CAIRO—Ehab Abdel-Rahman, the academic provost of the American University in Cairo, likes to use numbers in any discussion of the university or higher education as a way to explain his point of view. This trait is the result of his career in physics.
“Studying physics allowed me to find more than one solution to a problem, whether it is related to research or administrative work,” he said. He believes he can investigate problems from a variety of perspectives and examine the different dimensions of problems which helps him to find innovative solutions. He spoke from his office in the university’s new campus at the Fifth Settlement Compound, east of Cairo. “Studying physics gives you great flexibility in life choices,” he added.
Thanks to his interest in developing the teaching of physics, the American University in Cairo will begin in the next semester to teach physics in newly designed classrooms that will allow students to perform practical experiments in the same place that they listen to lectures.
Cameras installed on each student’s laboratory bench will make it possible for any student’s work to be projected on a screen so the rest of the class can see it, said Abdel-Rahman.
Abdel-Rahman has long been interested in improving teaching. In 2007, he developed new ways to change the misconception that science is difficult to understand, by showing Egyptian secondary school students concrete presentations and involving them in practical experiments to explain the laws of motion, pressure, sound, light, electricity and magnetic force.
He and his colleagues helped to create a place where local students could come to the university. “These experiments were carried out in the AUC’s Physics Fun Lab in an effort to display the wonders of science in an innovative way by mixing science with fun and as a way of motivating students’ curiosity to understand scientific experiments,” he said.
As a researcher, Abdel-Rahman is interested in energy. For more than two years, he has been working on new materials for storing hydrogen in fuel cells, to be used either directly or when mixed with natural gas.
“Hydrogen in gas or liquid form requires very large tanks if it is not compressed, or very strong tanks that could withstand its high pressure,” he said. “So my research is focused mainly on how to store it as a solid. It would also be safer if stored in a solid form.”
Abdel-Rahman believes that energy is the basis of development. “Energy is the primary resource for economic development,” he said. “Sustainable energy extracted from renewable resources is especially important, and Egypt is rich in renewable energy sources.”
Abdul-Majid Esawi, a professor at Cairo University’s Faculty of Engineering and a member of a research team that includes Abdel-Rahman, enjoys working with him. “Dr. Abdel-Rahman is an innovative person who always tries to think out of the box and find solutions that are easy to implement,” he said. “This makes working with him easy and enjoyable.”
“Dr. Ehab always presents innovative solutions to the problems facing our research; solutions that take into account the economic situation and many other dimensions,” he said, “They are innovative solutions and easy to implement, making it easier for us as a research team to work with them.”
After getting a Ph.D. from the University of Utah, in the United States, Abdel-Rahman began working as an assistant professor at the American University in Cairo’s physics department in 2006. He also worked at Helwan University, a public institution, before resigning in 2010. He chose to work at the American University where he received more support to pursue his research.
“After getting my Ph.D. degree and coming back to Egypt, I had great ambitions in the field of research,” he said. “But the work at public universities is so bureaucratic that I thought I had made a mistake coming back from the United States.”
Despite receiving an offer to work at a U.S. university, he preferred to work at the American University in Cairo. “I wanted to combine working in a suitable environment with the possibility to stay in my country,” he said. “I am proud to work at this university, which plays a major role in bringing Egyptian researchers back home.”
Abdel-Rahman was the head of the physics department at the university. Then, in 2011 he was appointed as associate dean of research and graduate studies at the Faculty of Science and Engineering and also as director of the Yousef Jameel Science and Technology Research Center, an AUC institution that promotes interdisciplinary research in a variety of fields. Two years later, Abdel-Rahman served as the academic co-chair of research, and was appointed academic provost a year ago.
“I am working with the university team to continue improving the quality of education. Regardless of what we have already achieved, we are always working to improve our potential,” he said.”We are developing management and student experience, and promoting creativity in the curriculum and scholarships.”
Abdel-Rahman is also working to expand the number of joint programs with foreign universities in order to attract more foreign academics to work at AUC, especially since many of them departed in light of the unstable politics in Egypt. Foreign academics make up about 48 percent of faculty members at the university. In an effort to increase diversity in teaching AUC students, Abdel-Rahman wants to increase that number. “Our goal is to increase the number of foreigners to 55 percent,” he said.
Abdel-Rahman is still in regular contact with the public university he used to work at. He is a member of the institution’s board of trustees and supervises some students’ doctoral theses.
He has seen the advantages of both public and private universities. “I think public university students have a greater interest in science,” he said. But, he added, they are not always able to reach their full potential because of the university’s physical capacity. Due to the large number of students at public universities—135,000 students are enrolled at Helwan University—it’s difficult for students to get access to practical lectures and laboratories.
To counter the problem of the growing number of students at public universities, Abdel-Rahman suggests dividing public universities into smaller ones, even if they need to be converted into specialized institutions. “The number of students at Cairo University’s faculty of engineering exceeds the total number of our university’s students in all our branches,” he said. “A solution must be found to ensure that students are getting high-quality education.”
Recently, Abdel-Rahman opened the American University’s laboratories for some students and academics at public universities to help them conduct their research.
“These students, who may not have the financial means to do their important research should be supported,” he said.
Besides his teaching and administrative work, Abdel-Rahman continues to pursue his own research. He works on the team that includes Esawi, the professor from Cairo University’s faculty of engineering, and five new graduates from public universities working as assistant researchers. The team is developing a “heat engine” that converts solar energy into electricity to achieve the production of the maximum amount of electricity while the minimum amount of heat. Egypt needs cheaper electrical power: Since 2014, the country has been experiencing energy shortages, reflected in ongoing power cuts. Ninety-five percent of Egypt’s electricity comes from petroleum.
Magdy el-Hagary, head of the physics department at Helwan University’s Faculty of Science and Abdel-Rahman’s study colleague, admires Abdel-Rahman’s creative personality.
“What Abdel-Rahman has achieved is a natural result of his sincere and diligent work,” he said, “Because he is ambitious, I think there is still much that he can do in energy research.”