In August 2016 I went to what was the best geek themed event I’d ever attended – If Hogwarts Was An HBCU. It was a night filled with wizarding robes, interesting blerds, and trap music. And like every party in New York, you add its attendees to your Facebook and Instagram to stay in touch, regardless if you ever do. But everyone at this event was so cool and interesting you couldn’t help but like their photos and comment on their timeline. Cynthia was one such person. Seeing her march in protests, travel to the Solomon Islands for field work, present and educate on the inequality of race in environmental sciences, get accepted into the Ph.D. program of the University of Toronto’s Geography department—her passion for conservation and social justice makes you want to take it upon yourself to know more and do more. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say she’s the closest thing to Hermione Granger we have in the muggle world.
Q: Origin story time – what were you doing before and what led you to this?
A: I am one of those weird people that always firmly knew what I wanted to do. Since around the age of 8, I wanted to be a zoologist that studied orangutans and advocated for their conservation. I gave some very inspiring speeches on primate conservation to a packed room of stuffed animals. When I was a teenager, during the era of Myspace, I posted blogs about one of the greatest threats to orangutan habitats, palm oil, and why people should limit their consumption of this pervasive vegetable oil. I also became a vegan, initially for animal rights. There was an embarrassing time where I shared PETA videos on said Myspace page. I really was out here convinced I would be the next Jane Goodall.
Funnily enough, when I made it to Indonesia to study orangutan nesting ecology for my undergraduate thesis, I realized in order to influence conservation in the ways I wanted to, I could not study them directly.
Q: Do you have a mentor or tribe of people you turn to?
A: I have been fortunate enough to have amazing women scientists as mentors throughout my career who have supported my ambitions to do research projects that were often somewhat independent from their work. Regarding tribe, I have two that I would so love to merge. The first is the group of freedom fighters who give me a space to think through and practice Black liberation in real time. Shout out to BYP (Black Youth Project) 100 NYC Chapter! The second is the wonderful group of Black conservation scientists and practitioners, who are also good friends, that give me life in navigating white spaces and the issues we face in our work.
Q: How do you grow your network and community of collaborators?
A: As a conservation scientist, research projects have been my primary way of growing my network. The entire process, from developing a thesis, research methods, carrying out field research, and presenting results at conferences is an exercise in building an expansive, diverse intellectual community.
Increasingly, I look outside of academia to build my network. I collaborate with community organizers and environmental activists who know how to apply knowledge and action towards creating change.
Q: What would you tell yourself five years ago that you wish you knew then?
A: Five years ago, I was full speed ahead for making my dream of researching orangutans in Indonesia happen while struggling to support myself financially, mentally, and emotionally. I would tell myself to slow down, to be more accepting of life experiences that are not necessarily related to advancing my career, and to focus more intentionally on cultivating a practice of self-love and care.
Q: Name your greatest success (or something you’re most proud of) in your professional experiences.
A: Finishing my Masters. It was quite a difficult time for me personally, dealing with depression and anxiety, the isolation of being a graduate student at a predominantly white Ivy League, and the increasing virality of Black death. And yet, I still managed to go to Cameroon, interview over 100 people in 2 months on an issue affecting their livelihoods, run statistical analyses on social and ecological data, organize with other graduate students of color on campus…and graduate.
Q: If you were given $100 million to do things differently in your field, what would you do?
A: I have this long-term vision of creating a network for people of color in conservation science to lay the foundations for a decolonized practice. I envision a global inter-generational, group of badass people invested in environmental stewardship, equity, and dismantling oppressive systems.
Q: Name the biggest overall lesson you’ve learned in pursuing your career in science.
A: Scientists in “mission-driven” fields like conservation need to do a better job of understanding levers of change. Millions and millions of dollars have been poured into species conservation and while there are success stories, globally, the ecosystems in which all life inhabits remain in threatened or already dire states. Investments in the people who reside in biodiversity hotspots from wealthy, Western countries who have driven the bulk of modern environmental destruction are focused on replicating Western models rather than leveraging the resilient cultures and stewardship behaviors that have sustained these hotspots over hundreds of years. If we actually care about endangered wildlife, we need to care about empowering robust, sustainable, equitable communities.
Q: In your opinion, what are the top three things someone should consider before going into this line of work?
A: Before considering a career in any field of science, I think one must consider:
1. What kind of work makes you thrive? Is it research, implementing projects, or working with people? Is this career path equipped to deliver this and if not, can you build a network that can help you forge a path suitable to your needs?
2. Money. Conservation, for example, is not a lucrative field, perhaps why it is largely composed of an especially privileged group of people who have the social capital to support them financially. As someone who did not have that, I can say that one has to think really seriously about what kind of lifestyle you are comfortable with and whether your work could support that.
3. What kind of path would you have to follow to gain legitimacy? Do you need to get a Masters or a Ph.D.? Field research? Lab work? Multiple publications? Are these things that you want to do? While people can gain legitimacy in alternative ways (i.e. years of experience vs. degrees), I think it is important to acknowledge the barriers you may face pursuing a non-traditional path. For women of color, our legitimacy is questioned no matter what path we pursue, even the most traditional and prestigious, so…it’s a compounded struggle.
Q: Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently when you were first starting out?
A: Empowered rather than diminished parts of myself, especially those related to my identity and social position, to fit into the traditional mold of a conservation scientist (white, middle class). But it’s okay, I know better now, you live, and you learn.
It is a gift and a burden to know wholeheartedly what you want to do in your life. You have a focus and drive but can lack in other areas of your life to make it well rounded. Cynthia’s acknowledgment of the need to “intentionally cultivate” the aspects of her life that weren’t related to her career led to her having peace while still attaining her goal. How do you practice taking a step back while still staying on the path to your goals? Let us know in the comments below.
For more info on what Cynthia is up to, follow her on: