Saturday, February 26, 2011

Red Sea Expedition: Through Inspiration, Discovery

KAUST is a very unlikely place. A graduate-only science and technology institution with a very international population (faculty, staff, and students), KAUST also has stunning architecture, cutting-edge technology, and world-class research facilities. Situated on the banks of the Red Sea, KAUST is an ideal place to work: in the field in the morning, in the lab in the afternoon and evening, all surrounded with a lively community of students, postdocs, faculty, and visiting scholars.

KAUST placard and inside one of the lab buildings (Photos: R. Rotjan)

The KAUST motto is: "Through Inspiration, Discovery". So, it's my last day at KAUST, and I've certainly been inspired. The labs and facilities are well-equipped, the architecture is stunning. The Red Sea... well.... it speaks for itself.

The stunning Red Sea, and the stunning lab facilities (Photos: R. Rotjan)

Given all of this inspiration, what have we discovered? As you can probably tell from my guest bloggers (here, here and here) this trip, there are TONS of interesting questions to be asked, and much to discover. This is my second trip here, and on my first, Michael Berumen and I documented two new records of corallivory.

2010 "Reef Site" from last years trip to KAUST

On this trip, we've been examining the nutritional basis of corallivory; in other words, trying to find out why fish eat what they eat. Finding out what fish eat has been the subject of many research programs across the globe - the idea being that if we can understand who eats what (or who), we can understand food chains on coral reefs. However, figuring out why fish eat what they eat is a critical next step in understanding how food chains are structured, and understanding how reef organisms will change as reefs change (because food quantity, quality, or availability may be altered with disturbance). We've spent our time in the field collecting tons of samples of food sources, and will also be examining the digestive tracts of various corallivores. After all of that hard work, here is what we have to show for it:

That's right, a bunch of tubes. But don't be disheartened - the contents of these tubes contain answers and discoveries. It will take a few months of chemistry, math, and statistics to finally answer our questions, but that is actually pretty fast. We'll be looking at macromolecular nutritional content - proteins and amino acids, lipids, and carbohydrates. The pursuit of science starts in the field (at least for me), but rarely ends there. All of the post-processing work is critical, so when I get back home to Boston, I'll have quite a lot of samples to work through and keep me busy. :-) But it's not time for me to go home quite yet. Though it's my last day in Saudi, I'm off to Indonesia tonight for a joint expedition with Conservation International, National Geographic, and the New England Aquarium to explore coral seamounts, and to ask new questions. But to help with my transition, I'll keep the KAUST motto in-mind, and leave you with a photo of the Arabian setting sun.

Saudi sunset (Photos: R. Rotjan)

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