MDI Biological Laboratory
Alum Spotlight

MDI Bio Lab Sparked Cinda Scott’s Life in Science and Education

  • March 11, 2024

Cinda Scott, Ph.D., trained at MDI Bio Lab at the turn of the last century. Now she’s running a field-science education program in Panama, while publishing new research on at-risk marine ecosystems and vulnerable communities.

When Cinda Scott was a junior at Vermont’s Middlebury College in 1998, she was struggling a bit. Majoring in biology and environmental studies, Scott felt pressure from home to achieve.

“For students of color, you have a lot of pressure; number one, to succeed, but then also to be a doctor, be a lawyer, be an engineer, go to business school, do something that’s going to make you money,” she recalled in a recent interview.

“And when you’re not a money-motivated person, and you want to do something that’s none of those things, it can be a little bit scary, not only just for you, but for your entire family and extended family,” Scott says.

On top of that, she was feeling outgunned by competitive classmates and distanced from the relatively few real-world lab experiences available on campus.

“I wasn’t one of those kids that was in someone’s lab, who after classes would go and hang out in the lab and do experiments,” she says. “I wasn’t that person.”

But all the same, there was a scientist inside waiting to get out. And after she chanced to meet then-Bio Lab Director Barbara Kent, Ph.D., at a Boston event, Scott took up her suggestion to apply for a summer fellowship at the Lab.

Funded by the National Science Foundation’s “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” program (commonly called “REU” by its many initiates), the opportunity set her on a path to a career in science.

“I always felt like I was a little bit late to the game for doing research. I never really had a research experience… until MDI Bio Lab,” Scott says. “I felt equal with people there, that we were all learning together. I felt included in the process.”

On the shores of Salisbury Cove, Scott took to the rigors of daily lab work entrusted to her by her mentor, John Forrest, M.D., who to this day, mention his name, and any of his mentees or colleagues will light right up.

Forrest tasked Scott with perfusion duties; that is, flowing fluid through the tissues and organs of dogfish caught from Frenchman Bay – a model for human health that anchored some of MDI Bio Lab’s most renowned research of the 20th century.

“I really loved molecular biology, because I found it was kind of like cooking. And I thought that was really exciting,” Scott says. “Being able to be exposed to high level science at that age was so important for me. I realized, ‘oh, this is a liberating thing: no one’s telling me what to do. And I can make this up and fail.’… I think we mess up a lot in science and it’s actually where the best things are found.”

Scott hardly failed; the next summer she returned to the island as a Research Assistant in Forrest’s lab. With encouragement from him and other mentors (she also singles out David Evans, Ph.D.), Scott set a course that would lead to a doctorate in Marine Biology and Fisheries, earned in 2009 at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

That was also the year that Barack Obama began his presidency. Scott says she’d long had an interest in mentoring and training in science, and in bringing more equity into the picture; those goals were amplified by Obama’s call for a new national focus on STEM education.

She took a job at the New York City College of Technology, creating STEM curricula at an institution that primarily served Black and LatinX students. “And I found a lot of joy in that,” she says. “I felt as a young Black Ph.D. that I could make change in a positive way.”

Scott still loved molecular biology and felt grounded by that learning, but she continued to develop a career that was centered on mentoring and training. In 2014 she joined a relatively new environmental studies program, The School for Field Studies (SFS) in Bocas del Toro, Panamá.

Today she is the Center Director, a position that also provides a platform for engaging her students in original research. This year she published a new article in Human Ecology: “Whose Cultural Ecosystem Service Values Matter? Exploring Power Inequities in Diverse Mangrove Communities.”

The research focuses on overlooked mental health benefits that ecosystems provide for local communities, the grief that can accompany loss of access (as when a treasured resource is set aside for conservation), and the importance of indigenous voices for research and policymaking related to cultural ecosystem services.

Since collecting that data, Scott has continued on similar lines of inquiry. “I’ve been thinking a lot about ecological grief, and how we are all processing it, and with students we’ve been looking at how different communities in this region are coping with loss,” she says. “It’s something we’ve been trying to better understand.”

Scott mulls over the turn her career took, as she moved away from the microscope and toward the challenges of training young people in the principles and tools of science.

“It’s been quite eye opening at times,” she says. “When things go great, it’s the most amazing feeling. And it’s kind of the same at the bench too; things can go really wrong, and then things can go really great. I found similarities there.”

And, she adds, she can trace her own methods of engaging students back to MDI Bio Lab.

“Dr. Forrest always made us feel like we were all important, across the board,” she says. “I very much use that in my work today.”

John Forrest and students

John Forrest, M.D., with a group of summer student fellows.