FACULTY IN FOCUS
Into the Deep: Unlocking the Evolution of Red Sea Corals.
Deep in the Red Sea, off the coast of NEOM, there is an ecosystem of coral, including species that until very recently had never been seen by human eyes. Among the first to see them was Professor Francesca Benzoni and a select few of her students. “It’s a weird, primordial kind of ‘yes!’” she says, with genuine excitement, “I don’t know how to explain it.” After a moment’s thought, she adds that there is “no better way for students to learn than to see a discovery unfold before their eyes.”
Benzoni is from Como, Italy, and her passion for marine science evolved from an interest in the natural world that began when she was just a child. Understanding nature - absorbing all the knowledge she could about its resources and its processes - was more than just curiosity. “This is what I was wired for,” she says, describing her childhood propensity for noticing patterns and figuring out how to group things. “I know it’s a stereotype,” Benzoni acknowledges, “a lot of people say, ‘I’ve been dreaming of doing this since I was a kid,’” but in her case, she assures cheerily, “it’s true.”
“Understanding the diversity and distribution of corals,” is the goal of Benzoni’s research. Corals, she explains, are “simple organisms that create geological features and aggregate biological diversity.” From the shallows, through the mesophotic (meaning ‘middle-light’) zone, to the very depths of the ocean, the reefs they build are a critical feature of the marine ecosystem. The Red Sea is home to a number of species not found anywhere else in the world, and Benzoni is here to discover how and why that happened by determining their place in the evolutionary process. Clearly excited by the challenge, she likens it to “reconstructing a puzzle of information through time and space.”
After she received her master’s degree from University of Insubria in Varese, Italy, Benzoni moved to France to get her Ph.D. at Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. She then returned to Italy to fill a postdoc position at University of Milano-Bicocca, before accepting a job as a research scientist in the South Pacific, with the French Institut de Recherche pour le Développement. The French territory of New Caledonia lies about 1,200km off the east coast of Australia and is known for the diversity of its marine life, so it was naturally a place where Benzoni could thrive.
It was at the International Conference on Coral Reefs in Cairns, Australia in 2012 that Benzoni first heard about KAUST and considered the compelling prospect of living and working by the Red Sea. “I had been waiting my whole life to dive in Saudi Arabia,” she shares, but she would wait six more years for the opportune moment. “Back then, the vision of the Kingdom was different,” she explains, “it was more about energy and food, which makes a lot of sense.”
As more coastal development continued along the shores of the Red Sea, however, Benzoni’s branch of fundamental research became more relevant to the Kingdom, so when she met some colleagues from KAUST at another conference in the Philippines in 2018, the timing felt perfect. Seeing “that the trajectory was one [she] wanted to be part of,” she applied for a position, and the very next year she began working at KAUST.
Being at sea with her students, postdocs and research scientists is Benzoni’s favorite part of her job. “That’s where it all begins,” she says. Her team is assembled with people from a multitude of cultural and scientific backgrounds, but the sea is what unites them; the sea is where they make discoveries. It also becomes a very challenging environment “as you go deeper,” she explains; “there is less information available, and processes for collecting data become much more technologically difficult, but the information we can glean from our discoveries becomes really valuable.” Benzoni accepts that facing these challenges is a crucial and often frustrating part of the learning process. However, she also knows the feeling of “bumping into that one thing that nobody has ever found before,” and because she’s had a taste of that feeling of discovery, it’s clear she’ll accept any challenge for even a small chance of feeling it again.