Helena graduated from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil, with a Bachelor of Science in biological sciences with a focus on genetics. She then continued her scientific career working on microbiology and molecular biology applied to environmental sciences while earning her MS degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil. For her PhD thesis, under Prof. Raquel Peixoto’s supervision, Helena developed an approach to clean oil-polluted coral reef sites using oil-degrading coral-associated microbes. During her PhD, she also worked in Prof. Forest Rohwer’s lab, doing part of her thesis at the San Diego State university, USA. Helena is currently a Research Scientist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, where she works investigating beneficial coral-associated microbes and their interactions with corals and other coral symbionts.
Helena Villela has a passion for science that has grown over the course of her studies in Brazil, the United States, and now Saudi Arabia. As an undergraduate student at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil, Helena worked in Prof. Alexandre Rosado’s microbial ecology lab developing strategies to clean diesel-contaminated Antarctic soils by readministering the native oil-degrading microbial community back into the polluted soils. Here, Helena was able to directly see how her microbiology work could make a meaningful impact to restore soil viability. While obtaining her MS degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Helena utilized bioengineering tools to optimize the use of microalgae strains to produce biodiesel. This work also took her to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, USA, where she learned genetic engineering approaches to improve the oil content in microalgae.
After completing her MS degree, Helena continued working in applied environmental microbiology with the goal of improving the health of endangered ecosystems. While working in Prof. Raquel Peixoto’s lab, Helena developed a PhD thesis using oil-degrading coral-associated microbes to clean oil-polluted coral reef sites. During her studies, Helena also spent one year at Prof. Forest Rohwer’s lab at San Diego State University, USA, where she studied the roles of bacteriophages in coral reef health. Helena’s further research as a postdoctoral fellow also involved corals, as she tried to characterize the roles of Beneficial Microbes for Corals (BMCs) in carbon transfer in deep sea corals.
Helena’s recent research projects center around how marine microbes can be applied to protect and rehabilitate coral reef environments affected by anthropogenic activities. Helena currently works as a Research Scientist at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, investigating coral-associated microbes for their potential as coral probiotics. Here, Helena works with corals from the Red Sea to determine how the microbial community in damaged reef sites can present a risk for further environmental decline and even human health. Helena is also exploring chemosynthetic coral-associated bacteria in the Red Sea deep waters, characterizing how bacteria-coral organic carbon transfer occurs in deep and cold environments.
Helena has worked in many different fields to rehabilitate natural habitats, which has driven her to develop an appreciation for community outreach and education. She is particularly interested in the educational benefit of visual media, such as underwater photography and videos and 3D-printed informational games, to reach uninitiated audiences. Using these educational tools, Helena believes that scientists can spread the importance of coral reef ecosystems and teach people what can be done to help protecting them.