Carol Nathaly Buitrago López is a Ph.D. student in the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC) who describes herself as a biologist with a great interest in conservation-related studies. Originally from Bogotá, Colombia, Carol was gradually drawn to marine science and corals due to the increasing deterioration rate of coral reef ecosystems worldwide and a need to understand the dynamics and processes involved in the resilience of reef-building coral populations.
"I am a biologist, and later in my research career, I got interested in marine sciences, particularly in corals. After completing my undergraduate studies in Bogotá, I joined a master's program in Biology at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Brussels, Belgium. At VUB, I started to work with the population genomics of corals, and I really enjoyed it," Carol noted.
It was at VUB where Carol first became aware of KAUST, thanks to a colleague of hers who had been to KAUST on various research visits. After some research, she found and applied for a listed Ph.D. position at the RSRC. "I got an interview with Professor Christian Voolstra and discussed what the Ph.D. was going entail. After speaking with him, I felt that KAUST was a great opportunity for me to learn and develop as a researcher, and that is why I decided to join," she stated.
The current focal point of her research at the RSRC is investigating the adaptations of different coral species to particular environmental characteristics that can challenge the persistence of coral reefs in the face of the imminent climate change. As a member of the Reef Genomics Lab, Carol has been recently focusing on population genomics and assessing the genetic diversity of different corals spread across the north-south environmental gradients of the Red Sea.
Based on the results, Carol and her colleagues could then advise on which reefs should be protected, or used as breeding grounds for other global reefs that may be affected by depopulation or coral bleaching events.
"Additionally, my colleagues and I are aiming to provide a 'map of thermal resilience' of the corals within the Red Sea. I think our research is very important as it hasn't been done on a full scale before in this region. Preliminary analyses indicate that corals species respond differently to thermal stress depending on their life history traits as well as the environmental conditions they are exposed throughout their life. This response could be shaped by environmental differences at a much finer scale than previously thought," she said.
"I feel my research can be of benefit to Saudi Arabia because in the RSRC we are working to identify the areas that need to be protected in the Red Sea. With our research, we can help inform decisions regarding tourism in the Red Sea coastal region," Carol added. Further, she is optimistic about her work in the RSRC that may discover heat-resilient 'super corals' that could potentially be used to repopulate distressed coral reefs worldwide.
"I don't know if this is an overly romantic vision, but what excites me the most is to think that my work can contribute to saving corals," she concluded.