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Eleanor Sterling collaborating on conservation efforts in Vietnam. (Photo credit: H. Thach/CBC-AMNH)

Eleanor Jane Sterling, director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, died on February 11, 2023. A beloved and respected friend and colleague, Sterling committed her professional life to conservation efforts and honoring the interconnectedness of nature and people among Indigenous peoples and local communities around the world.

“I feel honored to be amongst the network of incredible people inspired and mentored by Eleanor,” said Rachel Dacks, who worked closely with Sterling at HIMB. “She was especially supportive of students and early-career professionals striving to weave different knowledge systems in their work. Given her immense reach, her impact will surely continue throughout the world and for generations to come.”

woman smiling
Eleanor Sterling

Sterling joined UH Mānoa as HIMB’s director in 2022. Although she served in that role for only a year, her contributions to HIMB’s sustainable funding and strategic planning created new opportunities for the institute.

“Eleanor gave herself over to the work at HIMB—open-hearted and direct, with an incredible strategic mind. Her leadership helped us to find new purpose in working together,” said Megan Donahue, acting director of HIMB. “She developed new initiatives that connected HIMB with its community through projects integrating art and science, expanding place-based research, and elevating multiple ways of knowing.”

Colleagues categorize Sterling’s work as ahead of the field, and expressed she was a brave and courageous radical thinker. Sterling had a catalyzing role in multiple, innovative collaborations among researchers, practitioners and community members, including Indigenous communities, that have helped bridge local and global ways of knowing.

At the International Marine Protected Areas Congress, Sterling was honored with one of the highest awards from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the Fred Packard Award, in recognition of more than 30 years of advancing just and effective conservation and for her extraordinary contributions to conservation in protected areas around the world. In all areas of her work, Sterling centered her efforts on equity, inclusion and diversity.

“Eleanor’s life and work reached island communities around the world,” added Donahue. “We join with them in mourning the loss of this radical and visionary scientist, inspiring colleague, and dear friend. She will be deeply missed.”

More on Sterling

Sterling was born in Massachusetts and raised in California. She integrated her interest in linguistics into training in psychology, biology, anthropology and forestry and environmental studies at Yale (BA 1983; PhD 1993), and this connecting of multiple strands of knowledge became a hallmark of her work.

Sterling was a generous and visionary leader at the American Museum of Natural History, guiding and growing the conservation programs of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation for more than 20 years, as interim director and director (1999–2014), as Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist (2014–2021), and lately as Chief Conservation Scientist Emerita.

Through a lifetime of tireless commitment to conservation action, she applied her interdisciplinary training in biological and social sciences to field research and community outreach and collaboration with direct application to biodiversity conservation in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

Sterling’s rich scholarship spanned mammalogy, marine biology, anthropology, food systems, conservation science, conservation effectiveness, conservation education and more. She was a prolific author and co-author of more than 200 publications, including close to 120 peer-reviewed articles. She co-authored Vietnam: A Natural History, the first comprehensive natural history of Vietnam, and led expeditions to study the country’s important and threatened biodiversity, in particular its primates.

She was a pioneer in advancing biocultural approaches to biodiversity conservation, placing cultural concerns at the forefront of engagement with local actors, in particular in British Columbia, Hawaiʻi and the Solomon Islands.

Among these many accomplishments, perhaps Sterling’s most significant contribution was her devoted mentorship of others. Sterling directly mentored some 80 students, including 37 PhD and 22 masters candidates, and also supported the careers of many other students and early-career professionals.

Sterling is survived by Kevin Frey, her husband of 27 years, as well as her sister Mary Sterling Torretti, brothers Bill and Jon Sterling and many nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Eleanor J. Sterling Fund, established in Sterling’s honor to support HIMB. Details for a celebration of Sterling’s remarkable life will be announced online.

For more information on Sterling, see the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s website.

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