In the world of a 24-hour news cycle vying for attention over tragedy, mass shootings, or midterm politics, the quiet human moments often get lost. Such was the case when Dr. Ruth Gates, a brilliant marine scientist at the University of Hawai’i and coral reefs advocate, passed away from brain cancer in Hawai’i on Oct. 25 at age 56. Her wife Robin Burton-Gates was at her side.
Dr. Gates was renowned for her brilliance as a marine scientist and her charm and infectious bright personality. “Laughing even underwater; that’s Ruth,” Tracy Ainsworth, a close friend and coral scientist from James Cook University, told the Atlantic Magazine’s Ed Yong. “She was so thrilled by the reef that she couldn’t contain her joy.”
Gates died five months after being diagnosed. “We constantly laughed, even through her treatments,” her wife recalled.
A University of Hawai’i spokesperson told the Los Angles Blade that Gates’ passion for sharing new scientific discoveries and coral reef conservation came through in her many public speaking events, in the Emmy award-winning film “Chasing Coral” that featured her research, and in communicating the urgency of climate change impacts on marine ecosystems.
“I have heard from hundreds of people, scientists and non-scientists who have expressed their admiration and appreciation for all that Ruth meant to them and to the world,” Michael Bruno, UH Mānoa vice chancellor for research, told the Los Angeles Blade. “Ruth’s vision and passion will be missed by all of us who were fortunate to have worked with her. 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’ wife and colleagues emphasized that set-backs were barely a deterrence to the scientist, starting with her decision to be a marine biologist in elementary school after watching Jacques Cousteau documentaries.
“She was told she wasn’t smart enough, and that she should go into athletics instead,” Burton-Gates told The Atlantic. She did both.
Gates was the director of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB), a marine biology laboratory located on the state-owned Coconut Island in Kāne’ohe Bay—and she founded a karate school, the Coconut Island Dojo. A third-degree black belt, she would do knuckle and fingertip push-ups to the sound of breaking waves. And “when she hit the practice bag, it sounded like a gun going off,” Burton-Gates told The Atlantic.
Born in England, she did her graduate studies and work in Jamaica in 1985, which coincided with the marine biologist community’s discovery of the rapid death and bleaching of the coral reefs in the Caribbean.
“Gates showed that these bleaching events were more common in warmer waters—a crucial connection that decades of later work would confirm. It was a terribly important discovery,” said Peter Edmunds from California State University, Northridge, a coral scientist and close Gates friend of 34 years.
After receiving her PhD in Marine Sciences & Biology in 1990, Gates joined the faculty and research staff at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Thirteen years later, in 2003, she joined the University of Hawaii and started her own lab. It was there that her most significant discoveries in coral preservation and species regenerative efforts were made.
“Ruth was not only a shining star in coral research, but an indomitable spirit in every aspect of life,” Gates’ friend Judy Lemus, HIMB interim director, told the Los Angeles Blade. “Her enthusiasm was contagious, and she absolutely loved what she did. Her loss will be felt deeply within our own community and throughout the broader research community.”
“Gates was a tireless innovator and advocate for coral reef conservation. Coral reefs around the world have experienced massive die off as a result of warming ocean temperatures, increasing acidity, pollution runoff from land and other threats. The focus of her most recent research efforts was creating ‘super corals,’ coral species occurring naturally in the ocean that could be trained to become more resilient to these harsh conditions,” University of Hawai’i’s Marcie Grabowski, an Outreach Specialist for UH School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology told the Los Angeles Blade in an email.
Gates had her detractors but would also admit errors.
“She was always a disruptor,” Oregon State University researcher and friend Virginia Weis told The Atlantic. She suspects that Gates faced backlash because she was a female scientist who didn’t conform to traditional views of femininity. “The Aloha shirt-wearing guys were threatened by her and it didn’t faze her. She wasn’t quiet or silent.”
“Gates was like a living embodiment of the worlds she studied—a reef in human form,” The Atlantic’s Yong wrote. “Reefs enrich the oceans by creating spaces in which thousands of diverse species can thrive. Gates nurtured a vast community of researchers by opening doors for them, and supporting their lives.”
“Ruth was the first person I had a candid conversation with about what it meant to be a woman in science,” said Beth Lenz, who was one of her students.
“She helped me grow into my scientific identity wholly,” trans student Shayle Matsuda, added, “and pushed me to be my authentic self unapologetically.”