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New aquarium center promises increased research, conservation

When Linda Cabot was a kid, oceans were invincible, too vast to be harmed. Or so she thought.

Now, years later, she’s spearheading an effort to save those oceans, which, she says, are in more trouble than ever.

Rises in sea level, alarming rates of warming, acidification, and overfishing all motivated Cabot and her husband, Ed Anderson, to make the lead gift to the New England Aquarium to establish the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in Boston .

The new center, which will be officially announced Wednesday, will unify the research and conservation arms of the aquarium, two existing departments that weren’t operating to their full capacities, said John Mandelman, the center vice president.


“Traditionally, we’ve almost operated as a siloed offshoot to the institution,” he said.

But under this umbrella, Mandelman’s team of 37 scientists and researchers will be able to focus on generating solutions to problems created by human impact on the ocean.

“This is a question of focusing our researchers to tackle these problems,” said Nigella Hillgarth, aquarium president.

They’ll also be able to do so under the banner of the New England Aquarium, a name that will raise the profile of the center’s science.

“We engage with 1.3 million visitors per year,” she said. “And we can turn that engagement into not only educating the public about some of these problems that we’re trying to solve, but engage their help in solving them.”

For Cabot, and all involved, one of the center’s primary objectives will be conveying science to the public in an understandable fashion, avoiding what Hillgarth calls “the ivory tower syndrome.”

Cabot has a simple way of doing this:

“Take a breath,” she likes to say. “Now, take another.” (And she will wait for you to take another.)

“That second breath came from the ocean,” she then says. “It comes from microorganisms, and they are getting affected by climate change. And if these microorganisms change fundamentally, then they’re not going to produce the oxygen, and we can’t breathe.”


Teaching the public is becoming a more important part of the role aquariums play in our society, said aquarium spokesman Tony LaCasse.

“For the average American, the bulk of their science knowledge does not come from the classroom, it comes from outside the classrooms,” he said, citing a recent study. “The aquariums are very much informal science learning centers.”

Cabot said she grew up with the aquarium — she remembers gazing rapt at the Giant Ocean Tank — and later in life she became a trustee there, yet she did not find out about the aquarium’s research initiatives until recently.

She said she believes the center will raise the profile of this research and, with that, raise more money to expand the research. She pointed to aquarium projects that rescued sea turtles, developed safer fishing nets, and rerouted maritime trade routes that were disrupting an endangered whale population. These are the accomplishments that Cabot cares about.

“We want to see an impact, we want to see change, and the science here is tremendous,” she said.

The science — that is, the research wing of the aquarium — is what lured Hillgarth away from her job as director of Birch Aquarium in San Diego.

“One of the reasons I came here two years ago was because the strength of the research and conservation done here was outstanding,” Hillgarth said. “Research has been going on here for over 35 years.”


And Cabot agrees. It’s the reason she felt comfortable donating the money in the first place — a sum of money that neither she nor the aquarium disclosed.

Hillgarth said she thinks the gift from Cabot and Anderson will catalyze change. At least, she hopes so. Because if someone doesn’t do something, we’re in trouble, even if, on the surface, it doesn’t always appear that way, she said.

“Even though you look over the beautiful shining sea and it looks great,” she said, “ecosystems are deteriorating, populations are disappearing.”

Reis Thebault can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @reisthebault