Dr. Eleanor Jane Sterling

Dr. Eleanor Jane Sterling


Dr. Eleanor Jane Sterling 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 visionary leader at the American Museum of Natural History, 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 Hawai’i to become the new director of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa.

Through a lifetime of 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 the Museum, 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, multi-disciplinary 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, and in all areas of her work, centered on equity, inclusion, and diversity. 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 a biocultural approach to biodiversity conservation, placing cultural concerns at the forefront of engagement with local actors, in particular in British Columbia, Hawai’i, and 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 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). She taught at multiple other higher education institutions, including the University of Hawai’i. The lives of hundreds of conservationists from around the world – from Brooklyn to Bolivia to 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, National Geographic, 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).

With her untimely passing the conservation community and the Museum community mourn 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.

—Cheryl Hayashi and Ana Porzecanski

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