, not just at a national level, but globally. Beyond the stressful aspects of this pandemic, Covid-19 has provided opportunities for change across our entire spectrum of research areas, by not only triggering adaptation strategies but also reinforcing our strength as a research institute oriented towards practical and operational aspects of its activity.
QEERI’s mandate is indeed to support Qatar in tackling its grand challenges related to energy, water and the environment. In line with Qatar National Vision 2030, and the country being a signatory of the Paris Agreement, our primary goal is research, development and innovation, including technology development, related to climate change – through exploring sustainable energy, water desalination and treatments, air quality, and corrosion, among others. We aim to keep providing science-based insights to leaders and policymakers and raising community awareness on these vital topics. We will continue to build partnerships within Qatar, and internationally, to work in a spirit of solidarity, collaboration, and co-ordination, to achieve our common goals. 
In any case, as much as we have managed to do over the last few months, we are definitely also looking forward to heading back to the office, and back to our labs.

About Hamad Bin Khalifa University
Innovating Today, Shaping Tomorrow

Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a member of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science, and Community Development (QF), was founded in 2010 as a research-intensive university that acts as a catalyst for transformative change in Qatar and the region while having global impact. Located in Education City, HBKU is committed to building and cultivating human capacity through an enriching academic experience, innovative ecosystem, and unique partnerships. HBKU delivers multidisciplinary undergraduate and graduate programmes through its colleges, and provides opportunities for research and scholarship through its institutes and centres. For more information about HBKU, visit www.hbku.edu.qa

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