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Isabella Kauakea Aiona Abbott’s education in algae began early. During her childhood, she and her siblings combed the shores of Honolulu and Lahaina in search of edible varieties; Abbott’s native Hawaiian mother could recognize and name nearly each of the five dozen varieties of Limu at their fingertips. At home, they would pound and add salt to seaweed like fuzzy, coppery limu kohu (Asparagopsis taxiformis) and the sweet limu wawae’iole (Codium edule). They dove the branchy, centipede-like limu huluhuluwaena (Grateloupia filicina) in a tempura batter and fried.
As she grew into an adult, Abbott also became interested in seaweed. When she died at age 90 in 2010, she alone had discovered more than 200 species and helped bring the scientific community’s attention to the essential role plants play in healthy marine ecosystems. Abbott’s work was so prolific that other scholars called her the First Lady of Limu.
There’s no doubt, says Stephen Palumbi, colleague, friend and professor of marine science at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, that Abbott’s work was fundamental to current research on algae, a broad category of algae. ‘algae. Today, scientists are exploring the role of algae in marine food webs and human nutrition, as well as their potential for sequestering carbon, mitigating ocean acidification, and even reducing methane in cow burps. .
Isabella Abbott, Izzie to her friends, was born in Hana, Maui, in 1919. She graduated from the University of Hawai’i with a degree in botany in 1941 and earned a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley in 1950, becoming the first Native Hawaiian woman to hold a doctorate in science. That same year, Izzie’s biologist husband, Don Abbott, joined the faculty at the Hopkins Research Center in Pacific Grove, California, as a professor. Like many college wives at the time, despite holding a doctorate in marine botany, Isabella Abbott was eventually hired not on a tenure track, but as an underpaid and underfunded lecturer.
Despite the levity, over the next decade Izzie “became one of the world’s leading seaweed experts,” says Palumbi. And finally, Stanford fixed its original mistake. When the university began to reassess the absence of women in its professional roles in 1972, they started at Izzie’s office door. In a single day, she was promoted to full professor of biology, making her the first woman and first person of color to hold the title there. The speed of promotion “was unprecedented and it hasn’t happened since,” Palumbi says.
For Abbott, algae was more than just a professional interest. She regularly showed up at work events with creations such as zucchini bread, made with bull kelp instead of squash, and ran an annual seaweed pickling meeting. His culinary prowess with kelp has even been featured in Gourmet in 1987.
As a researcher, Abbott was prolific. She is the author of more than 150 journal articles and eight books, including the 1976 Definitive Study of Pacific Coast Algae, California seaweed. She illustrates the rainbow of limu under the sea: ethereal giant kelp (Macrocystis pyriferous) with her flowing mermaid locks; the mulberry-colored washcloth, in the shape of a coral or Turkish stone (Mastocarpus papillatus); long-legged alaria (Fistulous alaria) whose chartreuse blades can reach up to 99 feet in length.
Abbott was among the first scientists to recognize just how much marine environments depend on healthy kelp forests: when kelp habitats begin to die due to warming temperatures, ocean acidification and other induced factors by man, the entire ecosystem is in trouble. Abbott also laid the groundwork for understanding the other half of the story: while failing kelp forests are a sign of a larger problem, thriving forests are powerful defenses against those same threats. Underwater plants not only sequester and store carbon, they restore natural upwelling and fill the ocean’s nutrient value chain, says Brian von Herzen, founder and executive director of the Climate Foundation. Rebuilding algal habitats can help rebalance the ecosystem.
Increasingly, groups such as Washington State’s Puget Sound Restoration Fund (PSRF), in addition to analyzing losses, are looking to the future. PSRF is currently working with the Squamish Nation to restore a kelp forest in an area where algal habitats have declined by more than 80%.
“So far, we have been successful in growing lines of kelp seeded with nylon yarn or twine,” says PSRF assistant manager Jodie Toft. When ready, the tiny baby kelps are positioned by dive teams, though the group hopes that one day the forests will regenerate on their own, without human intervention.
This type of research has its roots in the work of early pioneers like Abbott, says von Herzen: “Today we stand on the shoulders of these giants of the algae world.
Kelp is also showing increasing promise for combating ecological degradation out of the water. In 2018, researchers from the University of California-Davis reported that the incorporation of red algae of the genus Asparagopsis in dairy and beef cattle feed reduces the methane emissions they exhale by more than 80%. Abbott knew red algae well: in 1967, she identified an entirely new genus of the family that today bears the name Abbotelle in his honour.
In their later years, the Abbotts returned to Hawai’i, and Izzie joined the faculty at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, where she taught until her death. While there, she received the Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal, marine botany’s most prestigious award, and was named Hawaii’s Living Treasure. The title suited a woman who proudly displayed a Hawaiian flag quilt on her dining room wall. The legacy was defiantly created by his grandmother at a time when the display of the flag was banned following the overthrow of the Native Hawaiian government in 1893.
“It was very close to her heart, that quilt,” says Palumbi. “And her story tells you a little bit about that time and growing up that way in Hawaiian culture.” The First Lady of Limu was not just a marine botanist. She embraced seaweed in all the traditional forms that had sustained the island and its people for generations. After all, Abbott wrote, the human relationship with algae did not begin with scientists, but “with a housewife looking for a pudding.”