Featured Interview: Cinda Scott on Taking Risks in the Face of Doubt

As part of our Featured Interview series, Cinda Scott–Sloan Scholar PhD in Marine Biology from the University of Miami-Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science–opens up about her path through graduate school and the uncertainty and risks that led her to her current position as the Director of the School for Field Studies, Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro, Panamá.

 

 

What drew you to marine biology and ultimately the PhD?

I grew up in Massachusetts and I spent a lot of time near the ocean as a kid along the New England coast. When I got older, I completed a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory (MDIBL) in Salisbury Cove, Maine and it forever changed the path of my career. While there, I was able to learn about the importance of marine organisms for understanding human health. Though I originally wanted to do an REU to support my desire to go to medical school, I became more fascinated with marine life rather than medicine. After my first summer at MDIBL, I was invited back for a second summer as a research assistant. That second summer in 1999, I was able to train with graduate students working on their PhDs and I learned molecular biology techniques for the first time. Molecular biology and its application in biological studies in fish was just beginning to blossom with the advent of genome sequencing and microarray techniques. It was a fun time to become a marine molecular biology nerd!

After working at a biotech company in Massachusetts and completing a pre-med post-baccalaureate program at Columbia University shortly after my experience in Maine, I decided that medicine was not the direction that I wanted to go in. I decided instead to look for marine biology programs that blended my interest in molecular biology and fish biology. I eventually applied to several programs and had a choice between either paying for a Master’s degree at Columbia University or attending a PhD program fully supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). It was a difficult choice, but I already knew that I wanted to study molecular biology and fish, therefore, I decided to pursue a PhD at RSMAS. It was a gamble going straight into a PhD without first doing a Master’s, but it worked out for me in the end. I entered my PhD program in the summer of 2002 and I completed my PhD in April 2009.

 

After completing your PhD, you chose to work in STEM diversity issues in various capacities and contexts—first as the manager for an NSF-funded Innovation through Institutional Innovation program at the New York City College of Technology, and now as the director for the School for Field Studies in Panama. Why have you decided to dedicate your career to improving the retention rates of underrepresented groups in STEM fields? What inspired you to do this work?

Throughout my PhD training in marine biology, I always found it startling how few students of color were alongside me. I kept asking myself, where is everybody? I realized that I was extremely fortunate as a young person to be exposed to the ocean and that I had parents who pushed, promoted and in some cases forced me to go out and explore the world on my own at a young age. It was important to my parents that I do something that was considered uncommon, particularly for an African-American woman. To my parents it was never a question of should she do it, rather it was always, well, why not?! The field of marine biology as a whole is severely lacking in people of color. I vividly recall attending a Research Conference as a graduate student and the only other African-American conference attendee, 30 years my senior, marched right over to me, shook my hand exuberantly and said with a huge smile, “Well, it’s nice to finally have someone else around here besides me.” I shook his hand and smiled, but I of course immediately wondered how long he had been waiting and not to mention why?

In my graduate program cohort, I was certainly not like my peers. I did not grow up diving, I did not go spear-fishing in my free time, my parents didn’t own a boat, and I had never taken a marine biology class prior to entering into my program (I did however do an internship at the New England Aquarium and I also took an aquatic ecology and vertebrate life class as an undergraduate and did an REU in Maine). My entering class had 9 students and of the students, I felt the least prepared with regard to having a marine background. I had a very tough graduate program and I struggled often as I found that I often felt that I was under a microscope as one of only a few students of color in the entire school. This was often isolating and I think when I finished I became so strongly passionate about diversity issues in STEM because I did not want students following me to experience the same strife and feelings of isolation. The solution, I thought, was to work to find ways to create access and opportunity into STEM fields that are often overlooked by students of color either because they have never been exposed to the fields or because they have family pressure to get a degree in a field where there is job security (medicine, business, law).

I vividly recall attending a Research Conference as a graduate student and the only other African-American conference attendee, 30 years my senior, marched right over to me, shook my hand exuberantly and said with a huge smile, “Well, it’s nice to finally have someone else around here besides me.”

In working to retain underrepresented students in STEM, I more often encountered students who simply just did not know about certain careers or fields or how to approach them. Even in my current work, directing a study abroad program in Panamá, I find that many students arrive not knowing what the possibilities are in a career that is marine based. I find great satisfaction in having students come on our program, for example, from a land-locked state, who have never been in the ocean, who leave feeling like they could do anything in the field of marine biology or conservation.

 

 

For other Sloan Scholars seeking to follow your path, how did you prepare while as a graduate student for the work you you’ve done in STEM program implementation and management?

Throughout my graduate career, I tutored students ages 11 to 18 in all subjects. I became an expert in middle school history, 8th grade chemistry and high school trigonometry. This was probably one of the best learning experiences of my entire life. I saw how parents interacted with their children, some pushed too hard, and some not enough. I saw fear in some students before they even tried to answer a question, and I saw joy in their faces when they finally succeeded. Tutoring was mostly not about academics, rather it was about building self-esteem and confidence in young people. I also learned the importance of listening and of understanding that each and every person learns differently. I had to quickly figure out whether a student was an auditory, visual, tactile etc. learner in order to help them in the best way that I could. In the process, I also learned a lot about my own issues with learning and I am forever grateful for this time in my development as a teacher. No matter in what capacity, whether it be teaching dance, swimming, tutoring middle school children or teaching university students, it is important that you prepare yourself by teaching.

In graduate school, my focus really was not at all on STEM programming. About two years away from completing my PhD, I realized that a life at the bench was not for me, but I could not figure out what I truly wanted to do. As soon as I finished my degree, I packed my tiny car to the brim and I drove from Florida up I-95 directly to New York City where my mother was living at the time. At 31 years old, though I had completed this incredible accomplishment, I was very lost and I did not know which direction to go in; education, more research or conservation/non-profit. Additionally, in 2009, the largest economic collapse of our time was in full swing and finding work was extremely difficult. Serendipitously, my mother was living about 20 minutes by bicycle from Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) headquarters at the Bronx Zoo. I became an intern for a summer and I found myself wondering once again, where is everybody? My experience at WCS was extremely valuable, and I gained a lot of knowledge about the world of conservation and non-profits. Moreover, I eventually came to realize that I was more passionate about education, and through my own experiences, curiosity and questioning, I became intrigued by the science of science education. 

I had no idea when I completed my PhD what I would be doing in the years immediately following and I would recommend to others who do not feel like they fit a particular mold to step outside of what they know, try something new and to take a risk.

Since graduating from my PhD program at U. Miami, I have always felt like I do not fit a mold. Most people get a PhD, do a post-doc, and apply for a tenure track position. I, however, struggled quite a bit with trying to find my true passion for a good 3 years. When I started applying for jobs in New York, I stumbled across the CUNY Research Foundation and all of a sudden I was brought into a new world of grants, grant making, grant management and implementation. My first job at City Tech as a National Science Foundation Innovation through Institutional Integration manager taught me a lot about administration, leading students and faculty, developing programs from the bottom up and how to support students whether they are in architecture or in chemistry. I also learned quite a bit about education at the national level through my work.  I closely worked with motivated faculty to change how science was taught and I also participated in making this change directly by teaching in the Biology department. I worked my administration job during the day and at night I taught. It was tough, but I became wholeheartedly dedicated to the craft and art of teaching and I used my experience to inform my administrative decisions for the grant that I directed.

I had no idea when I completed my PhD what I would be doing in the years immediately following and I would recommend to others who do not feel like they fit a particular mold to step outside of what they know, try something new and to take a risk. It is scary, it will feel weird, you may not make a lot of money, and you will struggle, but in the end, you might just wind up exactly where you are supposed to be.

 

Did the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority Fellowship impact your graduate education? If so, how?

Thanks to the Sloan Foundation Fellowship, I was able to purchase books and scuba equipment that were vital to my research that otherwise would have been cost prohibitive. It also allowed me to travel to conferences domestically and internationally which were important not only for my career, but for making connections within the greater marine biology community. Importantly, as a result of this fellowship, I had the freedom of independence from my graduate advisor’s funding. The funding was vitally important for me to be able to maneuver through the Ph.D. process. I am very thankful and grateful for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Minority Fellowship.

 

What have you learned about mentoring (peers and/or students) that you adopted in your current position?

In my current position as Center Director at the School for Field Studies, Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies, I have learned the importance of listening as well as the importance of having compassion. I lead every day with compassion and it helps to guide me in my interactions with students and staff. I also find that being yourself, sharing your story with others and being real are extremely important. Many students who see me in this position often say to me that it seems like I have it all together. They are surprised to learn that I didn’t have a high GPA as an undergraduate, that when I was in grad school I switched labs after my second year and had to essentially start over, and that when I finished grad school I still had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up and I was jobless (even though I was already supposed to be a “grown up”!!).

I think students, especially undergraduate students often set expectations so high that they do not allow themselves room for any sort of failure.

When students come to my office with tears in their eyes, wondering if they are going to succeed, I always ask them, well why not?? Self-doubt is by far the biggest deterrent to success that I see in young scientists.

The truth is, we all fail, but you have to learn to see the positive sides of your failures. Then, you have to find the strength to pick yourself up, stay focused and keep swimming. When students come to my office with tears in their eyes, wondering if they are going to succeed, I always ask them, well why not?? Self-doubt is by far the biggest deterrent to success that I see in young scientists. I try my best to show them that they must find compassion in themselves in order to find confidence in their ability. I think too many students do not learn to forgive themselves for making mistakes, for being human, and as a result many get caught in a cycle of “can’t”. It’s a vicious cycle and it can eat at your very core, and for many minority students it is amplified by not feeling supported, and/or feeling isolated in their STEM field. For this reason, I see that every day is a cause to lead by example, which usually involves making many mistakes and laughing at myself.

 

This interview was lightly edited for clarity.

 

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