Michael Berumen is a professor of marine science and the acting director of the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC). As a coral reef biologist, he is interested in all facets of ecology. Berumen's particular research interests focus on larval connectivity and dispersal of reef fishes, movement ecology of reef organisms, and the biodiversity and evolutionary biology of Red Sea fauna. He has also authored more than 200 journal articles and is co-editor of two books. In addition to his work in the Red Sea, he is a regular participant in global coral reef research expeditions in French Polynesia, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, among others.
Before joining KAUST in 2009, Berumen obtained his B.S. (summa cum laude) in zoology at the University of Arkansas, U.S., and earned his doctoral degree in marine biology from James Cook University, Australia. It was during his time working as a postdoctoral fellow at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) that he first became aware of KAUST and its research thrusts in marine science. It was in late 2008, when KAUST started to take shape, that Berumen had his first interactions with the newly-conceived university.
"I had been working at WHOI as a postdoc when the idea for KAUST was announced. At the time, KAUST created global partnerships with institutions that would be good partners for areas of work in which KAUST planned to specialize. WHOI was the partner selected for marine science."
"Initially, I was excited to have the chance to explore coral reefs in the region. It was an exciting period because there was so little published information available about Red Sea reefs, and we really felt like we were exploring uncharted areas," Berumen added.
Outside of his busy workload as acting director of the RSRC, Berumen is also the principal investigator for the KAUST Reef Ecology Lab—a group dedicated to addressing numerous aspects of coral reef ecology.
"We are interested in biodiversity, and why certain species occur in certain places. We can also ask exciting questions about why so many Red Sea species are not found anywhere else in the world. Why have they evolved here and how have they adapted specifically to the Red Sea conditions?" Berumen sees a connection between these questions and his other interests in the movements of animals. "These are questions about movement at an evolutionary scale."
As acting director of the RSRC, Berumen hopes that the center continues to excel in many aspects of marine science. He sees particular promise in the fields of evolutionary biology and coral reef research. The latter plays an important role in helping the kingdom expand its vision of eco-tourism in the region.
"Saudi Arabia is in the middle of a major transformation with huge plans to build its profile for tourism, with a particular emphasis on ecotourism. I think this is a natural direction for the Kingdom because there are large numbers of people around the world who would love to come to see the reefs of the Red Sea. With an increase in tourism, you must have a basis from which to manage the resource correctly. The RSRC is well-positioned to provide the scientific basis for these decisions."
Berumen is enthusiastic about the future of the RSRC and believes that it is an exciting time for research in Saudi Arabia—thanks, in part, to the scale and ambition of the developments and changes that are ongoing in the kingdom.
"I think our center is equipped to help with many questions that the kingdom will have about how to make progress and development while simultaneously protecting the very thing that could help attract people – the Red Sea is one of Saudi Arabia's most valuable natural resources. It's an exciting time for the kingdom to take renewed interest in our work and to openly engage with us. That, to me, feels like we're making a difference," Berumen concluded.