10 Questions for Nigella Hillgarth, Executive Director, Birch Aquarium at Scripps


Dr. Nigella Hillgarth is a distinguished zoologist who came to Birch Aquarium 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.

Born in Tipperary, Ireland, Hillgarth received her master’s degree in zoology and doctoral degree in animal behavior from Oxford University, England. She specialized in the behavior and physiology of pheasants, carrying out research in Britain, India, and Thailand.

Q: What brought you to La Jolla?

I was lucky enough to be asked to become the Executive Director of the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego. I was driven around La Jolla as soon as I arrived and fell in love with it immediately.

Q: What makes La Jolla special to you?

The beautiful combination of the buildings, landscape and ocean - as well as the wonderful people I have met since living here.

Q: If you could snap your fingers and have it done, what might you add, subtract or improve in La Jolla?

I would subtract the disappearance of the lovely old houses in recent years.

Q: Who or what inspires you?

The extraordinary beauty of the natural world around us, especially the ocean, and the wonderful people that strive to understand it and conserve it for future generations.

Q: If you hosted a dinner party for eight, who (living or deceased) would you invite?

What a wonderful opportunity to meet some of my favorite people from history!

Queen Elizabeth I, Winston Churchill, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin and Galileo Galilei would all be on the list. There are so many questions I would like to ask them, and I think the dinner conversation would be fascinating. I would also invite my parents, as I know they would enjoy themselves immensely.

Q: Tell us about what you are currently reading.

Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren. Edited by Joseph F.C.DiMento and Pamela Doughman.

Q: What is your most prized possession?

My friends.

Q: What do you do for fun?

Walking on the beach, theater, opera, travel.

Q: Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

Bringing the wonders of the ocean alive to so many people through Birch Aquarium at Scripps – especially to children.

Q: What is your motto or philosophy of life?

My family motto is: “Persevere through Difficulty” and I have always found it to be useful.