They are six young Saudi professionals. Explorers and problem-solvers by inclination, they work in very different fields. Along with hundreds like them, they have been selected by Saudi Aramco to fill critical company posts in the future, and they are receiving training now that will enable them to fulfill their own ambitions at the same time as they help meet one of Saudi Aramco's most important goals: to create a Saudi work force that can compete with the best in the world.
"Saudi Aramco's training program is unparalleled in any other company," says Hamad Juraifani, president of Aramco Services Company in Houston, which monitors the progress of more than 300 Saudi Aramco employees on career development assignments in North America. The Saudi company, he points out, sponsors training not only for engineers and other technologists - more than one of whom has gone from bachelor's degree to doctorate under company sponsorship - but also for specialists in medicine, management and every other discipline that Saudi Aramco draws on.
Ali Dialdin, general manager of Training and Career Development for Saudi Aramco, explains that the company doesn't just manage most of Saudi Arabia's vast oil reserves. "We do everything ourselves," he points out. Saudi Aramco has a huge transportation fleet, provides medical services to employees and their dependents, and maintains its own communities, complete with dining halls, recreation centers and schools. Trained employees are needed to run and manage every facet of these operations. And to be sure they run them well, Saudi Aramco employees attend the very best schools in their fields - whether those schools are in Saudi Arabia, North America or the United Kingdom.
Physicians are completing their residencies at such institutions as Harvard, Georgetown and Baylor. Geophysicists are working toward advanced degrees at Stanford, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of California. Engineers are earning master's degrees and doctorates at MIT, UCLA, the University of Texas and more than 50 other engineering schools in the United States.
But Saudi Aramco has committed itself to more than just funding these educational programs. It has also established a support system that monitors and encourages the employees it sponsors for out-of-kingdom training. The career development department in Dhahran works closely with its counterpart in Houston, which provides company advisors to meet with the students on campus, consult with their academic advisors at the schools and, in general, try to prevent problems before they arise. Yet strong as this support system is, the employees' success depends in the end on their own commitment and their realization that, to succeed at Saudi Aramco today, they must prove themselves not only in the work place but also at some of the best schools in North America. Like so many others, these six young professionals have done just that.
Now in his fifth year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Omar Abdul-Hamid is well into his Ph.D. thesis for a degree in materials engineering. Like many engineers, he entered the field because "I get a kick out of understanding a problem and coming up with a solution." In his projected role with Saudi Aramco's consulting services department, he should have ample opportunity to do that.
Along with other young technologists who have a gift for getting to the heart of the problem, Abdul-Hamid has been selected to participate in the company's Specialist Development Program. In most companies, specialists evolve through years of experience in their fields. Saudi Aramco is speeding up this evolution by choosing training assignments that will expose the SDP candidate to all facets of the specialty and condense the learning process. At each stage, the candidate's progress is followed by a mentor, a technologist who is already an expert in that field.
Not all participants in the specialist program go on to advanced degrees, but, as Abdul-Hamid explains, in materials engineering "you have to understand the theory before you can begin to solve the problems." It was with this in mind that Saudi Aramco opted to sponsor Abdul-Hamid for a doctorate at MIT.
The topic he has selected for his thesis is the diffusion of hydrogen into titanium and its alloys - central to the problem of corrosion, because the metal loses its mechanical properties when this diffusion takes place.
Corrosion, Abdul-Hamid explains, occurs when an electrolyte such as water comes into contact with a metal and generates hydrogen. Because hydrogen atoms are small, they are quickly absorbed into the surface of a material and, from there, diffuse deeper into it through the spaces between the atoms. Within the metal, it reacts with the available atoms, changing the metal's mechanical properties - in the case of steel, making it brittle.
How fast the hydrogen diffuses depends on the arrangement of the metal's atoms. "For example, in one arrangement, diffusion of hydrogen could be very fast," Abdul-Hamid says. "In another arrangement of the atoms, diffusion might be slower. I want to look at the dynamics of the diffusion of hydrogen in specific arrangements of titanium atoms."
To do this, Abdul-Hamid has developed his own experiments, in which he first diffuses hydrogen through titanium foils, then monitors the extent of the diffusion. Before running his experiments, however, he must first create dozens of samples of two types of foils, one type in which the atoms are in what he terms a hexagonal close-packed arrangement, and a second whose atoms are in a body-centered cubic arrangement. In each case, the desired atomic arrangement is created by heat-treatment and alloying of the foils. Abdul-Hamid also treats the surface of the foils by applying hydrofluoric acid to destroy the oxide that normally coats titanium and acts as a barrier to hydrogen absorption and diffusion. He replaces the oxide with palladium, which serves as "window" for his experiments.
Though Abdul-Hamid cannot be certain what the practical applications of his research may be, he does know that he is gaining the understanding of materials science that he will need when he returns to Saudi Aramco and what he calls "the Aramco family."
In the words of his advisor, Professor Ronald Latanision, Omar Abdul-Hamid has also become "one of the family" at MIT. "I think of Omar as an ambassador for his country, not diplomatically - though he's certainly that too - but technologically," says Latanision. "He has the ability to do whatever he wants to do."
Ramzi Abu Khadra, now completing his graduate work in chemical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, sees an engineer as "someone who takes a practical problem and finds a practical solution."
This is the type of straightforward approach he used to solve problems for Saudi Aramco's process and control systems department, and it is the same approach he is using in his research work at the university, where he may have found the answer to a particularly vexing problem: the need for an inexpensive and efficient means of purifying industrial wastewater.
As Abu Khadra explains, most industrial plants use activated carbon to remove organic toxins from wastewater. But because activated carbon is indiscriminate in the toxins it removes, it can quickly become exhausted; once exhausted, it is expensive to regenerate.
Thus, scientists have long been looking for a simpler, cheaper and more specific method that targets such highly poisonous organic compounds as benzene, which can be tolerated only in very small amounts. As Dr. Robert Schechter, one of Abu Khadra's two advisors, points out, "If the toxin is benzene, which is the one Ramzi has been working with, it should be limited to parts per million or parts per billion."
This is a matter of some importance to the state of Texas, which granted the university more than $300,000 to research the problem. But it wasn't until Abu Khadra's other advisor, Dr. William Koros, suggested trying polymers to remove organic toxins that he really became interested.
For one thing, Abu Khadra says, it was an original research program, and for another, he thought that, somehow, he eould actually make the process work.
It wasn't easy. "Research goes on for months," Abu Khadra explains. "You go into the lab every day. You work all day. After two months, you ask yourself, what have I accomplished? The answer is, nothing. You haven't done anything."
But after a year of 10-hour days and seven-day weeks, Abu Khadra did accomplish something - more than even he had thought he would. Starting with commercially purchased polymers, he went on to work with polymers he created himself, tailoring their molecular structure to suit that of the benzene so precisely that the polymer molecules would actually attract and absorb the molecules of the organic toxin. As the solid polymers absorbed the liquid toxins, they expanded so much that they could be extracted from the water by a simple porcelain filter.
The simplicity of the system was one advantage, but there were others. While carbon must be heated to 700 degrees Celsius (1300°F) before the toxins can be released - an extremely expensive process - polymers will release them at a mere 100 degrees Celsius (212°F). This means that, with the polymeric method, the toxins can easily be burned off at the user plant and the polymers reintroduced into the system and reused continuously. Activated carbon relies on batch methods, in which the industrial process is shut down every time the carbon trays are removed for regeneration - and that regeneration normally takes place outside the user plant.
That is not to say that Abu Khadra's process is a proven success: It isn't. In fact, says Schechter, it could take three more years to fully develop it and prove whether it is applicable to organic toxins other than benzene. "What we have is the idea, and some results that show that the idea works. To make it work on a full industrial scale requires other steps that we're looking at."
Nevertheless, both Schechter and Koros are highly impressed with what Abu Khadra has accomplished so far. "He's a very innovative guy," says Koros. "If there's a problem that's not going to get out of his way, then he just puts it out of the way. He puts his whole enthusiasm into whatever he's focusing on. What he did, essentially, is to take a concept and transfer it to practice. And that's very impressive."
Abu Khadra is pleased with the recognition he's received at the university. Even more rewarding, however, is his own sense of accomplishment. "I was lucky," he says: Lucky to have had the chance "to do some original research," and luckier still "to get somewhere with it."
Nabil Akbar, who is working toward his doctorate in geophysics at Stanford University, originally planned to be a physicist. He holds a bachelor's degree in that subject from Riyadh University (now King Sa'ud University), as well as a master's from Northeastern University in Boston. But when Akbar joined a program established by Saudi Aramco's exploration organization to train geophysicists, he developed his interest in geology, and found the chance to channel his expertise into a more practical vein.
"Physics is more theoretical," he says. Geophysics, on the other hand, "is practical. You can apply it. And you can see results."
In great need of geophysicists - Saudi Aramco employs between 80 and 90 of them, almost all trained in North America - the company designed the program to take young Saudi physicists, geologists, mathematicians, computer scientists and electrical engineers and supplement their training as extensively as necessary to qualify them as geophysicists.
"A geologist might have a deficiency in physics and mathematics, a mathematician might have a deficiency in physics and geology, and so on," explains Dr. Ahmed Fouda, a geophysical specialist, now retired, who developed the program for Saudi Aramco. "First, the candidate would take the courses in which he has a deficiency, which might take a year, and then go on for the required courses in geophysics."
At the moment, Fouda adds, students sponsored by Saudi Aramco Exploration are enrolled at some of the top schools in the United States, including Stanford, MIT, and the University of Southern California. Most complete their studies with a bachelor's degree, some go on for a master's, and a select few - those who have the ability and interest to carry out cutting-edge research - go on to a Ph.D. and a career in exploration research and development.
Almost from the outset, it was clear that Akbar would fit into this latter category. A top student in both his course work and his qualifying exams, he proposed a research topic for his doctoral thesis that, says advisor Dr. Jack Dvorkin, "is a very important topic in geophysics: trying to predict the properties of oil- or gas-bearing reservoirs from remote measurements."
Though the concept might seem complex, both Dvorkin and Akbar insist that, like all good mathematical models, it is really quite simple. As Dvorkin explains, a principal function of geophysics is "to listen to rocks, how they respond to sound signals that we send from the surface and from inside the well bores. We send a sound signal and then we record the reflected signal. If the signal has traveled with a certain velocity, what can you say about the rock? Especially, what is its permeability? That's one of the most important properties, because permeability determines how easily we can extract oil or gas from the reservoir."
To predict permeability, Akbar is building theoretical models by what he calls forward modeling. Using computers, "we calculate what the attenuation and velocity of sound will be in the model. Then," says Akbar, "we compare the result of the model with the real data." The next step, he explains, will be backward modeling, which "is just the inverse. If we know the attenuation and velocity, what is the permeability of the rock?"
To date, the correlation between real data and projected data has been so exact that both Dvorkin and Akbar are convinced they are on the right track. If so, their models could greatly enhance oil recovery, in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, by giving petroleum engineers a much better indication where they should inject gas or water into an oil field to force up the oil.
But Akbar's work won't be completed when he receives his doctorate. Indeed, chances are that Akbar will continue with this, and similar, work throughout his career - which he cannot imagine anyplace but Saudi Aramco. "I love working for Saudi Aramco," he says, citing the state-of-the art equipment and the attention paid to good organization. "It is a very productive atmosphere."
In Dvorkin's view, Akbar's future is unlimited. "He's a bright guy. He can compete with anyone." Even more important, says Dvorkin, Akbar has the enthusiasm to carry him through the 24-hour days and seven-day weeks needed to work out any project. "It's as important as having good brains," says Dvorkin. "And people like that... well, they make a difference."
Nowhere do such people make a greater difference than in the field of medicine, and since Saudi Aramco runs one of the few health centers outside the United States to meet the standards of the US Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals, the company also sponsors advanced training for the best of its physician-employees.
The Dhahran Health Center "compares well with a large US community hospital," says Dr. Mark Speckhard, director of Medical Clinical Services, "in standards, procedures, peer review, tissue committee - right on down the line."
To continue "this high level of care on into the next generation," Saudi Aramco's 10-year-old medical residency program includes the proviso that all candidates be trained to US and Canadian board levels.
Like their counterparts in geophysics and engineering, Saudi Aramco physicians attend the best schools in North America, including Harvard, Georgetown, Tulane, Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Miami, Dalhousie, British Columbia, McGill, Toronto, Baylor and George Washington.
There is a difference, however, between graduate training for scientists and specialty training for physicians. While geophysicists and engineers concentrate on research projects, physicians learn their skills as integral members of a medical team. Beginning as interns, they gradually advance through the system, taking on more responsibilities each year, until, in cases of marked ability, they reach the position of chief resident, themselves responsible for a team of residents, interns and usually one or two medical students as well.
Dr. Ali Alaud-din is one of three chief residents at McGill University in Montreal; he works with seven or eight other residents who, like himself, specialize in surgery.
"I've always liked surgery," he says, partly because of "the excitement of operating." More important is the latitude he has, as a surgeon, to help the patient. "We're just like any other internists in taking care of the patient," he says. "But in addition, if they need surgery, we are capable of taking them to the operating room and solving the problem."
Normally, Alaud-din begins his problem-solving early. The day usually starts at 6:30, when he and his team "do rounds" - visit and discuss their patients, about 40 in all. At eight a.m. surgery begins, with five to six cases scheduled each day. In between operations, Alaud-din either goes up to the floor to see patients who are worrying him or down to the emergency room, if a trauma case has come in.
"If you're on call and there's a big trauma, whether you're operating, whatever you're doing, you have to get out of there to the emergency room and take care of it," he says.
Scheduled and emergency surgery and morning and evening rounds do not make up Alaud-din's whole day, however. There are also grand rounds, as well as x-ray and oncology rounds. There are clinics, too, when Alaud-din sees outpatients who may have to come in for surgery. And, of course, there are his on-call duties: As chief resident, Alaud-din is on call for his patients 24 hours a day, every day - as well as every other night for the emergency room. "Any week could be an easy week, or a devastating week, with no sleep and you're dragging your feet." Either way, he says, it is the work itself that keeps him going.
During his five years of training, Dr. Alaud-din has rotated through pediatric, cardiac, thoracic, neuro-, vascular, urologic and orthopedic surgery, as well as through such subspecialties as cardiac and plastic surgery. As a general surgeon he will be responsible "for most of the head and neck surgery, the thyroids, hernias, gall bladders, stomachs, esophagi, tumors of the colon, things like that."
Dr. Andy Hreno, director of surgical residency training at McGill, has a special regard for Alaud-din. "He's become an excellent clinical surgeon. He has good judgment; he's very skillful; he's a caring surgeon, which is very important. I think he's a marvelous person, and I'd be very interested in following his career. I think he's going to make a real name for himself."
Though Alaud-din is not sure what the future will bring, he does look forward to his return to Saudi Arabia, where he will have more time to spend with his wife and their three young daughters, without losing access to the equipment and facilities he needs to do the life-saving work he has been trained to do.
Dr. Hissah al-Moammar, who is completing her residency in pediatrics at Harvard, also looks forward to returning to Saudi Arabia and spending more time with her husband and their four children. She would also like to publish Mother Care, a book about pregnancy, delivery and the first two years of life that she has prepared for Saudi mothers. "It's a longtime project, but it's all waiting in stacks now," she says, ready to be shipped to Saudi Arabia and printed in Arabic.
It's hard to imagine how al-Moammar found the time to write a book. Like the other residents, she works 10-hour days and is on call every fourth night - though that's better than one night in three, her duty when she began. Most of the time she works at Massachusetts General Hospital, where she sees patients "that other doctors have referred to us." She works the different divisions in rotation: emergency room, wards, intensive care, neonatal, pediatric intensive care and pediatric surgery.
Al-Moammar also spends a month on each of the body systems - the heart, the gastrointestinal tract and, most recently, the kidney, "dealing with patients who are about to have a transplant, or have had a transplant."
As part of her program, she rotates through other hospitals of the Boston metropolitan area as well: Mount Auburn, where she does normal pediatric work; inner-city Cambridge Hospital; Brigham and Women's, where she works in neonatal intensive care and in the delivery room; and Boston City Hospital, where she sees patients with blood diseases, including AIDS. She spent much of her second residency year in emergency transport, bringing critically ill patients to "Mass General" by ambulance or air ambulance. Al-Moammar agrees that her training has been difficult, but she does not feel that being a woman has made it any more difficult. "For me," she says, "it's part of life, part of working. They say you have to do better if you're a woman, but I haven't felt that. I didn't feel it in Arabia and I don't feel it here." Her training has been hard, she says, but "it's hard for everyone."
Harvard International Program administrator Patrick Bauer says, "I think the best word to describe Hissah is 'determined.' She was determined to complete specialty training in pediatrics, and to do it well. And she has."
Dr. Rifat Abdi is the first Saudi Aramco physician to be accepted for residency training at the University of Iowa, one of the top US schools in the very competitive field of radiology. It is also a field that today comprises many more "radiologic modalities" than just x-rays. As Abdi points out, "it includes computed tomography scanning, magnetic resonance imaging, ultrasound, interventional radiology - basically angiography - and plain radiographics."
The radiologist must not only know how to read the films from all these modalities, but how to make a diagnosis from the films and pass that diagnosis on to the patient's physician.
"To be a good radiologist, you have to be a hard worker," says Dr. Yutako Sato, director of Iowa's residency program in diagnostic radiology. "You can't just learn radiology from the book. You have to read the films. That's the only way."
And learning to read the films takes time. For radiology residents at the University of Iowa, the day goes non-stop from about 7:30 in the morning to 5:00 in the afternoon. In addition to interpreting the films - literally dozens a day, thousands a month - there are the conferences. At least two or three times a day, the radiology staff and residents, 27 in all, are presented with cases to discuss. Normally one resident is asked to interpret a case in front of his or her colleagues. To come up with the correct diagnosis, the resident must have not only an understanding of radiologic techniques, but also a thorough grounding in most other areas of medicine.
"You have to know a little bit about everything," says Abdi, who, to build on his experience, rotates each year through orthopedic radiology, chest radiology, genito-urinary radiology and all the other forms of diagnostic radiology. A six-month rotation in general radiology at the nearby Veterans Administration Medical Center is also part of the program, as is a six-week course at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C. An additional three months of the four-year program are set aside for research.
In all these rotations, radiology residents are required not only to fix on a diagnosis, but to interpret it and present it in a document for the clinician. "You have to be a good communicator," says Sato, "because the information has to be conveyed to your clinical colleagues. Unless you have a command of communication, the information will not help the patient. Rifat is very expert in that area, and I think that helps him a lot."
Abdi has great respect for his specialty, as well as for the radiologic facilities at the University of Iowa, which seems to "acquire the technology as it comes off the production lines." But while he is enjoying his training, Abdi too looks forward to the time when he can rejoin his family and friends in Saudi Arabia, and perhaps establish his own family. Nonetheless, he knows the pressures of radiology will not stop then, nor does he want them to.
As Dr. Tawfiq al-Daiel, a Saudi gastroenterologist who was one of the first physicians to complete the medical residency program, remarked, "Medicine is a field where you have to keep thinking and solving problems. What matters," he continued, "is how much you help and care for the patient. A hospital is more than its equipment: It's also its people. And Saudi Aramco has some very good people."
Al-Daiel's words could be echoed throughout the company: In geophysics, in engineering, as in medicine, Saudi Aramco does have good people. Dedicated, well-educated, ambitious, they are on the fast track - and they need to be. As former executive vice president Nassir Ajmi pointed out in a recent speech, "God willing, these are the people who will lead Saudi Aramco into the 21st century."
]ane Waldron Grutz lived in Saudi Arabia for 17 years, where she wrote for and edited The Arabian Sun. She now free-lances in Houston.