ALD23: Professor Idelisa Bonnelly de Calventi, Marine Biologist

Professor Idelisa Bonnelly de Calventi

Idelisa Bonnelly de Calventi was a marine biologist who pioneered the study of marine sciences in the Dominican Republic and created one of the first sanctuaries for humpback whales. Dubbed the “mother of marine conservation in the Caribbean”, she dedicated her career to protecting ocean biodiversity.

Bonnelly was born on 10 September 1931 in Santiago de los Caballeros, a city in the Dominican Republic. Reflecting on her childhood in 2010, she observed that she had always loved animals and “lived very close to the sea, which I saw as a challenge, a mystery that I wanted to unravel”.

Marine biology was not taught in Dominican universities when Bonnelly left school, and so she upped sticks for New York City, graduating with a BSc from Columbia University in 1956 and a master’s from New York University in 1961. During her postgraduate studies she worked as a research assistant in the lab at the New York Aquarium, monitoring the health of species including penguins and walruses.

When Bonnelly returned home, her lifetime’s mission – understanding and protecting the marine ecosystems surrounding the Dominican Republic – began in earnest. In 1962, she created the country’s first institute for the study of marine biology, now the Marine Biology Research Center (CIBIMA) of the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD). She launched the Dominican Republic’s first biology degree programme four years later, and founded the nation’s Academy of Sciences in 1974.

When CIBIMA was first established, there was scant knowledge about how to manage ocean resources. However, Bonnelly could see that coastal areas around the Dominican Republic were deteriorating, while species were diminishing in number. CIBIMA spearheaded vital research on coastal wildlife, including studies to establish closed fishing seasons and improve the quality of marine food.

Over the course of Bonnelly’s career, many of her scientific papers helped inform environmental laws and became influential in the field of marine conservation. In 1986, for example, her research played a vital role in the creation of the Humpback Whale Sanctuary of the Banco de la Plata, the first such sanctuary in the North Atlantic. She was also known for her skill at building strong relationships with national Dominican institutions and marine science departments at other Caribbean universities.

Bonnelly became a professor emerita at UASD in 1990, serving as coordinator of graduate studies in biology for two more years. In 1991, she joined the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World and created the Dominican Foundation for Marine Research (Fundemar), which continues to promote the sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems through research, education and conservation projects. As part of her work with the organisation, Bonnelly oversaw the Dominican Republic’s first dolphin study, and later worked on projects around climate change adaptation in coral reefs.

She published research until late in life, and was made an academic laureate of the Academy of Sciences of the Dominican Republic in 2007. Bonnelly died on 3 July 2022, aged 90. Science, she once said, “is about data, perseverance, discipline and often about love, and women know a lot about all this”.

Among many honours, Bonnelly was awarded the Marie Curie Medal from Unesco in 2009. The BBC recognised her as one of the 10 most important female scientists in Latin America in 2013, and in 2016 the Dominican Republic’s National Authority for Marine Affairs named a marine strait in her honour. Whales regularly pass through the strait, on their way to the crystalline waters Bonnelly loved so much.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Dr Valeria de Paiva, Mathematician and Computer Scientist

Dr Valeria de Paiva

Dr Valeria Correa Vaz de Paiva is a Brazilian mathematician, logician, computer scientist and computational linguist who introduced the concept of dialectica spaces, a way of modelling the linear logic that is used in advanced programming languages. She has spent many years working in industry at major natural language processing (NLP) labs, ensuring that “language technologies are taken seriously by the AI scientists and engineers and conversely that the engineer’s concerns are heard by the linguists.”

De Paiva grew up in Rio de Janeiro and initially started university studying both journalism and law. After moving on to physics, she eventually realised that what she “liked in physics was the mathematics underlying it”.

She earnt her PhD in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1988. Her thesis defined the concept of dialectica spaces, a new way of constructing models of linear logic, a logical form that has been influential in fields including linguistics, programming languages and quantum physics.

Since 2020, De Paiva has been the principal research scientist at the Topos Institute in Berkeley, California, a mathematical and computer science research lab that aims to “advance the sciences of connection and integration by looking at the mathematical frameworks of computation”. She is also a council member of the the Division of Logic, Methodology and Philosophy of Science And Technology with the title Ambassador of Logic, and a lecturer in introductory logic and specifications at Santa Clara University.

Previously, De Paiva worked at top industry NLP labs in the US, including at Samsung Research America, Nuance, Deem, Cuil and Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). She was also a professor of theoretical computer science at the University of Birmingham in the UK and lectured at Stanford University.

De Paiva’s mathematics research involves work on logical approaches to computation, especially applying category theory (the study of mathematical structure and abstraction) to the logics of language. Among many other strands of logic, she has also worked on knowledge representation – how knowledge can be expressed in a computer-readable manner – and natural language semantics, or the study of grammatical meaning in human language. Her goal is to “build logics that reflect the way language is used”.

Encouraging more women into STEM fields, particularly logic, is a key priority for de Paiva. She plays a key role in Women In Logic (WIL), an organisation working to help foster gender parity in the heavily male-dominated field. De Paiva organised the first WIL workshop in Iceland in 2017 and maintains the organisation’s online presence. She also supports the ACM-W Scholarship programme, which enables women undergraduate and graduate students in computer science and related fields to attend research conferences. Her blog, Logic ForAll, aims to make the subject more accessible.

Her goal, she has said, is to build logics that reflect the way language is used and dealt with, “and whose proofs provide traces that make it understandable by people”.

Twitter: @valeriadepaiva

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23 Books: How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, Sabrina Imbler

How Far the Light Reaches: A Life in Ten Sea Creatures, Sabrina Imbler

A fascinating tour of creatures from the surface to the deepest ocean floor, inviting us to envision wilder, grander, and more abundant possibilities for the way we live.

A queer, mixed race writer working in a largely white, male field, science and conservation journalist Sabrina Imbler has always been drawn to the mystery of life in the sea, and particularly to creatures living in hostile or remote environments. Each essay in their debut collection profiles one such creature, including:

  • the mother octopus who starves herself while watching over her eggs,
    the Chinese sturgeon whose migration route has been decimated by pollution and dams,
  • the bizarre, predatory Bobbitt worm (named after Lorena),
  • the common goldfish that flourishes in the wild,
  • and more.

Imbler discovers that some of the most radical models of family, community, and care can be found in the sea, from gelatinous chains that are both individual organisms and colonies of clones to deep-sea crabs that have no need for the sun, nourished instead by the chemicals and heat throbbing from the core of the Earth. Exploring themes of adaptation, survival, sexuality, and care, and weaving the wonders of marine biology with stories of their own family, relationships, and coming of age, How Far the Light Reaches is a shimmering, otherworldly debut that attunes us to new visions of our world and its miracles.

Order the book here.

About the author

Sabrina Imbler is a writer and science journalist. Queer, mixed-race, and working in a largely white and male-dominated field, Sabrina has always been drawn to the mystery of life in the sea, and particularly to creatures living in hostile or remote environments. Currently, Sabrina is a staff writer at Defector, an employee-owned sports and culture website, where they write about creatures. 

Previously, Sabrina worked as a reporting fellow on the science and health desk of The New York Times. They have received fellowships or scholarships from Tin House, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and Jack Jones Literary Arts. Their work has been supported by the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, and their essays and reportage have appeared in various publications including The New York Times, The Atlantic, Catapult, and Sierra.

You can follow Sabrina Imbler’s work here: 

Twitter: @aznfusion

With thanks to Synergy for their support.

ALD23: Professor Isabella Aiona Abbott, Phycologist and Ethnobotanist

Professor Isabella Aiona Abbott

Isabella Aiona Abbott was a phycologist, ethnobotanist and educator from Hawaii. The first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a PhD in science, she was a leading expert on Pacific marine algae and the first woman and person of colour to be appointed as a full-time biology professor at the University of Stanford. Over the course of a long career, she was credited with discovering hundreds of species of seaweed.

Abbott was born Isabella Kauakea Yau Yung Aiona in Hana, Maui, on 20 June 1919 (Abbott was her married name). When she was young, her mother opened her eyes to the diversity and uses of Hawaii’s native plants – particularly seaweed, edible varieties of which they used in recipes at home. After a bachelor’s degree and master’s in botany, Abbott gained her PhD in algal taxonomy from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1950.

By the time she earned her doctorate, Abbott was 31 and married. Academic posts were not forthcoming for female scientists in the early 1950s, and Abbott took a break from her research career when her daughter was young. But in 1966, she was hired as a research associate and lecturer at the Hopkins Marine Station in California, run by Stanford University – making her the university’s first Native Hawaiian faculty member.

Abbott went on to build a formidable reputation as one of the world’s foremost experts on algae, especially that found in the Pacific marine basin. In 1972, Stanford promoted her directly to full professor of biology. Drawing on Native Hawaiian knowledge and oral histories, a rarity in the academic study of oceans at the time, Abbott’s research uncovered ancient uses for newly-named marine algae. She was one of the first scientists to highlight the vital role seaweed forests play in healthy marine ecosystems.

Today, Abbott’s work is recognised as laying the foundations for modern research into seaweed, covering everything from its use in human nutrition to its potential for sequestering carbon and limiting ocean acidification. She was the GP Wilder Professor of Botany at Stanford from 1980 before retiring in 1982 and moving back to Hawaii with her family. The University of Hawaii appointed her professor emerita of botany, and she continued to research algae and native plants and established an undergraduate degree in ethnobotany (the interaction of humans and plants). Abbott was elected a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1998.

By the time she passed away on 28 October 2010 at the age of 91, Abbott had single-handedly discovered more than 200 species of seaweed. Many were named after her, including the red algae genus of Abbottella. She had also authored over 150 scientific publications and eight books, including the influential Marine Algae of California. Several of her specimens remain part of the botany collections in the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Abbott was awarded the Darbaker Prize by the Botanical Society of America in 1969, the Charles Reed Bishop Medal in 1993 and the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal from the National Academy of Sciences in 1997. In 2005, she was named a “Living Treasure of Hawaiʻi”, and received a lifetime achievement award from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for her studies of coral reefs in 2008.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.

ALD23: Dr Frances Wagner, Palaeontologist

Dr Frances Wagner

Dr Frances Wagner was a Canadian palaeontologist and one of the first female scientists to carry out field research for the Geological Survey of Canada (GCS). Over the course of a long career, she became a distinguished expert in the use of micropaleontology – the study of microscopic fossils – to study marine geology.

Wagner was born into an outdoorsy family in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1927. Her parents had a holiday cottage in Muskoka in the Canadian Shield, a region notable for its exposed precambrian rocks, and Wagner’s love of nature was sparked by a childhood spent learning about the area’s flora, fauna and geology. She studied palaeontology during her bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto before embarking on a master’s in invertebrate palaeontology. Her MSc research, conducted at an Ordovician limestone sequence near Ottawa, was the start of a lifetime’s delight in field studies.

Halfway through her master’s, Wagner was hired by the GSC – Canada’s national organisation for geoscientific information and research – to catalogue fossil samples. She started working full-time for the GSC on her 23rd birthday in May 1950, becoming only the third female research scientist to do so. At the time, women were not generally considered physically or mentally strong enough to take part in geobiological field research. Wagner disproved this view during her first field excursion, which saw her travel by canoe to the remote Moose Factory Island in northeastern Ontario.

After a year in the field, Wagner went to Stanford University, earning her PhD in micropaleontology in 1954. The study of tiny remains of animals, plants and single-celled organisms in order to unlock the secrets of biogeological evolution, micropaleontology continues to inform modern-day resource development, including in the hydrocarbon industry. Wagner’s specialism was marine micropalaeontology. Over the course of countless expeditions, she became an expert on ancient seas in Canada and the microbiota of the Arctic and Atlantic continental shelves, with her fieldwork taking her to the Caribbean and the Canadian Maritimes.

Aged 40, Wagner moved to Nova Scotia to work at the esteemed Bedford Institute Laboratory (now the Bedford Institute of Oceanography), where she spent many years. From late 1969, she studied microorganisms from the CSS Hudson – a new research vessel and the first ship to circumnavigate the Americas – for almost a year as it travelled the treacherous Northwest Passage. She was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society in 1973, in recognition of her achievements and scientific research.

In 1979, Wagner co-authored a definitive study on the holocene marine environment of the Beaufort Shelf, helping to illuminate how even small interferences with natural processes  – such as those caused by hydrocarbon drilling – can cause profound disturbances in Canadian Arctic waters. Five years later, after a career defined by countless field investigations, she retired from the GSC. She died on 8 November 2016 in Falmouth, Nova Scotia, aged 89.

Further Reading

Written by Moya Crockett, with thanks to Stylist for their support.