In Memoriam: Eleanor Sterling

Eleanor Jane Sterling, director of the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, died on Saturday, 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,” shared 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.” 

Eleanor 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.”  

At the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC5), held earlier this month, Eleanor 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, Eleanor 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.”


Dr. Eleanor Jane Sterling, born October 3, 1960, passed away peacefully in her sleep in Windward Oʻahu after fighting an aggressive case of pancreatic cancer. She 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.

Eleanor was born in Massachusetts and raised in California. She integrated her interest in Linguistics into training in Psychology, Biology, Anthropology, and Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale (B.A. 1983; Ph.D. 1993), and this connecting of multiple strands of knowledge became a hallmark of her work. The work she did for her dissertation, on the behavioral ecology of the aye-aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) and her subsequent work as a Peace Corps trainer and environmental director led to a life-long commitment to conservation in Madagascar, where she was an influential researcher, mentor, and educator. It was in Madagascar that she met her husband, Kevin Frey.

Eleanor was a generous and visionary leader at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), guiding and growing the conservation programs of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation (CBC) for more than 20 years, as Interim Director and Director (1999 to 2014), as Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist (2014-2021), and lately as Chief Conservation Scientist Emerita. In 2022 she moved to Hawaiʻi to become the director of the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa (UHM).  Although Eleanor was only in the position for a year, her contributions to HIMB’s sustainable funding and strategic planning have set the institute on a path for success. Eleanor was a strong supporter of initiatives at HIMB that focused on place-based research and building relationships with the local community. 

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. At AMNH, Eleanor designed and launched many influential programs including the annual conservation Spring Symposium series (1999-2013), the International Graduate Student Fellowship (1994-2015), the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners (NCEP; 2000-present), and the Student Conference on Conservation Science-New York (2010-present). She led cutting-edge, interdisciplinary biodiversity conservation projects in the Bahamas, Bolivia, Vietnam, Palmyra Atoll, as well as other locations, with recognition and support from agencies like NOAA, NASA, and NSF as well as multiple foundations. This diverse portfolio of work advanced both the field of conservation science and the careers of hundreds of conservation professionals around the world.

Eleanor’s rich scholarship spanned mammalogy, marine biology, anthropology, food systems, conservation science, conservation effectiveness, conservation education, and more. She was a prolific author/co-author of more than 200 publications, including close to 120 peer-reviewed articles. Notably, 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. In her role as Jaffe Chief Conservation Scientist, she developed and led strategic initiatives and partnerships with a focus on the links between cultural and biological diversity, advanced conservation evaluation tools and techniques.  In all areas of her work, Eleanor centered her efforts on equity, inclusion, and diversity. 

Her work was ahead of the field, and she was a brave and courageous, radical thinker.  She 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. 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. This interdisciplinary inquiry led to influential publications on well-being, the importance of connections between People and Place, and how to integrate this new understanding into environmental policy tools and metrics, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Convention on Biological Diversity. 

She was also a curator and co-curator of multiple groundbreaking exhibitions at AMNH, including the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall (Permanent Exhibition), Lonesome George – Last Known Pinta Island Tortoise (September 2014 – January 2015), Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture (2012 – 2013, co-curated with Dr. Mark Norell), Water: H20 = Life (2007 –2008), Yellowstone to Yukon (2006 –2007), and Voices from South of the Clouds: China’s Yunnan Province  (2005 –2006, co-curated with Dr. Laurel Kendall), among others. These traveling exhibits reached national and international audiences in more than 20 locations.

Among these many accomplishments, perhaps Eleanor’s most significant contribution was her devoted mentorship of others. Eleanor directly mentored some 80 students, including 37 Ph.D. and 22 Masters candidates, and also supported the careers of many other students and early-career professionals through the CBC and the Richard Gilder Graduate School, through her roles at Columbia University’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology where she was Adjunct Professor (2017-2021) and Director of Graduate Studies (2002-2012). 

Many students sought out her guidance because they were doing “radical” work, which was either interdisciplinary or weaving together knowledge systems, and they required mentorship that was not available in their programs.  She taught at multiple other higher education institutions, including the University of Hawaiʻi and Princeton University. The lives of hundreds of conservationists from around the world – from Brooklyn to Bolivia to the Solomon Islands to Uruguay – have been profoundly changed by Eleanor. 

Eleanor was also a major contributor to the advancement of societies and organizations in the capacity of advisor, board member, and trustee. The fifty organizations that benefited from her expertise and energy in this way include the Society for Conservation Biology, the Center for Humans and Nature, The Nature Conservancy New York State Board, Island Conservation, the National Geographic Society, the Yale University Institute for Biospheric Studies Scientific Advisory, three Commissions of the IUCN, and the Museum’s Women in Natural Sciences Chapter. 

Her contributions have been recognized in the form of multiple prizes and awards including the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) Distinguished Service Award (2013), the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) inaugural award for Meritorious Research (2016), the Yale University Wilbur Lucius Cross Medal (2016), an Honorary Doctorate of Science from SUNY ESF (2018), and most recently, the IUCN Fred M. Packard International Parks Merit Award (2023). 

Aside from her extraordinary, groundbreaking work as a scientist, Eleanor was an excellent athlete (a long-distance runner), a gifted musician, and a talented craftsperson.  As an undergraduate at Yale, she performed with Whim ‘n Rhythm, the senior SSAA  a cappella group.  She was known as a “true soprano” and sang a gorgeous rendition of the opening of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”  Eleanor also loved quilting and sewing; many of her friends and colleagues cherish pieces that she made for them.  

With her untimely passing, the conservation community mourns the loss of a brilliant and creative mind, a tireless and visionary collaborator, a devoted mentor, a champion for equity and inclusion, an inspiring colleague, a skilled crafter, and a beloved friend. She will be deeply missed.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to the Eleanor J. Sterling Fund, established in Eleanor’s honor to support the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology: 

Details for a celebration of Eleanor’s remarkable life will be announced at: