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For years, Nigella Hillgarth had been observing the behavior of peacocks in a remote forest in Thailand, studying how penguins in the Galapagos were affected by global warming, and considering the sexual selection of pheasants in Great Britain.

The Oxford-educated evolutionary biologist had traveled from the humid jungles of the Amazon to the frozen seas of the Arctic to advance her research. But she began to feel a yearning to do more than write obscure academic papers. She wanted to more directly influence public opinion, a pursuit often considered frivolous in academia.

“I remember someone saying it’s not your job to tell the public about your work — ‘if it’s important enough, the public will learn about it,’ ” she recalls hearing that well before becoming the sixth person — and first female — to head the New England Aquarium.

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Hillgarth, the daughter of a British spy who aspired to emulate biologists like E.O. Wilson, returned from one research expedition to learn of a scandal at an aviary in Salt Lake City, where she had moonlighted as a curator in the late 1990s. The organization’s finance director had been accused of embezzlement, the director had resigned, and she was asked to take over.

So the assistant professor quit her job at the University of Utah with the goal of more directly connecting scientists’ understanding of how the environment was changing to what she thought the public needed to know.

“As fascinating as my research was, there was a growing feeling that I needed to do something,” she says. “The planet was in serious trouble, with degradation of habitat, overfishing, and climate change . . . I felt I would have to leave academia.”

Hillgarth, now 62, has taken that zeal to spread awareness and compel change to a new level since becoming president and CEO of the aquarium in Boston, a city she had never visited before interviewing for the post.

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Among her goals: more closely linking what the aquarium’s 1.3 million annual visitors experience and their interest in protecting the environment. Surveys there have shown that about 40 percent of visitors leave saying they want to do something to help the oceans; she aims to double that.

“We don’t have much time to wake the public to the issues,” she says. “There comes a point when things are so important in the environment that you can’t sit back and say nothing.”

But Hillgarth’s mix of scientific analysis and environmental concern has spurred some to question whether she may be pushing one of the region’s premier cultural institutions — which has more visitors than all but five other aquariums in North America — too far into an advocacy role.

They have raised concerns, for example, about the aquarium’s support of controversial legislation that would ban the sale of shark fins and its efforts to persuade the Obama administration to declare a marine monument in portions of the Gulf of Maine. The proposal has angered the region’s fishermen because it would ban fishing in those areas permanently. A monument is a federally designated protected area similar to a national park.

“I think it’s appropriate for the New England Aquarium to advocate for a greater appreciation and understanding of our oceans, but I think it’s inappropriate for a museum and cultural institution to use its resources for the advocacy of highly charged, controversial political positions,” says Robert Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a Washington-based group that represents the fishing industry. “I think Dr. Hillgarth should lead the aquarium in a way that it doesn’t become a pawn of the more extreme wing of the environmental movement.”

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Vanasse and others have decried a potential presidential decision on a marine monument. They say it would circumvent a well-accepted legal process, one required by Congress, which applies to all other proposed fishing closures.

“I’m a big fan of the aquarium, but I think they’ve picked the wrong battle on this,” says Mayor Jon Mitchell of New Bedford, one of the nation’s top-grossing fishing ports.

Hillgarth on a recent whale watching trip to Stellwagen Bank.
Hillgarth on a recent whale watching trip to Stellwagen Bank. David Abel/Globe Staff

The aquarium’s vocal advocacy may disturb some, but Hillgarth has the support of her board.

“We believe that the New England Aquarium has a unique and important platform to educate millions of people each year on the challenges facing the oceans, and the steps individuals can take to help protect vital marine life,” says Donna Hazard, chair of the aquarium’s board of trustees.

Bud Ris, Hillgarth’s predecessor as president, says the aquarium has long treaded a fine line on politically volatile issues. Lobbying and other kinds of political activity could jeopardize its nonprofit status and its ability to receive federal and state grants.

He recalls the dilemma he faced four years ago when the National Science Foundation awarded a $5 million grant to the aquarium to educate visitors about the impact of climate change on the oceans.

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“I had wondered whether there would be a backlash,” he says. “We found that most people don’t want to be depressed.”

So rather than highlighting the worst-case scenarios, as advocacy groups often do, the aquarium sought to show what healthy coral reefs look like, and explain how they’re disappearing.

“We didn’t organize the aquarium to do grassroots lobbying or letter writing,” he says. “There are legitimate questions about whether that’s the proper role of a cultural institution.”

Which isn’t to say the aquarium has avoided advocacy altogether.

Since opening in 1969, the aquarium’s staff has testified against proposed offshore oil and gas development on Georges Bank, encouraged the creation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and more recently, helped the tiny nation of Kiribati in the central Pacific create one of the world’s largest protected areas for marine life.

Indeed, Hillgarth envisions advocacy efforts that may arise from research at the new Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, a scientific institute that will integrate different departments at the aquarium to boost its work on fisheries conservation, marine mammal research, and the health of ecosystems.

Hillgarth hadn’t taken much interest in the oceans until after she left her job at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City, the nation’s oldest bird park, to take over the Birch Aquarium at the University of California in San Diego, where she spent 12 years.

She traces her interest in science to when she was a girl growing up in rural Ireland, where her father retired and kept shelves full of books on the region’s wildlife and natural history.

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If there was one moment that made her want to be a scientist, it came during an early morning walk beside her family’s home. Hillgarth was alone, looking out from a blind made of branches, when she heard a rustling, and an otter approached. She and the animal spent what seemed like several minutes staring silently into each other’s eyes.

“There was a very real connection,” she says. “It made me want to understand the lives of animals.”

Hillgarth nearly didn’t make it to academia. After high school, she took a course to become a secretary, a path far more common for women in those days. But in her 20s she worked as an assistant to a pathologist, a job in which she studied geese, ducks, and swans, and became fascinated with evolutionary biology.

So she took night classes at a community college in Liverpool and was ultimately accepted to Oxford, more than a decade after graduating high school.

She has since become an avid birder and still feels intense curiosity when she spies Northern gannets, terns, and herring gulls, as she does one recent afternoon aboard one of the aquarium’s whale-watching excursions.

Squinting through binoculars, she delights in making out the markings of different birds and offers a disquisition on shearwaters, which she notes fly from their nesting grounds in New Zealand to feed on the bounty of small fish on Stellwagen Bank.

“It’s just fascinating to see how nature works,” she says. “To see the real, living animals in front of you is something to behold.”

It’s that same sense of wonder and appreciation that she hopes is sparked by a visit to the aquarium, which uses its $45 million budget to feature nearly 37,000 specimens of 958 species at its cramped, aging building on Boston’s Central Wharf. But she also wants visitors to leave with more something more, something beyond fascination or entertainment.

She wants them to appreciate a sense of what’s wrong, and what needs repair.

“We’re not the Sierra Club,” she says. “But when it’s in our wheelhouse, we’re going to stick our necks out and call for action.”


David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.