It may have been more than 30 years since he graduated from Charlotte Amalie High School, but "celebrity scientist" Cecil Jennings, a research fishery biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, hasn’t forgotten his alma mater.
During his whirlwind speaking tour of the territory next week, he is scheduled to speak to students there, and hopefully inspire them to pursue careers in science.
"My motivation is to give back to the community," said Jennings, who holds a doctorate in fisheries science from the University of Florida. "It’s always near and dear to my heart, and close to my mind."
Jennings, who lives near Atlanta, is the latest guest speaker on the Celebrity Scientists Tour, a series organized by UVI’s VI-EPSCoR (Virgin Islands Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research).
An adjunct professor of fisheries at the University of Georgia, Jennings plans to talk to students about the natural history of the Virgin Islands and promote responsible stewardship of the environment. He will also share information on career opportunities in marine and environmental management, by telling of his own personal journey to such a career.
"When I was leaving school the notion of being a marine scientist was not on the table," Jennings said. "In fact I had already declared a Physical Education major at the college I was admitted to."
But as a high school senior he took a field trip to the mangrove lagoons of St. Thomas and was intrigued. Through people he met on that trip, he ended up securing a summer job with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources.
"That really opened my eyes to possibilities of a career in marine biology," he said. "One thing led to another, and the rest is history. It was just serendipity. Life is what happens when you’re planning. You should be open to possibilities that you hadn’t considered before."
Jennings spends his days researching the biology, ecology, and management of imperiled fish, and fish of economic or ecological significance. His work focuses on how such populations are affected by habitat alterations and how to recover, enhance, or maintain threatened fish populations.
In addition to speaking at CAHS at 10 a.m. Monday, Jennings is also scheduled to give a public presentation to UVI’s "Brothers With a Cause" at 6 p.m. at Emancipation Garden on St. Thomas. On Tuesday morning he will speak to students at V.I. Montessori School and International Academy; on Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday, and Thursday he will be at Central High School, John H. Woodson Junior High School, and St. Joseph’s Catholic School on St. Croix; and on Friday afternoon he will speak at Julius Sprauve Middle School on St. John.
VI-EPSCoR, which is funded by a five-year $11.5 million Research Infrastructure Improvement grant from the National Science Foundation, hopes that Jennings’ presentations will be eye-opening, and will encourage more young people to consider a career path such as his.
The major goal of the program is to increase the number of Virgin Islands students entering the fields of science, technology, engineering and math by strengthening their interest, research skills and intellectual development.
Other scientists who have visited the territory as part of the Celebrity Scientists Tours are David Guggenheim, also known as "The Ocean Doctor," Debbie Berebichez, also known as "The Science Babe," and Virgin Islands native Trika Gerrard, a marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The visiting scientists are experts in their fields and each has committed to mentoring at least two students who show particular interest and potential in the scientists’ area of expertise. The scientists will provide networking opportunities, academic guidance, and information on workshops and conferences to their protégés.