Thursday, September 9, 2021
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Celebrating Women in STEM: Idelisa Bonnelly

Madalyn Weston

It’s hard not to be fascinated by the ocean and the many strange creatures living in it. Though the closest we get to the ocean in Missouri is the Sea Life Aquarium or the new stingray exhibit at the Kansas City Zoo.

Scientists around the world are working to preserve and protect the ocean’s amazing ecosystems, including Idelisa Bonnelly of the Dominican Republic. Her work as a Marine Biologist helped preserve her country’s coastal resources.

Idelisa Bonnelly was born in Santiago de los Caballeros in September 1931. When she was young, her family moved to the coastal capital of the Dominican Republic, Santo Domingo.

Living close to the water, Bonnelly found her passion for studying marine life. Unfortunately, there were no Marine Biology programs in the Dominican Republic at the time, so Bonnelly’s family encouraged her to pursue her passion in the U.S.

She moved to New York and completed her bachelor’s degree at Columbia University in 1956. In 1961, she completed a Master’s degree at New York University, during which she worked with Dr. Ross Nigrelli, the director of the New York Aquarium Research Laboratory.

She monitored the health of aquarium species and worked with penguins, invertebrates and even walruses.

After completing her master’s, Bonnelly returned to the Dominican Republic to take on her life’s work: educating the public and government on the preservation of marine resources.

She joined the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD), and in 1962, founded the Marine Biology Research Center (CIBIMA). This was the first Marine Biology program in the Dominican Republic, and led to the creation of the School of Biology at UASD.

She also founded the National Academy of Sciences in the Dominican Republic in 1974. Several of Bonnelly’s publications impacted her country’s management and conservation of marine resources. In 1986, her work led to the creation of the Banco de la Plata Humpback Whale Sanctuary, which was the first humpback whale sanctuary of the Atlantic Ocean and represents an important breeding ground for the species. This sanctuary is now part of a “sister sanctuary” program with the U.S. and the Netherlands to protect humpback whales across large areas of the Atlantic Ocean.
For her part in this conservation effort, Bonnelly was awarded the Medal of Merit for a Woman in Science from the Dominican Republic’s government in 1986 and she was added to the United Nations Environment Program’s Global 500 Hall of Fame in 1988.

Bonnelly retired from the UASD in 1987, but her work didn’t stop. In 1991, she founded the Fundación Dominicana de Estudios Marinos, Inc. (the Dominican Foundation of Marine Studies; FUNDEMAR), a non-profit organization to promote sustainable use of coastal marine ecosystems and resources.

The team includes biologists, ecologists and educators, and has alliances with both national and international conservation agencies, including the World Society for Animal Protection and the Humane Society International.

Their projects include reef restoration, control and marketing of the invasive Lionfish, and developing ecotourism to promote safe practices when diving near endangered reef ecosystems. FUNDEMAR also carried out the first dolphin study in the Dominican Republic.

Bonnelly’s work earned her the National Ecology Award Corripio Foundation in 2008, the UNESCO Madame Curie Medal in 2009 and the Award for Distinguished Service in Biology from the Society for the Conservation of Biology in 2010.

In 2011, the Dominican Republic elected her to the Order of Duarte, Sánchez and Mella, with the grade of Commander (the equivalent of being knighted in the UK).

Bonnelly is an inspiration to anyone pursuing their dreams. One of her passions is encouraging women to pursue science careers and leadership roles, and she has been a member of the Organization for the Women of the Third World since 1991.

“Scientific information and opportunities are there for both women and men, and women are very capable of the data management, perseverance, discipline and compassion required by science,” Bonnelly once said.

She also believes that women can have both a career and family, and at 86 years old, she’s married with two children and several grandchildren.

Are you interested in empowering women in the STEM fields? The Women in Science (Wi-Sci) group wants you! Email President Lauren Higgins ( for more information.


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