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Rob Toonen (right) with Ruth Gates (left).

The inaugural Ruth D. Gates Endowed Chair in Coral Reef Systems is Rob Toonen. This position was established to honor the distinguished research and outreach of the late Ruth Gates, at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST). HIMB sought a scientist with a vision for innovative, integrative and transdisciplinary research in coral reef ecology and conservation.

“This position memorializes the global impact of Dr. Ruth Gates, former director of HIMB and widely known through the wonderful documentary Chasing Coral,” said Chip Fletcher, interim dean of SOEST. “In addition to being a widely respected scientist, Ruth was an exceptional communicator known for her candor, humor, integrity and compassion and respect for the interdependence of all living things.”

man in scuba gear

Toonen joined HIMB in 2003, and has used lab and field experiments, molecular genetics and computer modeling and more in an effort to address a variety of biological questions. From coral bleaching and conservation, to assessing cues for larval settlement and population genetics of marine invertebrates, sharks and turtles, Toonen approaches research from an ecological perspective—scaling up from genes to individuals to populations.

“We are thrilled to have Rob continue his work at HIMB in this new position honoring our inimitable friend and colleague Ruth Gates,” said Megan Donahue, interim director of HIMB. “Throughout his career, Rob has been at the forefront of purpose-driven research for coral reefs, including foundational work on marine connectivity that catalyzed large, ‘Big Ocean’ marine protected areas; influential studies of coral recovery and adaptation in Kāneʻohe Bay, inspiring hope for the future of coral reefs; a vision for community-embedded research and education actualized in the Heʻeia National Estuarine Research Reserve; and, most recently, work on coral restoration and artificial reefs designed to work with nature to protect our coastlines. We also know Rob as someone who lifts others up—a caring and effective mentor for students and an open-hearted colleague.”

Hybrid reefs

Toonen’s current coral restoration endeavor is a collaborative hybrid reef project known as Rapid Resilient Reefs for Coastal Defense. This project seeks to mimic natural reefs and enhance them by developing engineered reef modules that will reduce wave energy, support coastal communities, and also provide additional habitat for the diversity of life that feeds local families and makes coral reefs attractive to visitors.

Committed to UH Mānoa’s strategic priority and institutional goal of becoming a Native Hawaiian Place of Learning, HIMB has a deep engagement with, and commitment to, its neighborhood educational and nonprofit organization partners.

“I particularly look forward to working with local communities to incorporate Indigenous management practices into the design with the goal of producing shoreline protection technology that also supports a vibrant and productive coral reef community,” said Toonen.

For more information, see SOEST’s website.

–By Marcie Grabowski

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