Conservationist Eleanor Sterling Awarded Yale’s Prestigious Wilbur Cross Medal
One colleague calls Eleanor Sterling ’83 B.A. ’93 Ph.D., recipient of Yale's Wilbur Cross Medal, a “bridge builder.” A conservationist, anthropologist, and educator, Sterling says her interdisciplinary training at Yale has been crucial to her life’s work.
By Timothy Brown
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles and events posted prior to July 1, 2020 refer to the School's name at that time.
Eleanor Sterling ’83 B.A., ’93 Ph.D. first heard about the aye-aye, a cat-sized lemur from Madagascar, as an undergraduate in Alison Richard’s physical anthropology course. It was her first science class at Yale where she had come intending to study linguistics.
“I hadn’t really thought that science was for me,” Sterling recalled in a recent interview. “But I absolutely loved it and was excited about what science could be and mean.”
That course changed the trajectory of her education, career, and, as it turned out, conservation worldwide. Sterling currently serves as the Chief Scientist at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, an organization she led for 14 years, at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York.
Sterling will return to campus this Thursday, Sept. 22 to receive Yale’s prestigious Wilbur Cross Medal. The award, which recognizes distinguished achievements in scholarship, teaching, academic administration, and public service, is presented each year to a small number of outstanding alumni by the Graduate School Alumni Association.
Sterling is only the third graduate of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES) to receive this honor.
In addition to the private awards ceremony, she will give a public talk entitled “Reflections on Interdisciplinarity: Research and Action in Biodiversity Conservation from Local to Global” at 4:30 p.m. in Burke Auditorium, Kroon Hall.
Her wide-ranging career as both an academic and practitioner spans biological conservation, scientific research, environmental education, and program administration. An expert with a Ph.D. in both anthropology and forestry, an intrepid explorer, and a multi-linguist who has studied more than a dozen languages, Sterling embodies the very essence of interdisciplinarity.
Richard says the qualities being recognized with this award were present when Sterling was still an undergraduate.
“She was a person with extraordinary energy, incredible focus, high intelligence; with a big heart and a great passion and drive to make the difference in the world with respect to environmental issues,” Richard said. “She stood out for all those qualities and then some. And then she came back and did a Ph.D. in Madagascar that still stands as the seminal work, a kind of classic, on the aye-aye.”
The aye-aye — widely considered one of the most endangered primates on the planet — is notoriously difficult to study. It is nocturnal, travels long distances, and spends its life high in the trees. Sterling, who carried out her fieldwork at night, spent the better part of two years living without electricity, on an otherwise uninhabited island accompanied only by Malagasy field assistants, studying this elusive and iconic animal.
“The aye-aye was just such a flagship for conservation but it was unclear what conservation actions needed to happen in order to conserve it because there was so little known about it,” she said.
In addition to the methodological challenges of researching the aye-aye, Sterling was pursuing two Ph.D. programs at the time — at F&ES and the Department of Anthropology — and she had to fulfill course requirements and qualifying exams for both programs. These days the joint degree is well established and considered one of the top programs in the country. But at the time, it was still in its infancy.
“I’m very excited to see that it’s an established program and several generations have now been through it in terms of thinking about what does it mean to qualify in this interdisciplinary arena,” she said.
Mark Birchette, an associate professor of biology at Long Island University who has collaborated with Sterling on primate research, was one of her faculty advisors in anthropology. He says despite the fact that she was “very analytical and very quick,” there were times when her advisory committee was concerned about her workload. During the spring of 1988, for example, while she was taking four classes, studying for her qualifying exams, and working as a T.A., Sterling audited a fifth course — human functional anatomy — simply because it looked interesting. As we spoke, Birchette pulled out her 27-page qualifying exam on the topic of specialization. “She was a tour de force in what she did,” he said. “I was very impressed with her as a student, but now working with her as a professional, I’m just blown away.”
Sterling’s interdisciplinary training in both anthropology and forestry has been instrumental in her work at the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. In fact, it’s become one of the defining characteristics of her career going back to her field research in Madagascar.
“One of the things I was concerned about was not just talking at people about conservation, but thinking about what are the concerns of the local community members,” Sterling said. “And because we’d done this cross-disciplinary work I knew to ask questions of the local community members about what was important to them and what might engage them effectively participating in nature conservation issues.”
Sterling in the field in Vietnam.
“It’s not just nature; it’s people and nature,” said Nora Bynum ’95 Ph.D., Director of Science Action at the Field Museum and a former colleague and classmate in the joint program. “Her dedication to language shows her commitment to people with the recognition you have to be able to speak the same language before you can be on the same page.”
Michael Novaceck, senior vice president and provost for science at the AMNH, echoes this sentiment. He calls Sterling a “bridge-builder” between social-oriented anthropology and the biological sciences.
“She’s doing a marvelous job of looking at communities in the Pacific and other communities in terms of traditions — people whose lives are changing because of the traumatic changes in the environment such as sea level rise,” he said.
“I’m proud of the ways I’ve been able to listen across difference and make connections and synthesize,” Sterling said. “I think I’m really skilled at that and I believe I brought those skills from so many amazing people at Yale.”
Still, she admits it’s not always been easy to bridge distinct and often disparate disciplines.
“I would say that it has been a constant challenge to my career to balance the pressure against interdisciplinary with the pressure for it,” Sterling said. “I think the practical world tends to pressure towards it and that the academic world tends to have a hard time of figuring out how to manage it. Not to say that there aren’t people who are hugely supportive of it. But there’s a whole suite of structural challenges that makes it difficult for an interdisciplinarian to survive. What’s wonderful is that the museum is a great place to do that.”
Working at the museum has provided her the opportunity to pursue a variety of roles — from initiating conservation projects, to conducting primary scientific research, to curating exhibitions such as “Our Global Kitchen: Food, Nature, Culture.” She also co-founded the Network of Conservation Educators and Practitioners, a global initiative at the Center that provides free teaching modules and other resources to environmental educators in more than a dozen countries. And she has served as an advisor for doctoral students at Columbia University, where she received the Graduate Student Advisory Council Faculty Mentoring Award in 2012.
“She really is a humble, down-to-earth sort of person at the same time that she is this remarkable leader,” Richard said. “But it’s this kind of leadership that is inclusive and thoughtful and catalyzing rather than imposing a vision on people.”
When asked what she is most proud of her many accomplishments, Sterling answered, without hesitation, “My students.”
“I invest an incredible amount of time in thinking about and understanding and recognizing the strengths and areas for growth in my students,” she said. “And for the first many decades of my career I probably did less than other academics might have done in terms of publishing and I put more of my energy into the next generation all over the world. They are doing amazing things and I just love that.”
Her most recent doctoral student, Rae Wynn-Grant ’10 M.E.Sc., now a postdoctoral fellow at the museum, says Sterling looks at a student’s potential and then goes above and beyond to help the student succeed.
“She was really hard on me a lot of the time to the point that I definitely felt pushed to perform really well,” Wynn-Grant said. “But at the same time, she has this ability to balance that role with being very caring and really taking the time to not just get to know me on a personal level, but to support me on a personal level.”
Wynn-Grant also says that Sterling is extremely involved — and sometimes the only person in a leadership position — in promoting racial and ethnic diversity in science.
Eleanor Sterling with a sea turtle in the Palmyra Atoll in the Northern Pacific.
“A lot of people bring their energy and their passion into solving those problems, but not necessarily their complex thinking ability,” she said. “So in that way she’s extremely unique. She almost approaches some of these issues of inequality in science with a scientific mindset and with the passion to solve them and figure them out.”
For her part, Sterling credits her teachers and time at Yale for helping to set the course of her career.
“Alison and I went back and forth when I was trying to decide if I should go to this M.D./Ph.D. program in the center of the United States or go to Yale,” she said. “And often people tell you not to go to your undergraduate institution to do your graduate work and that you really should branch out and learn from other people. I see that and I say the same thing to students some of the time.
“But I think it was one of the best decisions I could have made and I really grew from being an undergraduate and graduate student at Yale in very different ways. I hugely benefitted from the education I got there and the people that I met, both students as well as professors. And I treasure the experience and therefore am all the more honored with this award.”