Meet Dr. Cinda Scott: Marine Biologist

Meet Dr. Cinda Scott

Dr. Cinda Scott is a marine biologist who currently works in Bocas Del Toro, Panama. There, she leads a study abroad program at the School for Field Studies, taking her students out snorkeling among mangroves and hiking through rainforests to conduct hands-on studies. Dr. Scott devotes much of her career to marine conservation as well as to building equity in the ocean sciences.

Interview With Dr. Cinda Scott

Dr. Cinda Scott is a marine biologist who has been working in Bocas Del Toro, a region of Panama on the Caribbean coast, for the past six years. She conducts studies and investigations in the ocean, particularly mangroves, and is passionate about ocean conservation as well as diversity in the sciences!

She is also the director of a study abroad program under the School for Field Studies, on the island of Isla Colón, Panama. Her undergraduate students study marine and terrestrial ecology, as well as socioeconomics while conducting hands-on studies in the ocean and rainforest.

Did you always want to go into STEM as a child?

Many times, people think there’s this so-called pipeline. You’re supposed to do all of these things, and then you magically become a marine biologist. But that just isn’t the case for so many people. And for me, that wasn’t the case. 

When I was younger, I wanted to be a veterinarian. But then one day, I thought, well, maybe I should actually do an internship to see if I really want to be a veterinarian. So, I did a small animal internship and a large animal internship, finding out that I didn’t want to be a veterinarian. Then, I switched and thought I wanted to be a pediatrician, which turned out not to be the case either. Now, I’m a marine biologist, and that came about because of doing a project where I used animals as models for human disease. That experience introduced me to marine science.

Internships are one of the most important things anybody can do. It tells you what you love, and more importantly, it tells you what you don’t like.

How were you introduced to marine biology, and why did you choose to pursue it?

Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, going on little trips with friends and family was my access to the ocean. I always had an affinity for the water, but didn’t really understand the human connection to the ocean until college.

I went to Middlebury College in Vermont, and I double majored in environmental studies and biology with a minor in Spanish. I took this amazing class on how different religious viewpoints influence our policies on the environment and respect the natural world, which was really interesting. 

As an undergrad, I had the opportunity to do research. I worked under the guidance of a doctor studying human cystic fibrosis. I didn’t even know that you could study sharks to figure out issues that were happening with the disease. There, I was introduced to molecular biology, fish physiology, and all of these amazing things. In my third year of university, I studied abroad in Costa Rica, where I trained to scuba dive. That experience forever changed my life because I had no idea there was this whole world underwater. 

I think it is so important in marine biology to be able to speak a second language. In my case, Spanish afforded me the ability to live and work in another country. Whether you speak French or Portuguese or Chinese or or Korean or whichever language, it’ll only advance you to be able to go to places that you never would’ve imagined.

Can you tell us about an exciting project you’ve worked on?

Dr. Sylvia Earle, a famous marine biologist and geographer, created the mission, Blue Hope Spot. Her goal is to build and connect a network of marine protected areas around the world, getting marine biologists all over the world to work together on figuring out how we can conserve large areas in the ocean. I helped register Bocas Del Toro as a hope spot, which is really exciting!

What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

What I love most is working with the community and connecting young people to the ocean, people who have lived in Panama their whole lives but maybe don’t know how to swim or who’ve never snorkeled or been out on a reef before. 

I love taking students out on a reef, and I also get great joy and satisfaction from seeing my own students enter, some of them never having been in the ocean. I get to see them go into the mangroves and over a coral reef to do research. Seeing them progress from beginning to end in a short period of time really makes me overjoyed and happy for them.

Is there anything that surprised you about marine biology after pursuing it?

It’s a field that a lot of people don’t understand. They believe that it’s all about whales and dolphins and all of the charismatic megafauna.

But in reality, marine biology is very layered, from water quality to the little spaces that support ecosystems, there are so many questions that you could ask because it is such a complex habitat. There is so much room for many more people to study, learn, and communicate what’s happening out there.

Can you walk us through a “day in the life” as The School for Field Studies program director in Panama?

I wake up at 6:30 or 7:00 AM. The students have a meeting where they’re told the schedule of the day. While they’re meeting, I have a staff meeting where we go through the schedule of the day and make sure the boats are going to arrive on time and all of the equipment is ready to go. 

If we have a group of 20, students will split in half. 10 students will go into the rainforest first, and 10 will do something in the water first. We do activities in the mornings. After lunch, it’s lectures, classwork, and maybe some small group work. After dinner, there might be an evening activity, or students choose to go to town. 

Every day is so different, which is why I love my work, because you never know what you’re going to get on any day.

What would you say is an important skill for a role like yours?

An important skill to have is definitely leadership and understanding every single person’s role in your team. You have to respect and care for every person and the work they’re doing. There isn’t anyone who is below you. Just because maybe they are not as highly educated doesn’t mean that they don’t have a wealth of knowledge about something you have no idea about. It’s about intellectual humility, which is knowing that you’re never the smartest person in any room, and nor should you want to be. It’s so important to learn from every person you can. No matter what age and no matter what education level, everyone has something to offer. 

What are the subspecialties within marine biology, and what does the coursework look like?

Pre-med is required to become a marine biologist, so it’s all the same coursework. Laying the foundation, there are introductory courses you have to take like chemistry, biology, statistics, calculus, and physics. But afterwards, you could become a doctor, marine biologist, astrophysicist, or whatever you want. 

In marine biology, you can go into so many different areas: 

1. Fisheries: How many tuna are in the ocean? Are we overfishing and depleting these natural resources? 

2. Coral reef ecology: How many different species of coral are there? Are they declining? Have there been recent coral bleaching events that need to be documented? 

3. Marine Genetics: For example, coral restoration; genetically, what’s happening with that?

4. Marine megafauna: Of course, you have people doing wonderful things with the larger animals, like sharks, whales, turtles, manta rays, and dolphins, etc.

Other areas include: oceanography, population biology, evolutionary ecology, phycology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, chemical marine biology, marine biotechnology etc.

What would you say to a student interested in pursuing a career in marine biology? 

Learn as much as you possibly can about what you’re interested in. Students will come to me and say, “I really love the ocean.” But it takes a bit of time to figure out what aspect of the ocean you love? What makes you excited about the ocean? Is it the fish, coral, or turtles? Is it the conservation, protecting these habitats and organisms? Is it the overall ecosystem? 

What resources would you recommend for students to get involved and to learn more about marine biology? 

There are many abroad programs like CIEE that take middle and high school students out and do different kinds of exploratory studies in marine biology.

Read The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. We’re at a crossroads right now as a human population and our impact on the natural world. It’s really important to become aware of the rapid decline of some of the biodiversity that’s going on. 

For example, when you go to the grocery store with your parents, the seafood you eat can have a direct impact on people and other places in the world. Is the shrimp farmed in the mangroves? Is it causing pollution? Are you inadvertently supporting bycatch from the fish you’re eating? Are you causing more damage by eating these things than good?

I live on an island that has two roads and no stoplights. On one of the roads, the pavement ends, and it becomes dirt, then beach. Here, we see a lot of ecological devastation in the water such as coral bleaching. Why is this happening in a place that doesn’t have a huge population and doesn’t have a lot of cars? It’s because we’re globally connected. Every choice that you make affects the people in Panama and everywhere else. 

What are your thoughts on minority representation in STEM and the importance of having diversity?

During my school and PhD years, I’d be the only black person in my classes. I didn’t see me represented in the faculty or higher administration. My motivation for building equity in ocean sciences stems from my own experience of not having anyone around who looked like me. 

Biologists value biodiversity but don’t always value the diversity of the people as much. That’s not okay.

Your voice does matter. Having lived outside of the US for six years, I can see how the messaging we receive in the US about being an underrepresented person in STEM can make you feel like you don’t belong, or that it’s not meant for you. But it really is, and you just have to go for it and ignore everything else. You can do it. 

We have to break the stigma and increase representation in STEM. In ocean sciences, less than ~0.1% of graduate students are self-described as black graduate students. That’s problematic and for any ethnic group. It’s not representation because your voice isn’t heard and your ideas are stifled. We need diversity in scientists, which translates to diversity in perspective, allowing for amazing resources of ideas.

Learn more:

Check out Dr. Scott’s Website

Watch Dr. Scott’s TED Talk

School for Field Studies undergrad study-abroad program

Mission Blue Hope SpotsBocas Del Toro Hope Spot

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert

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