Biology alum leads Monterey Bay Aquarium in education, conservation

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is a pioneering sort of place. Nestled right on the California coastline—the building has decks that stretch out over Monterey Bay itself—the aquarium was the first institution to build a living kelp forest within its walls and the first to display a Great White shark and have it thrive. The aquarium advocates for sustainable seafood through its “Seafood Watch” program, and is home to over 80,000 species of marine plants and animals.

As a pioneering sort of woman, UWM alumna Cynthia Vernon (MS, Biological Sciences, 1981) fits right in. She’s the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s chief operating officer, responsible for overseeing the institution’s exhibitions, facilities, animal care, guest experience, and education programs, among other duties.

Vernon is set to retire soon after decades of working in the zoo and aquarium business. She sat down to reflect on a satisfying career of helping people get in touch with the natural world.

Biological sciences alumna Cynthia Vernon is the chief operating officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium. Photo courtesy of Cynthia Vernon.

I feel like every naturalist has stories coming home with frogs in their pockets as a child. Were you that kind of kid?

Yes, absolutely. My mom sometimes would tell a story about me in second grade. I came home from school, clutching a giant book that I had taken out of the library about animals of the world or something like that. I announced that I was going to be a naturalist when I grew up. So, I’ve always been focused on animals and the natural world.

Where did you do your undergraduate work, and what brought you to UWM for graduate school?

I consider myself a Cheesehead. I grew up in Brown Deer, Wisconsin. My undergrad degree is from DePauw University and I have a BA in zoology. After graduation, I was working with students at Oconomowoc High School on self-guided projects. The school district wanted me to grow the program and I needed to a teaching credential, which I didn’t have. UWM was the closest option, and a really good school. I enrolled in the School of Education and spent a semester in the formal education world. I just felt like it wasn’t for me. I transferred to biological sciences and decided I was going to pursue my real interest, which was animal behavior and the natural world.

When did you start getting involved in the world of zoos and aquariums?

I got a preceptorship, basically an internship, at the Milwaukee County Zoo (while) I was still doing my studies. My last rotation was in the education department where I worked with the staff to develop a program for kids, and it was like I had found my true calling.

After graduating, you worked at the Fort Wayne (Indiana) Children’s Zoo before you landed at Brookfield Zoo, just down the highway from Milwaukee. What was your time like at Illinois’ biggest zoo?

I was there for 13 years. I started as an Education Specialist, developing and delivering education programs. I also got experience creating exhibitions. They just kept giving me more things to do. I was promoted Curator of Education and then Director of Communications.

The Swamp was one of the first exhibitions that I worked on. I also worked on The Living Coast and Habitat Africa. Probably the one that resonates the most, though, was the Hamill Family Play Zoo, which was groundbreaking for its time. Its foundation was around how kids develop connections to the natural world through nature play. By providing them with experiences and play partners, they are able to learn about the natural world. That was a really important project for me.

How did you come to the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

My wife and I wanted to be on the west coast. I was encouraged to apply to an opening at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for Vice President of Education and Conservation. I was very fortunate to be selected.

For those of us who have never been there, can you talk about the Monterey Bay Aquarium?

It’s a fantastic place right on Monterey Bay. We sometimes joke with visitors that our best exhibit is the bay. You can go out on our back decks, and just yesterday as a matter of fact, we were out watching humpback whales. You can see their tails flukes go up and see their spouts right from the aquarium.

I think the other thing that we’re known for is that we are first and foremost a conservation organization. Our mission is to inspire conservation of the ocean. We do that by getting people excited about the wonders in the bay and the ocean, and then telling them how they can do more to protect it. We get them jazzed up about very cool animals—otters and Mola Mola and octopi –

everything that makes up Monterey Bay and the ocean. Through our programming and our interpreters, we inspire people to take some next steps about what they can do, including choosing sustainable seafood and producing less plastic pollution, which is a huge issue for the ocean.

Part of your job involves ‘conservation psychology,’ or finding ways to make people care about the environment. With zoos, it seems easy to get people engaged with cool or cute and fuzzy animals. With aquariums, it strikes me as a bit harder; fish aren’t cuddly.

It’s about showing them the ‘wonder.’ We just opened a new exhibition called “Into the Deep,” and it’s the first time that anybody, any place, has shown some of the species of jellyfish and other deep-sea animals that we have on display. These are all animals from the deep ocean and they’re just beautiful. I think one of the things that we’re known for is taking some of those things and using exhibition techniques, lighting, and music to help evoke some emotions.

You can tell people the facts that you know, but that’s not going to be as powerful as an emotional response. We’ve been able to display things in just spectacular ways that get people to say, “Wow, that’s so beautiful; it really needs to be saved. I’m going to do something about it.”

We do have some cute and cuddly things to see. Otters are pretty cute. We’ve got a lot of different sharks. We were the first aquarium to ever be able to display white sharks for more than a week. And we had six juvenile white sharks over a period of time. No other aquarium has ever been able to do that. And that was an incredible draw for visitors to come and see white sharks up close, and to learn about them and how important they are. We were able to change their feelings about those predators.

Do you have a favorite exhibit at the aquarium?

I guess it would be the Kelp Forest. I would say it’s our signature exhibit. There is a massive kelp forest, of course, right out in the bay. The founders of the aquarium were able to recreate that so that people could see right into the kelp forest, which supports an amazing diversity of life. (But) kelp forests need direct sunlight, and they need movement in the water. So, we were able to figure out how to create a wave machine and the exhibit is open to the sun and air. I love to go and stand in front of the exhibit when the surge machine is on because it has a very calming effect. We’ve got schools of sardines in there, and we’ve got all these amazing rock fish and little leopard sharks, all kinds of things. It’s just beautiful with the sunlight coming down through it.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is also known for its “Seafood Watch” list. What is that and how did it start? Do I need to stop eating tilapia fish tacos?

You’re good! Tilapia is good. It’s usually responsibly farmed.

There are so many different types of seafood out there and that’s one reason why we created the Seafood Watch program. It started from an exhibition that talked about the hidden costs of our seafood in terms of bycatch, and habitat destruction. As we talked about it, guests were like, “Should I not be eating seafood? What should I eat?” So, we got the idea to create a little consumer card that would help people. It started out with a color-coded, green-yellow-red system—green meaning, it’s good to eat this kind of seafood. It’s caught or farmed responsibly. Yellow is okay every once in a while, but give it a break. Red means you really shouldn’t be eating this kind of seafood.

That program really took off. People took their card to their supermarkets or restaurants. We have a whole science staff that provides the input into those ratings. We work with seafood industries to help them improve and we work with folks in Thailand and in Mexico and other parts of the world to improve their seafood fishing practices or their aquaculture practices. So, it’s a very big and, I think, successful program that helps individuals as well as corporations make the right choices.

You started out as the Vice President for Education and Conservation, and rose until you were the Chief Operating Officer at Monterey Bay Aquarium. In a profession that can be male dominated, how do you make space for yourself as a leader?

I’ve been fortunate to have come to Monterey. We have a very strong, female-led leadership group. That’s been a very affirming place to grow and develop. In terms of my leadership style, I do a lot of listening and coaching. I enjoy seeing people grow and helping them attain what they want to do. I rely a lot on my emotional intelligence to read the situation and help people find what they want to do—their true spark. I try to be a cheerleader for my staff and absolutely be a champion for women scientists. I have more opportunities to be able to elevate other women into those (science and leadership) roles.

You’ve had a great career and you’re retiring in January. Looking back and looking ahead, what are you most proud of? Is there anything that you still want to accomplish?

I’ve had some amazing experiences. I was very involved in the creation of the aquarium’s Bechtel Family Center for Ocean Education and Leadership. It expanded our ability to deliver education programs to all kinds of communities. That was a huge accomplishment that I feel proud of.

And, gosh, the number of exhibitions that I’ve been involved with developing here in Monterey, and also at Brookfield Zoo—I feel very proud to have been a part of that. (I’m proud of) my professional association with the AZA, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. I’m currently on the board of directors. I have been very involved in promoting the principles of conservation psychology, environmental behavior change, and in creating a culture of conservation within organizations. I want to create space for the next generation of leaders coming up, so I feel like this is a good time to sail off into the sunset.