The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s groundbreaking Center for Conservation Bioacoustics will begin a new era of innovation thanks to a major gift from the philanthropist and Lab Advisory Board member K. Lisa Yang ’74.
The $24 million gift, announced June 4 at the Cornell Lab’s spring board meeting, is the largest onetime gift in the lab’s history. The naming was approved May 28 by the Cornell University Board of Trustees.
In addition to naming the K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics, the gift endows the John W. Fitzpatrick Directorship for the center, named in honor of the Cornell Lab’s longtime leader to recognize his vision in the need to invest in technology at the Lab.
“This gift is transformational for our role in bioacoustics research globally,” said Fitzpatrick, who is stepping down this summer. “It’s cementing the security of a globally excellent institution in perpetuity, and at the same time significantly increasing our ability to engage and train people in a variety of cultures worldwide.”
“We’re living in a tremendously exciting time for the kind of critically important, machine learning-driven research that’s happening at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,” said President Martha E. Pollack. “Lisa Yang’s generous and timely gift will allow the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics team to keep doing the kind of high-impact terrestrial, aquatic and marine bioacoustics research for which they are renowned.”
Beginning with work on whale and elephant communication in the 1980s, the Center for Conservation Bioacoustics was built on the idea that people urgently need information about ecosystem health, and studying sound is often the best way to acquire it.
To become leaders in the field, the center’s researchers invented and built their own technology: recorders that could capture sounds at an ever-growing scale; and software that could analyze and visualize the terabytes of data their recorders captured. Over the years, their work expanded to encompass birds, marine and terrestrial mammals, fish, frogs and toads, and insects.
Yang’s gift will provide much-needed flexibility to follow the science and serve community needs, easing the pressure of meeting funding cycles and accommodating the priorities of grantors, said Holger Klinck, who has directed the center since 2016.
“We can start to ask, where can we have the most impact in the world? And then target those areas and those projects and commit to them over the long term,” Klinck said.
The gift will also support training in the tools and technology of acoustics, helping Cornell researchers develop partnerships with local scientists and communities and build a global network of people who can share acoustic analysis approaches and conservation strategies.
“Many people are realizing the value of acoustics in conservation, but it is often the first time that they have worked with the technology, and there isn’t a local community that they can turn to for guidance,” Klinck said. “In addition to sharing our own experience through workshops and seminars, we can help to connect people who are studying, say, rainforest conservation in central Africa with people who are working on similar challenges in Southeast Asia. This will be key to scaling up the use of acoustics in conservation.”
The twin commitments of technology and capacity building inspired Yang, who first learned of the Cornell Lab’s work during Migration Celebration, an open house event. As people milled around exhibits, Yang struck up a conversation with research analyst Ashik Rahaman, who showed her instrumentation the group had developed to protect endangered North Atlantic right whales from ship collisions.
Yang has supported efforts including autism and neuroscience research, workplace equity and international health through gifts to Cornell, Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Neurodiversity in the Workplace, among other institutions. A previous gift to Cornell named the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
This gift, she said, is an investment in the center’s unique approach, and ultimately its goal of conserving biodiversity in some of the most remote yet species-rich parts of the world.
Yang said the role of technology at the Cornell Lab reminds her of the bamboo scaffolds she used to see at building sites growing up in her native Singapore. Like scaffolding, she said, technological advances should be viewed as a framework that allows much larger ambitions to be achieved.
“I can’t save the world alone,” Yang said, “but I can focus the center’s strategy on translational science. So this gift is about technology as a means to conserve biodiversity and to invest in and empower people living in areas of immense biodiversity, essentially the lungs of the earth.”
Hugh Powell is a senior science editor at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.