Distinguished Professor, Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology
Prof. Carlos Duarte is a prominent leader in many branches of biological oceanography and marine ecology. From his early research days in Spain, Duarte has established himself as one of the leading global authorities on the ecology of seagrass meadows and coastal ecosystems.
Throughout his multifaceted research career, Duarte has participated in research expeditions all over the world from the tropics to both poles studying ecological systems, biogeochemical cycles, coastal systems, macrophytes, microbes, seagrasses and open ocean gyres. Duarte, who is the current Tarek Ahmed Juffali Research Chair in Red Sea Ecology, has also served as the Director of the KAUST Red Sea Research Center (RSRC).
Presently his research within the RSRC focuses on the pressing global marine science problems of our time. He also lends his expertise to many of the Kingdom's upcoming mega projects that revolve around the Red Sea and Vision 2030, including The Red Sea Project and NEOM.
"I am a marine ecologist broadly interested in understanding marine ecosystems and the decline that they have experienced from human pressures. I have been doing my work throughout the world, so I have been working from equatorial to polar ecosystems, from the surface ocean to the deep sea, and from microbes all the way to whales. My research was developed mostly in Spain, and Australia, where I was director of a research institute for five years.
"From Australia, I then moved to KAUST. The reason I moved to KAUST is that I felt KAUST provided the environment and the support to bring to fruition the key ideas that I thought I would like to develop to make a difference in our capacity to achieve a healthy ocean."
Duarte has found that KAUST has provided him with the best possible interdisciplinary-driven environment for the research he has been developing around the idea of bioinspiration, or, in other words, utilizing the problem-solving capacity of marine life to inspire new engineering designs.
"I would say half of my research in KAUST focuses on traditional marine ecology and problems of marine conservation and biogeochemistry, which is how marine ecosystems process carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, and what consequences does this have for problems like climate change?
"The other half of my research focuses on the bioinspiration research theme, where I bring problems to colleagues across KAUST, mostly in the engineering sections, with interesting solutions that marine organisms have developed to cope with multiple problems, and how this might provide new avenues to solve problems in engineering."
Duarte believes freedom to pursue his research without constraint at KAUST is one of the most liberating aspects of his time at the University.
"At KAUST, I am largely free of having to solve problems of administration or securing resources, so I use most of my working hours to work. I spend far less time at sea than I used to because the Red Sea is a very small sea, therefore, in about 19 days or two weeks you have already sailed it completely.
"I then use the time available to interact with colleagues. I have established collaborative research with 22 KAUST faculty thus far, across all divisions and four research centers, as well as KAUST Core Lab research scientists and KAUST-owned entities, such as the Beacon Development Company.
"Maybe now I spend no more than three to four weeks per year at sea and occasionally I go and do fieldwork and day trips. I then spend maybe two-thirds of my time discussing research with my students, postdocs and collaborators. The other third of my time I spend teaching and writing papers. However, the actual amount of work that I can fit into my working hours at KAUST is far more than I was able to do in any position before."
Duarte believes that the most critical developments in marine science moving forward will center around new devices, new approaches, and resources that he, and his RSRC colleagues, will be able to derive from the sea; both from molecules that marine animals have produced, and also through mechanical and photonic systems that marine organisms have developed.
"I am very hopeful that this bio-inspired research will come to provide groundbreaking solutions in different aspects of engineering, human health and even food systems. I am also allocating significant time to develop a proposal that as a society, by 2050, we can restore marine biodiversity to what it was before the industrial revolution, along with creating a business case to address this challenge.
"I think that is doable and I am coming up with a plan to achieve this. I am also looking at who the stakeholders should be to help achieve this outcome. My goal is that we arrive in 2050 with a healthy ocean that can support many generations of humans to come.
"If future marine science students open their eyes and are able to look and be curious to explore marine life more broadly, then they will find multiple opportunities to make very significant contributions to our understanding of the oceans and marine life. Rather than just focusing on the same subjects that thousands of students around the world target because that is what they have seen on TV, they should focus on the unseen ocean ecosystem, because it is so much more exciting!"
BBVA Foundation "Frontiers of Knowledge Award" in the area of Ecology and Conservation Biology (2020)