Collaborative Marine Conservation

Speaking via Zoom from her home in Bocas del Toro, Panamá, Dr. Cinda Scott ’95 assured students that every career path need not be a straight line – and that their Middlesex friendships would be as sustaining and lifelong as hers have been. A marine biologist and the center director of the School for Field Studies (SFS) in Panamá, Cinda described her own journey, her current research, and her efforts to conserve marine habitats when she delivered the fifth Bendheim Lecture on May 4, 2021. Established by a Middlesex parent in 2015, this lecture series brings inspiring experts in STEM fields to campus to share their professional experience.

It was during her time as a Middlesex student, Cinda recalled, that she first learned about climate change, though she did not know then how it might impact her future work. Thinking that she might be a vet or a doctor, she majored in biology and environmental studies at Middlebury College. But a semester spent in a tropical marine biology program in Costa Rica “fundamentally changed my life,” she noted, and for that reason, she encouraged current students to take time to study abroad and gain a more global perspective.

Subsequent summers at Maine’s Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory introduced Cinda to the idea that marine organisms could serve as models for studying human disease. Still thinking of being a doctor, she completed a pre-med post-bac program at Columbia University. Ultimately, however, her love of science and the ocean instead led her to earn a Ph.D. in marine biology and fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

In 2014, while teaching biology at New York City College of Technology, Cinda found herself in her office wondering, “When was the last time I was truly happy?” She realized, “I needed to get back to the marine world.” Packing up her apartment and putting everything in storage, she moved to Panamá to lead the SFS program there. “You never know how something is going to turn out until you try!” Cinda reflected.

In Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panamá, one of Cinda’s roles is to research marine habitats, and she guides groups of undergraduate students in performing surveys underwater to monitor the health of ecosystems. The information gathered is critically important to conservation efforts in the region, where a diverse population depends largely on tourism in this poorest of Panamá’s provinces – and where threats to the environment are many. Pollution from sewage and sediment, warming water temperatures, and mangrove destruction by developers have all contributed to a loss of marine habitats and biodiversity. Mangroves, she pointed out, are particularly important in supporting thousands of other species, protecting the coastline, sequestering carbon, and trapping sediment, keeping the water clearer.

“I believe that conservation needs to be rooted in equity,” Cinda stated, stressing that all people living in the area need to be given a say in how resources are managed. To this end, she brings government officials out to the reefs, explaining their importance. Additionally, she works alongside local and national groups to influence conservation policy and improve marine protected areas like Parque Nacional Isla Bastimentos, which currently does not include some of the most complex habitats. By building communication among the stakeholders, including indigenous voices and knowledge in those conversations, and continuing to provide ecosystem assessments, Cinda hopes that balanced solutions can be reached that provide protection while reflecting the cultural differences of the area.

In closing, she urged her Middlesex audience to care about the world’s oceans. “Every choice you make matters,” Cinda said, advocating for practical measures like recycling, buying locally, and eating sustainably. Students’ subsequent questions about the challenges of her job, the impact of the pandemic, and the potential for sustainable tourism reflected their concern for the marine environment – where perhaps some may find a rewarding career one day, as Cinda has.