Abbott's interest in marine biology began during her undergraduate studies at the University of Hawaii, where she was the only woman in her biology class. After earning her bachelor's degree in 1941, she pursued a master's degree in botany at the University of Michigan, where she was one of only two women in the program. She returned to Hawaii in 1947 and began her career as a research assistant in the botany department at the University of Hawaii.
Abbott's focus on marine algae began in the 1950s when she joined a research project on the seaweed flora of Hawaii. She quickly became an expert in the field, identifying and classifying many species of marine algae and writing numerous scientific papers and books on the subject. Her work was especially significant because it provided essential insights into the role of algae in the marine ecosystem and their potential applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry.
Abbott's expertise and contributions to the field of marine algae were recognized and respected around the world. She was the first woman and the first Native Hawaiian to earn a Ph.D. in botany from the University of California, Berkeley, which she received in 1950. She became the first woman to earn tenure at Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, California, where she continued her research on marine algae.
Abbott's accomplishments were all the more remarkable given the challenges she faced as a woman and a Native Hawaiian. In the early years of her career, she encountered sexism and racism from colleagues who underestimated her abilities and questioned her qualifications. She was also one of the few Native Hawaiians working in the field of science, which was dominated by non-Hawaiians.
Despite these obstacles, Abbott persisted in her work and remained committed to her cultural identity. She was deeply connected to her Hawaiian heritage and drew on her knowledge of the Hawaiian language, culture, and traditional ecological knowledge to inform her research on marine algae. She also played an active role in preserving and promoting Hawaiian culture and language, working to document and classify the traditional uses of Hawaiian plants and advocating for the recognition of Hawaiian as an official language.
Abbott's contributions to the field of marine biology and her advocacy for Hawaiian culture and language have had a lasting impact. She was a pioneer in the study of marine algae and helped to establish it as a legitimate area of scientific inquiry. Her work on the ecology and diversity of marine algae provided essential insights into the role of these organisms in the marine ecosystem and their potential applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry.
Abbott was also a role model and inspiration for generations of Native Hawaiian scientists and women in science. She broke through many barriers to achieving success in a field that men and non-Hawaiians dominated, and she did so while remaining true to her cultural identity and values. Her legacy continues to be felt today, as Native Hawaiians and other underrepresented groups in science draw on her example to pursue their careers in science and contribute to the field.
In recognition of her many achievements, Abbott received numerous honors and awards throughout her career. She was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1981, becoming the first Native Hawaiian to receive this honor. She also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Order of Merit.