The vice chancellor of one of the UAE's leading universities said the Covid-19 pandemic brought to light the crucial research work of academic institutes across the world.
Dr Mariet Westermann started her role at New York University Abu Dhabi in August, 2019, little knowing how significant the year to come would be.
As the virus swept from country to country, and the death toll rose week by week, universities came to the fore to help shape the solutions to an unprecedented global health crisis.
Dr Westermann said NYUAD itself played its part in devising ways to combat Covid-19.
In November 2020, researchers at the university developed a test that could detect the coronavirus in asymptomatic patients and those in the early stages of infection.
Coronavirus in the UAE:
“The year 2020, will go down as one of the great victories for university research," she said.
“I know this is hard to imagine. When you see that the world developed these vaccines so quickly, that was partly because the pharmaceutical companies stepped in.
"But all of those technologies for developing vaccines had first been developed out of university research that took decades before they ever knew it was going to be used for Covid-19.
“In our own university, we pivoted immediately, our researchers initiated unique projects to tackle the pandemic, contribute to beating it, and better understanding its impact.”
University flourishes despite pandemic
The pandemic threw up stern challenges alongside research opportunities, with university heads concerned about the impact of travel bans on international recruitments.
But, last year, 490 students from 82 countries enrolled at NYUAD, up from 429 students in 2019 and 380 students in 2018.
The university has sought to ensure it is accessible to all by offering merit-based support to students.
In July, New York University Abu Dhabi awarded 10 grants for research with the potential to mitigate the effect of Covid-19.
The Covid-19 Facilitator Research Grants were awarded to faculty in the disciplines of engineering, science and social sciences.
Two grants were awarded in biomedical engineering.
Dr Westermann said the impact of the pandemic would be long-lasting.
“We need to understand what has social distancing for so long, being out of school for so long, done for so many children?” she said.
Dr Westermann said a professor at NYUAD had worked with peers across the world to study the pandemic's psychological and social impacts.
A robotics professor at the university developed a grocery delivery drone for packages of about 10 kilograms for people who were in quarantine.
“We had researchers design prototypes, and fabricate reusable masks, a useful thing because there's a lot of environmental waste around masks," she said.
Dr Westermann said another area that concerned her was recruiting students during a pandemic.
"I was worried about what the effect of the pandemic would be on our recruitment of students around the world, as our students come from more than 115 countries," she said.
“But, our success was phenomenal.
“This was the largest class we have ever admitted. So that was a great success.”
About 20 per cent of the students in the 2020 cohort were Emirati.
Dr Westermann said the only difference last year was that not as many students were able to visit the campus.
She said one of the biggest challenges faced by universities during the past year was continuity of academics and research.
“This pandemic has been incredibly challenging for most universities, because we have so many wonderful young people who need to be together and work with their professors to develop research," she said.
A need to harness home-grown talent
Dr Westermann said universities in the UAE needed to focus on encouraging Emiratis to pursue PhDs in the country or abroad.
Having home-grown talent would mean universities in the Emirates would not have to rely on an influx of international professors.
“It would be wonderful if in the future, there will be more Emirati professors in front of the classroom, and also more Emiratis conducting research in the leading labs in the UAE," she said.
She gave the example, of the UAE's Mars mission in which many Emiratis were involved.
Dr Westermann said universities could build on these opportunities to encourage more Emiratis to seek doctorates and engage in advanced research and teaching careers.