Dr. Ruth Gates: Marine Biologist, Coral Researcher, and LGBTQ+ Hero

Figure 1: Ruth Gates; Courtesy of The Atlantic


With her lifelong dedication and research advancements in marine sciences, Dr. Ruth Gates left a legacy that will continue to fuel progress for years to come. From a young age, Dr. Gates fell in love with the field of marine biology, spending countless hours watching “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” and discovering her true passions. [1] Her interest in studying marine life continued throughout her teenage years, and she went on to study at Newcastle University in England, earning her Bachelor of Science Degree in 1984. It was in college that her interests deepened, and upon learning that corals were small animals with even smaller plants residing in them, she decided on her main topic of interest. In order to further her studies, Dr. Gates moved to Jamaica to study corals and their symbiotic relationships. [1] In 1989, she completed her Ph.D., followed by many decades of research.

Her Research

Corals are primarily responsible for providing physical and ecological support to 33 percent of all marine life, and their survival is integral to many other organisms, including humans. In fact, about 500 million people worldwide rely on coral reefs for food. [2] Dr. Gates was known for pioneering a new research method to breed coral species that can withstand the adverse changes resulting from rising sea temperatures that accompany global warming. [3] She attempted to solve the mystery of why some corals cannot survive bleaching events (occurs when environmental abnormalities, such as rising ocean temperatures, stunt the growth of corals and cause them to discolor), while others seem genetically predisposed to survive. [2] She reinforced genetic traits through selective breeding and transplanted them onto damaged reefs. [3]  Since 90% of the world’s coral reefs are projected to die by 2050, Dr. Gates hoped that her efforts would preserve these natural phenomena for future generations. 

 As one of the world’s leading researchers in this field, Dr. Gates was able to accomplish many breakthroughs. In 2013, she won the Paul G. Allen Ocean Challenge, a $10,000 prize for her plan to restore damaged coral reefs. This idea was furthered when she and a research partner, Madeline van Oppen, were given a four million dollar grant to breed “super-corals” that can withstand the changing climate. [4] She established the Gates Coral Lab at the Hawai\’i Institute of Marine Biology, and despite her unfortunate death in 2018, her team continues to push forward their missions, restoring corals in the wake of damage and a changing climate. 

Dr. Gates was a very prominent public figure, featured in the award-winning 2017 documentary, Chasing Coral, where she discussed her research on coral reefs in a warming climate. She also mentored many graduate students, and served as a public speaker and communicator, advocating for change and progress in her field. Dr. Gates was a big believer in the notion that someone cannot control what happens around them or the choices that others make, but how they should focus on their own actions. [4] Many of her colleagues recall that Dr. Gates was never driven by her own ego, but rather her mission and passions. While many scientists sought personal glory, Dr. Gates understood that like coral reefs, humans also depended on cooperation to contribute to real change.  [4]

Additionally, Dr. Gates understood the challenges of being a woman and member of the LGBTQ+ community in a male-dominated STEM field and worked to advocate for others. She was the first woman to be elected president of the International Society for Reef Studies, and with her appointment, she aimed to diversify her field, tearing away from the constraints of a stereotypical scientist. Her advocacy for diversity and representation in STEM fields inspired many budding scientists to pursue their passions.[4]

Outside of her research endeavors, Dr. Gates was a scuba diver, karate black belt, and even started her own karate school in Hawai\’i. [3] In September 2018, Dr. Ruth Gates married her wife, Robin Burton-Gates. As an LGBTQ+ scientist, she was able to make a name for herself in a field where it was difficult to find success, through hard work and perseverance. Unfortunately, in May of 2018, Gates was diagnosed with brain cancer, and five short months later, she passed away. Her wife recalls that she remained happy and optimistic throughout her treatments and procedures, hoping that her mission would succeed and someday, future generations could reap the benefits. 


A marine biologist, researcher, leader, visionary, and even martial-artist, Dr. Ruth Gates leaves behind a legacy of optimism in the field of marine sciences. With her clever research methods and observations, there is hope that coral reefs may be able to be repaired from the damages of the bleaching effects and climate change. Dr. Gates was never one to spend time mourning the past, but she will always be remembered as a true scientist, not only through her brilliance and excellence in marine studies, but also through her advocacy, optimism, and push for progress. 



  1. Kolbert, Elizabeth. “A Radical Attempt to Save the Reefs and Forests.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 11 Apr. 2016, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/18/a-radical-Attempt-to-save-the-reefs-and-forests.
  2. Kalkreuth, Sophie. “Saving the World\’s Coral to Avert a Wipeout of Irreversible Costs.” South China Morning Post, South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd., 9 June 2018, www.scmp.com/business/article/2149588/saving-worlds-coral-avert-wipeout-irreversible-costs
  3. Brown, Barbara. “Ruth Gates Obituary.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 22 Nov. 2018, www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/22/ruth-gates-obituary.
  4. Yong, Ed. “The Fight for Corals Loses Its Great Champion.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group LLC, 29 Oct. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/10/

About The Author 

Aurrel is a high school junior from New York, currently interested in exploring the intersections between STEM and humanities. She is passionate about journalism and world affairs, and hopes to combine these interests with sciences. When she isn’t competing in math, science research, or ethical debate competitions, you can find her playing instruments, tutoring and doing other community service.

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