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Moving the Needle

The Zegar Family Foundation combats climate change with science

Coral bleaching and global food supply are at the center of new research efforts at UC Santa Barbara being funded by a gift from the Zegar Family Foundation. With a total donation of $1.04 million, the nonprofit organization founded by Charles “Chuck” Zegar and his wife, Merryl Snow Zegar, is supporting three new UCSB based projects aimed at finding environmental solutions.

“We knew we wanted to get involved with UC Santa Barbara, and we wanted to zoom in on something that we thought would be beneficial and that this institution has expertise in,” said Chuck, co-founder and original software architect for Bloomberg, and a trustee of the UC Santa Barbara Foundation. “We knew ocean science and the environment are UCSB’s specialties and have seen where they are doing very important work in this area. We wanted to be involved.”

coral reef

Merryl, an attorney and former administrative law judge, agreed. “We first came to the university to explore many different projects for scientific investment,” she said, “ultimately deciding that, for our foundation, we wanted to really focus a lot of our efforts and energy on the environment.”

So it is that the Zegars are funding important new endeavors by two accomplished UC Santa Barbara scientists — marine biologist Ben Halpern and ecologist Deron Burkepile — that will address different aspects of climate change.

In two synergistic projects, Halpern, director of UCSB’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, will explore the environmental impact of food production and the impact of environmental change (notably climate change) on food. Burkepile, an associate professor in UCSB’s Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, will synthesize data from coral bleaching events over the past several decades to determine where corals are bleaching less than expected and where they are bleaching more.

“With funding from the Zegar Family Foundation, these projects will help put all global food production on the same ‘table’ to compare and contrast how they impact the environment and how they might change with climate change — fundamental questions for global food security and the fate of our planet,” said Halpern, also a professor at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science & Management.

“We are really excited to see the results that come and, importantly, to openly share all of the data and results so that others can build on our work and take it in directions we never could have imagined. To me that’s one of the most exciting things about science — the iterative process of discovery that leverages the past and finds unexpected insights in the future.”

The environmental focus for the Zegars is relatively new, but science has long been central to their philanthropy — in particular for Chuck, who holds advanced degrees from New York University in both computer science and biology. He is actively involved in research himself, part of a biology lab at NYU, where he also sits on the Board of Trustees.

In all of their philanthropy, the Zegars are oriented toward impact.

“To me what’s most important is the bang for the buck and how you move the needle,” Merryl said. “Don’t just throw money at something — take time to understand what a program is doing and how it can create the impact you want. You have to find your passion and really work toward something that has meaning to you. It’s all about passion and impact.”