Her laugh was infectious.
It’s the first thing many who knew Ruth Gates for years, or just a matter of minutes, will tell you.
She was forever optimistic in a world pummeled by pessimism. Especially in her work over the past three decades as a marine ecologist, coral researcher and, most recently, director of the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology.
Gates died Thursday at age 56, five months after being diagnosed with brain cancer.
She dedicated her life to saving coral from the doom of climate change and inspired a younger generation to take up the fight.
“She was so personable and approachable that she had fans,” said Kira Hughes, a research project manager who works at the Gates Lab at HIMB.
“I mean, how many scientists do you know that get asked for their autograph?” she said. “People were not just attracted to her life’s work, but it was the way she interacted with complete strangers that made them feel important and invested.”
Gates left a bounty of scientific papers, dating back to her 1990 groundbreaking study in Jamaica that linked warmer waters to coral bleaching. And she left a small army of up-and-coming researchers dedicated to ensuring a future for coral, including 31 graduate and post-doctoral students she advised at the University of Hawaii.
“We will continue to push forward,” Hughes said. “But it will not be the same without her encouraging us with a simple ‘you rock!’ along the way.”
Beth Lenz, Gates’ student the past four years, said she left an “everlasting impression” on her and others in the scientific community.
“She inspired many of us to be creative, to bring our best foot forward, embrace our individuality unapologetically, be forward-thinking scientists and provided an incredible amount of hope for the future of coral reefs,” Lenz said.
It wasn’t just about the science itself. Lenz said Gates was open to challenging conversations, talking to her early on about being a woman in a field dominated by men.
“She was a major advocate for women in science and empowered women to be bold leaders in the field.” — Beth Lenz, doctoral student
“We talked about issues women faced — subconscious biases, imposter syndrome and harassment,” Lenz said. “She taught me the importance of self-awareness, maintaining control and being confident. She was a major advocate for women in science and empowered women to be bold leaders in the field.”
Corals are tiny animals, which have existed for more than 200 million years, that now face extinction due to warmer waters, polluted runoff and other human-related factors.
More than 500 million people depend on healthy reefs for food, coastal protection, tourism-driven economies and medicine. Not to mention the benefit corals provide as the ocean’s rainforests, regulating atmospheric gases.
And yet half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost over the past 30 years. Unprecedented bleaching, exacerbated by climate change, has destroyed reefs around the planet.
Gates was fascinated by the underwater world from an early age. But the nearly unparalleled urgency she brought to her work was because of everything at stake.
“She was a force to be reckoned with,” Bob Richmond, director of the Kewalo Marine Laboratory in Honolulu, said Monday.
“She makes you want to redouble your efforts,” he said. “You never stop trying. You never do it less than 150 percent. And you do it with a great sense of humor and you do it with collaboration.”
Gates was intently focused on developing “super corals” to withstand bleaching and other environmental stressors that leave them vulnerable to massive die-offs.
She and Australian scientist Madeleine van Oppen won a $4 million grant from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to do so.
Allen, who died two weeks ago from cancer, provided the funding for the “assisted evolution” project, now in its fourth year of five, that’s being done on the 28-acre Coconut Island, just off the coast of Kaneohe.
Gates welcomed me to her office there in 2017, the last time I interviewed her. We cruised around the island in her golf cart, where she explained the work being done in the different labs.
Some scientists were selectively breeding corals, others were studying their offspring to learn about the genetic traits being passed down and experimenting to see if corals can be convinced to have a symbiotic relationship with more resilient algae.
The goal was to create corals capable of withstanding a hotter ocean — to speed up a natural process since the waters are warming faster than the reefs can keep up.
The work was controversial, but to Gates and others it was critical.
“The ethical dilemma that I think scares me most,” she told me, “is the paralysis associated with different perspectives and the potential void you can drop into.”
Gates, who was born in England and married to wife Robin Burton-Gates, was pragmatic in her description of the current state of affairs.
“It’s not good,” she said in that same interview. “When you start talking about what it means … to humans if we don’t have reefs, it’s such a devastatingly bad news story. We’re talking about not having enough food for people. We’re talking about not having enough land to live on.
“But I’m also very aware of the fact that we have very little time to settle the debate,” she said.
Judy Lemus, HIMB acting director and friend of Gates for the past 29 years, said Monday that her loss will be felt deeply.
“Ruth was not only a shining star in coral research, but an indomitable spirit in every aspect of life,” Lemus said in a UH release. “Her enthusiasm was contagious, and she absolutely loved what she did.”
“She was just a wonderful person, first and foremost. She exuded this optimism.” — Bob Richmond, Kewalo Marine Laboratory
In an interview, Lemus said the institute has lost Gates’ leadership, enthusiasm and “big, booming laugh.” But she said she has no doubt that the superb team of scientists there will move forward, as Gates would have wanted.
“She was a really bright light, and we’re going to miss that,” Lemus said. “I am saddened we have lost a very prominent voice in coral and climate change research.”
Richmond was with her and other scientists in February for a U.S. Coral Reef Task Force meeting in Washington, D.C. She was invited to speak in support of “rapid and immediate intervention,” and gave presentations on selective breeding for corals to withstand elevated temperatures.
It was at that meeting that some of her colleagues noticed she seemed a little off, Richmond said. Her diagnosis came a couple months later.
In his last exchange with Gates, Richmond said she commented on how it was hard to believe that two months ago she was teaching karate but now couldn’t even walk around Coconut Island.
Richmond said her work, and her death, will undoubtedly come up at the meeting he was en route to Monday as part of the National Academy of Sciences committee on coral resilience.
With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the group is working on a report, due in November, about the urgency of scientific intervention — moving away from just documenting the demise of reefs.
“Her legacy lives on through extensive knowledge, creative approaches and a passion for everything she did,” Richmond said.
Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia, said Gates’ work has had a global impact and will be relevant for decades or even centuries to come.
“It shouldn’t have happened, taking away someone at the peak of their life,” he said.
He met her in 1990 while finishing his doctorate at the University of California Los Angeles and they became fast friends.
“From the science side, we’ve lost someone who had an enormous capacity to understand and solve problems — that’s going to be forever missed,” he said. “But for many people, they will have also lost someone who was beautiful, funny and really a whirlwind of creativity and passion.”
Gates had degrees from the University of Newcastle and University of California. She was featured in the Emmy-winning “Chasing Corals” documentary, which Hoegh-Guldberg said is now almost an ideal tribute.
She was also president of the International Society of Reef Studies, the world’s largest coral reef society.
She won awards as Scientist of the Year and Distinguished Woman Scholar and earned medals for excellence in research.
But Richmond said the loss of Gates extends well beyond her accolades. He described her gift as a communicator who “gave everyone ample time and the respect that went with it.” He added that she did not have the ego that sometimes accompanies people in academia as accomplished as she was.
“She was just a wonderful person, first and foremost,” he said. “She exuded this optimism.”
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