Ghorbel receives prestigious Schlumberger position

Visiting Chair in Paris includes appointments at elite French universities

Rice News staff

Call it what you will — fate, divine intervention or just plain good luck — but Fathi Ghorbel couldn’t help but think he’d hit the jackpot when he read the job description for Schlumberger Paris’ Visiting Chair in Mechatronics and Robotics.

The company, the world’s largest oilfield services firm, was looking for an academic scholar to spearhead a drive to establish its Paris R&D facility as a center of excellence for robotics research. Everything Ghorbel had done — his research and teaching experience, his prior support from Schlumberger, his industrial experience, his fluent French — seemed tailor-made for the job.

Fathi Ghorbel

Fathi Ghorbel

It’s a testament to Rice that Ghorbel, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and bioengineering,  didn’t apply right away and almost passed up the opportunity altogether.

“I have things here that I don’t want to miss, and a year is a long time to be away,” Ghorbel said.

Upon the advice of his family, he did apply, and Schlumberger last month honored him as the first recipient of the new chair. Ghorbel begins a one-year stint in Paris in July. He said one of the most attractive things about the Schlumberger position is that it’s like no other job he’s seen.

“They are doing something very innovative,” Ghorbel said. “It’s not been tried before, not just at Schlumberger but anywhere in the world, and part of my job is to shape this position and establish what’s expected of anyone who holds the chair in the future.”

One unique factor is that the visiting chair is with a company rather than an academic institution. Though industry based, it also involves joint appointments at five of France’s “Grandes Écoles,” small, highly select schools that are the most prestigious in France. As holder of the Schlumberger visting chair, Ghorbel will enjoy joint appointments at École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, École Centrale Paris, École Polytechnique, Ecole Supérieur d’Electricité and École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers.

One of Ghorbel’s boundary-breaking plans for the chair involves teaching. Since Ghorbel won’t have time to both conduct research and teach at all five academic institutions, he’ll teach a joint course at Schlumberger’s facility, which will be attended by students from the member schools.

“As I discussed course possibilities, the thing that excited everyone the most was Rice’s senior design course,” Ghorbel said. “It’s a capstone design course that all engineering seniors take at Rice, and I discovered a deeper appreciation for the value of the experience as I discussed it in Paris.”

Ghorbel is arranging to teach the course in Paris in conjunction with the course that’ll be taught here at Rice. He’s arranging to use Rice’s multimedia classrooms and new network to stream lectures live — both from Rice to Paris and from Paris to Rice — throughout the fall semester. Ultimately, he hopes to allow students from both sides of the Atlantic to work together, perhaps even on the same design team.

“For industry, this is an extremely valuable experience for students,” Ghorbel said. “In multinational engineering firms it is not uncommon for projects to be worked on 24 hours a day by teams in different parts of the world, and the opportunity to experience that firsthand is rare for undergraduates.”

Ghorbel said his research at Schlumberger will focus on the use of mechatronics and robotics in the oil and gas industry. The work will expand on some of the work underway at Ghorbel’s Robotics and Intelligent Systems Lab, where he and his students are designing robotic inspection systems and advanced robotic sensors.

Ghorbel said another aspect of the Schlumberger chair involves visiting the company’s R&D facilities around the world, including centers in Sugar Land and in Japan, to promote and discuss the use of robotics in oil and gas exploration.

In addition to the travel, teaching and research commitments for Schlumberger, Ghorbel is committed to returning to Houston every few weeks throughout the year to ensure that research progresses in his lab. For example, Ghorbel last year began researching the mechanics, dynamics and control issues related to nanomanipulation. The goal of the research is to develop tools and machines that can grab, move and manipulate matter at the molecular scale precisely and repeatedly.

“This work is extremely interesting,” Ghorbel said. “We’ve made great progress in a short time, and I want to make sure that continues.”

About Jade Boyd

Jade Boyd is science editor and associate director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.