Ruth Gates, the University of Hawaii-Manoa marine biologist who was a prominent voice in the fight to save the world’s coral reefs, died Thursday following a bout with brain cancer.
Gates, 56, was director of UH’s Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology and president of the International Society for Reef Studies.
As a researcher she had more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific publications to her name and was best known for her innovative efforts to breed “super corals” capable of withstanding an ocean growing warmer and more acidic under the spell of climate change.
In 2013 Gates and Australian colleague Madeleine van Oppen won the $10,000 Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge for their proposal to assist coral evolution. They later scored a $4 million grant to more fully fund the project.
Over the years, Gates emerged as an outspoken advocate for the world’s coral reefs as they experienced massive die-offs from rising ocean temperatures, increasing acidity, pollution runoff and other threats.
Gates was not shy about making speeches, talking to the news media and appearing in films such as the Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”
“She was a voice for coral reefs and the oceans. She shined a light on what was happening,” said Judy Lemus, interim director of the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology.
Born in England, Gates earned a bachelor’s in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990, both in marine biology, from the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne, United Kingdom.
She held postdoctoral positions at UCLA from 1990 to 2002 and was an assistant researcher there before joining the University of Hawaii in 2003 and starting her own lab.
Among other honors, Gates won the UH Board of Regents’ Medal for Excellence in Research, the ARCS Foundation Scientist of the Year 2015 and 2015 Distinguished Woman Scholar by the University of Victoria, Canada.
Lemus first knew Gates when they shared a lab at UCLA.
“Ruth was magnetic. People were drawn to her. She loved people and loved being around them, and she loved supporting their ideas, and that’s why she was so good at what she did,” Lemus said.
One of Gates’ students, Elizabeth Lenz, said her mentor leaves a lasting impression. She said Gates inspired her students to be creative, forward-thinking and to embrace their own individuality.
And even as the fate of the world’s corals appears grim, Gates offered her students hope for their future.
“Ruth was an absolutely brilliant individual, full of optimism, strength, and creativity,” Lenz said in an email. “She brought a tremendous amount of energy, enthusiasm, and passion to the coral reef community. She was truly one of a kind and a much needed advocate for ocean optimism.”
Michael Bruno, UH- Manoa vice chancellor for research, said hundreds of scientists and nonscientists alike have expressed their admiration and appreciation for all that Gates meant to them and the world.
“Ruth’s vision and passion will be missed by all of us who were fortunate to have worked with her,” Bruno said in a news release. “Most of all, I will miss her generous spirit. Ruth was always generous with her time and her knowledge, and we were all made better as a result.”
Gates died five months after she was first diagnosed with brain cancer, Lemus said. And although she fought the disease with treatments and continued to contribute to her lab when she could, the cancer became aggressive.
She is survived by wife Robin Burton-Gates and brother Tom Gates.
No services have been announced.