The parents of Isabelle Schulz, a postdoctoral fellow in the University’s Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), traveled over 9,000 kilometers by car from Germany to Saudi Arabia to visit their daughter at KAUST. Photo courtesy of Isabelle Schulz.
Isabelle Schulz, a postdoctoral fellow in the University’s Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), and her parents Doris and Manfred Schulz. Doris and Manfred traveled by car from Germany to Saudi Arabia to visit Isabelle at KAUST. Photo by Lilit Hovhannisyan.
Thanks to her globetrotting family, KAUST postdoctoral fellow Isabelle Schulz’s earliest journey came at five months old, when her German parents Manfred and Doris moved from Switzerland to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Manfred worked as a salesman for the automation company Asea Brown Boveri, selling turbine engines to a multitude of clients across the region. Three years later, Isabelle, her two siblings and her parents moved again, this time to Algeria for her father’s work. Isabelle spent her formative years there, where she had the almost infinite sand dunes of the country as her backyard and playground. In Algeria, she also discovered her two passions: marine science and travel.
Many years later in the northwestern German town of Meerbusch, a newly graduated Isabelle began planning her next move after completing her Ph.D. in marine biology at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) in Bremerhaven, Germany. Her thoughts drifted back to her childhood in North Africa and her youth spent exploring the Middle East. Isabelle was keen to live abroad again, and thanks to a discussion with an AWI alumni friend, her newest adventure took shape.
“I first heard about KAUST from a former college friend in Germany who had started his Ph.D. here. I really wanted to get out and explore something different, so I contacted my friend and he encouraged me to get in touch with a researcher who was working in my field—that was Xabier Irigoien, the former director of the University’s Red Sea Research Center [RSRC],” Schulz said.
“It was Xabier who gave me the opportunity to join KAUST in 2014, and when he left, I started working for Professor Carlos Duarte and Professor Susana Agusti [in the RSRC] on various projects. I am very grateful to Xabier, Carlos and Susana for all these opportunities,” she added.
Returning to the Kingdom
In May 2017, Manfred and Doris sat down at their kitchen table in Meerbusch to plan their next trip abroad—this time a road trip to visit Isabelle at KAUST. What would seem a daunting trip to people half their age barely registered with the adventurous couple, who, in their 50 years of marriage, have already traveled through 90 countries—they’ve driven the Silk Road from Germany to China; driven the length of the Americas; traveled the length and breadth of Asia; and taken regular forays in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
“From when we first met, my wife and I were always abroad—we were used to the road from an early age,” Manfred noted.
Their latest trip to KAUST involved their trusted 12-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser and over 9,000 kilometers of open road through countries, continents, time zones, lowlands, highlands, sea and desert. Doris drove and Manfred navigated, just as they always have since they first met in Switzerland 50 years ago.
Their trip was roughly divided into two legs; the first leg would take them from Meerbusch to Passau, a German city on the Austrian border; into eastern Croatia via Slavonski Brod; and then through Serbia’s third largest city, Niš; before continuing south to Turkey. They traversed Turkey in four days from Edirne in the country’s northwest region through to its easternmost district, Doğubayazıt.
The second leg took them through the Middle East to Dubai and through the United Arab Emirates and onto Riyadh. In Riyadh, the Schulz couple pulled up in their Land Cruiser for a brief respite before driving the width of the vast expanse of the Arabian Peninsula to reach KAUST on April 11—a mere 21 days after they left their home in Germany. They drove the 963 kilometers from Riyadh to Jeddah in one day.
An inspirational journey
In preparation for her parents’ trip, Schulz asked the KAUST Government Affairs team to write a letter in Arabic outlining the journey on the off chance that they might encounter problems along the way. However, they met no problems—they found only kind, thoughtful and interested people.
“We came through Europe—Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Turkey—and then suddenly we were in the Gulf region and crossed the border into Saudi Arabia,” Manfred said. “We were almost the only people crossing the border, except for some Saudis crossing by car. There was a huge area for processing visitors and an area which was setup for Hajj pilgrims, but we were almost the only ones there—it was amazing.”
To navigate any potential misunderstandings with Saudi border officials, Manfred also had a trick up his sleeve—or in this case, his shirt pocket—his more than 30-year-old Saudi driver’s license.
“I showed them my old license and the guards laughed. They were so amused by it and were so happy that they could now understand my name in Arabic. Instantly we were offered tea, coffee and dates by the officials. The hospitality was unbelievable, and this hasn’t changed since our original time in the country,” he emphasized.
When questioned about their journey to KAUST and whether it was a daunting undertaking, Doris and Manfred shrugged their shoulders nonchalantly. The trip—however unique—was just another to add to their collection.
“No, it wasn’t daunting,” said Manfred. “It starts with an idea, and then going too much into details of planning doesn’t help you, because something doesn’t work and then you are lost. You need to be a little more flexible on the way and then it works quite well—but you need a rough idea of where to go.”
The dedicated marine biologist
Isabelle describes herself as someone who possesses a thorough knowledge of marine ecology, phytoplankton biology and mammalian biology, coupled with solid technical aptitude. As a marine biologist, the unparalleled access to the natural laboratory of the Red Sea along with the top-class research facilities were her main reasons for joining KAUST.
Along with her postdoctoral duties, she is also a lead on the RSRC “Dust” project. Isabelle and her colleagues investigate the response of Red Sea micro phytoplankton communities to dust inputs from the surrounding deserts by performing water incubation experiments. She is responsible for the overall management of this project and for organizing and leading a research cruise with the RV Thuwal along the Red Sea.
“I am also involved in a project assessing the biomass and viability of micro phytoplankton communities in the bathypelagic Red Sea. So far, we have conducted two research cruises to collect data using a newly developed oceanographic device,” she said.
At KAUST, Isabelle believes that she has become more independent in planning her research and in organizing her fieldwork. Moving forward, she sees her future role progressing more towards science management and the support of her academic peers.
“I figured out with Carlos [Duarte] that I’m good at organizing and good at supporting people. As a scientist, you have to be prepared to do a bit of everything,” she noted.”I know the language of science, so I don’t want to leave this field completely, but be more in the background and take different responsibilities. Back in Germany, I will do some further education and probably a master’s in science management.”
Isabelle’s parents have an additional 60 days left on their 110-day trip. From KAUST, they plan to tour Saudi Arabia and Oman before retracing their route back to Meerbusch. They leave KAUST as impressed as they were the first time they visited the University in 2015.
“KAUST is something unique—the University was created from scratch, from an idea. I feel it is an important stage in the world of science,” Doris said. “Of course with Isabelle, we are very proud that she has been here for nearly four years now.
“Let me put it this way, the development [of Saudi Arabia] is enormous,” Manfred extolled. “If you look to cities like Riyadh, Jeddah and the Dammam area—but the population did not change so much. The general population has remained the same—they’ve not lost their character.”
Isabelle believes that her time at KAUST molded her into an even stronger and more adaptable person.
“KAUST gave me a unique experience abroad, and I learned how to deal with a lot of different scenarios. Dealing with a range of tasks has made me into an even stronger and more flexible individual,” she emphasized.
For Isabelle, it feels as if her time in Saudi Arabia has been her way of continuing her family’s traditions.
“I am repeating the cycle—I’m repeating the story, going back to our roots, back to Saudi Arabia,” she said.