In memoriam: Dr. Eleanor Sterling

The Center for Biodiversity and Conservation is deeply saddened to share the passing of Dr. Eleanor J. Sterling. 

The conservation community and the American Museum of Natural History community mourn the untimely loss of Dr. Eleanor Sterling. A brilliant and creative mind, a tireless and visionary collaborator, a champion for equity and inclusion, a devoted mentor, and a beloved colleague and friend, Eleanor was a trail-blazing conservationist and an innovative and prolific scientist of global influence. She worked to advance conservation through teaching and mentoring, research, on-the-ground conservation, public outreach, and policy. She changed the minds and lives of staff, interns, students, and partners around the world—and of all who knew her. She will be deeply, deeply missed but will continue to inspire us, always.

To honor Eleanor’s lasting impact and legacy at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, the Museum has launched a fundraising effort to support a 3-year postdoctoral appointment in her honor: the Eleanor J. Sterling Postdoctoral Fellow. This effort is inspired by Eleanor’s devoted mentorship efforts throughout her career, her passion for cultivating the next generation of conservation scientists, and the CBC’s aspirations as it continues to build on Eleanor’s visionary and interdisciplinary scholarship. The position will provide an extraordinary early-career researcher with a unique opportunity to advance their career.

Anyone can contribute towards this initiative here.

Please indicate your gift is in memory of Eleanor Sterling. If you prefer to discuss your donation with a gift officer, please contact Sarah Kilcullen.

Eleanor Sterling new
Dr. Eleanor J. Sterling (1960–2023)

Dr. Eleanor Jane Sterling, born October 3, 1960, passed away peacefully in her sleep on February 11th 2023 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.

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). 

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 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.

Six people wearing fieldwork gear stand in conversation in the foreground of a dense forest in Vietnam; Eleanor Sterling stands in the center.
© H. Thach/CBC-AMNH

Eleanor was passionate about nature and people, and sustaining both. Her remarkable partnership with the AMNH and her leadership of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation brought into being new discoveries, programs that elevated conservationists all over the world, and that educated thousands of people either at the Museum, or through its exhibitions, which traveled the globe. What was most unique was that Eleanor matched her passion, drive, and brilliance with equal doses of integrity and generosity. It is a rare combination and because of this, all of us who shared time with her have been changed for the better. Learning from her, and working closely with her was one of the greatest privileges of my life. It has been a source of hope in the midst of the massive challenges we face…. and now the remarkable community of curious, committed, and kind people she wove together will continue to lift others and be a source of hope for each other, and collaborate in ways we can’t even imagine today, I am sure of it. She will continue to inspire us, always.

— Ana Luz Porzecanski, CBC, AMNH

With all the work Eleanor completed and published you would think she was a reclusive scientist. Not so. She was a person so comfortable with people and the world at large. For example, I was awed to see how quickly she had learned the most appropriate dialect of Vietnamese for her collaborative work in that country.  Her sincerity and quiet optimism inspired many fans and young team members, who believed in her and in what they were doing. Eleanor was that kind of truly rare person who gave us some reason to hope for a better environmental future. We miss her.  

— Michael Novacek, AMNH

Hablar de Eleanor, es hablar de una fuerza incontenible. Un movimiento que propela a todos a su alrededor en un accionar hacia adelante, con visión clara y propósito compartido. Siempre cuando hablaba ella, sentía yo a la conservación de la mano con el bienestar humano; la coexistencia y la convivencia; su aproximación biocultural. Las ideas de Eleanor, así como sus acciones, encarnan para mí lo que entiendo como Buen Vivir, esa bella mezcla en la interfase de la naturaleza y el ser humano. Eleanor ha sido, sin duda, una inspiración sin límites y sigue siendo un modelo a seguir. Ahora que no se encuentra más con nosotros en este plano, la pena se agiganta, pero la alegría de haberla conocido, ¡se vuelve infinita!

— Armando Valdés-Velásquez, UPCH, Perú

I first worked with Eleanor in a working group focused on biocultural approaches and indicators. I don’t think we actually started out with that focus exactly, but Eleanor was prophetic in this field, as she was in others, and nimbly shifted us in that direction, knowing that was where we could be most impactful. Eleanor pushed for the inclusion of people who weren’t typically invited to these kinds of working groups, including high chiefs, cultural practitioners, and local government officials from across the Pacific Islands, arguing that they were the true experts. Similarly, she really fought to legitimize the importance of some of our research products that were more tailored to local communities, and not scholars or high ranking government managers, as was formerly typical. As I got to know Eleanor over the years, I realized that's just how she worked-- she [Eleanor] was so courageous in working to fight for what she believed was fair and equitable, which often meant changing norms, weaving multiple worldviews and ways of knowing, and elevating the voices of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities. She is greatly missed.

— Rachel Dacks, University of Hawaiʻi

Eleanor was a conservation leader of remarkable vision who never ceased to challenge her own perceptions and beliefs to forge more effective and just practices in conservation, while pulling all those around her into similar efforts. A multidisciplinary, systemic thinker, she was always seeking to be grounded by and elevate the voices of the communities with whom she worked. I learned so much from Eleanor about how to create collaborations to catalyze both internal and external change, noting particularly how her careful facilitation of so many facets of these efforts supported each person in contributing their strengths. Because she listened and imagined possibilities with so many others in conservation, she helped to advance the field in significant ways that now far better represent the full diversity of individuals and communities working to conserve Earth’s biocultural diversity. My faith in what we might achieve as a collective was always heightened through her guidance and spirit. She has provided so many of us with the tools and pathways for continual growth and improvement in the work we will do, on into the future. I am so grateful for all the many lessons she shared.

— Martha Groom, University of Washington