Dr. Nigella Hillgarth is executive director of Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center of world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. She is a distinguished zoologist who came to the institution in 2002 from her position as executive director of Tracy Aviary, the nation's largest bird park, in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Since joining the aquarium, Hillgarth spearheaded the creation of the dynamic Scripps Explorers Gallery, which transformed a decade-old exhibition in the Hall of Oceanography. She also expanded visitors' hands-on interaction by installing two additional touch tide pools. One- to three-year exhibits developed and installed under Hillgarth's direction include Sounds of the Sea, Earthquake: Life on a Restless Planet, Sea of Genes, Art of Deception, Wonders of Water, and the award-winning Feeling the Heat: The Climate Challenge.
During her tenure, aquarium visitors exceeded 400,000 per year at a time when most other U.S. aquariums were experiencing losses. Gifts from private funds have quadrupled since Hillgarth took the helm, extremely beneficial to a self-supporting aquarium that receives no direct support from federal, state, or city funding.
Hillgarth's work extends far beyond her everyday guidance of Birch Aquarium at Scripps. She currently serves as assistant director for more outreach at Scripps Oceanography, working to ensure that the institution's mission and cutting-edge discoveries are effectively communicated to the world. She was the guest lecturer on two expeditions with members of the Scripps Oceanographic Society: Antarctica in 2006 and the Amazon in 2007. Hillgarth served on the Board of Directors of the California Association of Museums from 2005-2007. The San Diego Soroptomists recognized her with its Woman of Accomplishment Award in 2003.
Born in Tipperary, Ireland, Hillgarth received her master's degree in zoology and doctoral degree in animal behavior, both from Oxford University, England. She specialized in the behavior and physiology of pheasants, carrying out research in Britain, India, and Thailand.
She came to the United States in 1992 to research jungle fowl at UC Riverside. A year later, Hillgarth attended the University of Washington, where she studied hormones and behavior in birds. She made several research trips to the Arctic during this time. In 1997, she joined the University of Utah in Salt Lake City to study the interactions of hormones, health, and behavior in mice.
In 1998, Hillgarth became curator of ornithology at Tracy Aviary, where she began research on the physiology and behavior of penguins in South America and the conservation of marine birds in Galapagos, Peru, and Argentina. She became the aviary's executive director in 1999 and focused on developing the aviary into an institution to highlight the Great Salt Lake as a wetland of international importance.
At more than 65,000 square feet, Birch Aquarium at Scripps features more than 5,000 animals representing 380 species, as well as cutting-edge research discoveries made by Scripps scientists. Its mission is to provide ocean science education, to interpret Scripps research, and to promote ocean conservation. Birch Aquarium at Scripps is accredited by the Association for Zoos & Aquariums.
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