It is with great pleasure that we announce the appointments of Associate Professor Francesca Benzoni and Assistant Professor Froukje van der Zwan as associate directors for the Red Sea Research Center (RSRC), effective August 1, 2021.
Benzoni joined KAUST in December 2019 as associate professor of marine science in the RSRC and Biological and Environmental Science and Engineering Division. A leading authority in the biodiversity of reef corals, Benzoni’s research focuses on the evolution, diversity, ecology and biogeography of corals around the world, with emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region and seas around Arabia. Using a combination of morphological and molecular techniques, she has resolved complex taxonomic questions in many groups of corals and described more than 20 new species, including Red Sea endemics. She is particularly interested in learning from the Red Sea because the discoveries and lessons it holds impact national, regional and global scales. Looking forward, Francesca is excited to explore the Red Sea’s mesophotic zone, which sits between the shallow and deep marine environments, and also apply new technologies and approaches to develop greater understanding and enable sustainable management. Benzoni explained that this is especially important at a time of rapid coastal development and global climate change: “I am thoroughly excited for the opportunity to contribute to the inclusive approach that is being taken by the Red Sea Research Center to collaborate across all disciplines to find the tailored solutions that will preserve both the health of the Red Sea and its wealth of resources."
Van der Zwan joined KAUST in October 2019 as an assistant professor of earth science and engineering in the Physical Sciences and Engineering Division. She has a rich knowledge to share from her more than 10 years of experience investigating the deepest depths of the Red Sea, recently as the first woman to dive to the bottom of the Red Sea at 2000 meters depth with Caladan Oceanic. She has participated in and led six extended research cruises in the Red Sea on four different international ships, and she was part of a team that developed a new geological model for the Red Sea. Van der Zwan’s research focuses on geology and deep marine sciences, with specialization in underwater volcanoes. Through interdisciplinary collaboration, she aims to use a holistic approach to unravel geological processes and understand the volcanic and hydrothermal systems of the Red Sea. Van der Zwan described the Red Sea as a young ocean with fascinating geological processes, including a volcanically active mid-ocean ridge that is host to partially undiscovered deep habitats, such as brine pools and hydrothermal vents: “To understand the Red Sea as a whole, we need to work together to recognize opportunities for sustainable future development and the use of its natural resources, while becoming informed of potential geohazards, such as earthquakes and volcanic activity that could impact coastal communities.”
The appointment of two new associate directors from different divisions within the University demonstrates the commitment of the RSRC to forge a path of inclusivity and provide the scientific guidance that Saudi Arabia’s stakeholders need to understand how the Red Sea can sustainably support the Kingdom’s goals for growth and economic diversification.
“I am excited to further realize the opportunity for cross-disciplinary research that is foundational to KAUST. The appointment of Francesca and Froukje as associate directors for the RSRC is emblematic of this potential,” said Center Director Michael Berumen. “With their depth and breadth of knowledge and experience, I am sure that they will inspire researchers across campus to collectively investigate this fascinating environment, bringing together valuable diversity in ideas, methods and questions. We welcome the participation of all KAUST researchers who are keen to take advantage of KAUST’s largest and most unique ‘laboratory,’ which sits right in our backyard.”
“The depth of biological and physical knowledge of the Red Sea that Francesca and Froukje bring as associate directors and their strong interest in multidisciplinary approaches provides an excellent opportunity for the Red Sea Research Center to progress its development as a pan-KAUST Center. I look forward to watching the Center gain strength as it increasingly draws on the knowledge and expertise of faculty members from all areas of research at KAUST and the training and infrastructure support of the Core Labs,” said Vice President for Research Professor Donal Bradley.