Grandma Graduates: Meet FIU’s Latest Worlds Ahead Graduate Cindy Lewis

Sarah DeMond/Contributing Writer

This summer, Cindy Lewis traded in her scuba suit for a cap and gown.

FIU recognized the coral researcher and frequent diver during commencement and as she walked across the stage her academic accomplishments were listed on the jumbotron. What wasn’t projected on the screen; proud grandmother.

Cindy Lewis graduated this summer, earning her Ph.D. Photo credit: FIU News

While in school, Lewis had forty hours of lab requirements on top of her current forty hour research obligation with Keys National Marine Sanctuary. She drove two hours from Long Key to FIU once a week, often waking up at 5 a.m. just to make it to a 9 a.m. class. 

Lewis said her lab partners and professors were accommodating to her, even as a

64-year-old, not-so-typical student, letting her Skype into classes and labs when needed. 

“Everyone just did an amazing job, helping me be that non-traditional student that I needed to be here in the Keys,” she said. 

Lewis was already working to preserve the coral population while working at the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, when she decided to go back to school. 

“I saw more questions that needed to be answered so I went back to school to do that,” she said. 

Her doctoral research focused on preserving coral genotypes at risk of extinction due to coral bleaching. 

Coral is an animal which supports other small marine life like algae. When water temperature rises, algae leave the coral, weakening its immune system and causing it to lose its golden brown color. This is known as coral bleaching.

Coral is also affected by chemical runoff from sunscreen and fertilizer. Once bleaching occurs, coral becomes more susceptible to disease, which can lead to death. Lewis described it as a “death by ten thousand cuts.” 

Coral is important to marine life and also stands as a line of defense against waves and flooding, lessening the impact of hurricanes. 

Lewis’ professional and personal life were affected in 2017 after hurricane Irma.

When Cindy returned from evacuation, the first thing she did was go to her lab. Returning five days after the storm, she found 44 different genotypes had died due to a generator burning out. 

Not only was her research impacted, she found her home flooded with over two feet of water, her refrigerator in the living room, and items piled high in hopes of preservation were floating around the house. 

 “When I took the shutters off and opened the doors it looked like the inside of a washing machine,” she said. 

The damage to her home wasn’t repairable, so she decided to knock it down and start again, all while remaining a student and a full-time lab assistant. 

Even through the hardships, Lewis says there’s no place that she’d rather be. 

Lewis first visited the Keys during graduate school. She conducted research on coral biology while attending the University of Buffalo.

“Every time I came down to do my research, it was harder and harder to leave,” she said. “I realized I just needed to be here.” 

So she packed everything that could fit into a trailer, hauled up her dog and cat and headed to Long Key “lock stock and barrel.” 

She received her diving certifications in the Great Lakes, but it wasn’t until she dove in the Carribean in 1999, and saw the coral reefs, that her interest in sea life bloomed into a desire to obtain a graduate degree. So the mother of three in her mid-forties headed back to class.

“I was just fascinated by the structures and the colors, the diversity, and I wanted to know more about it,” she said. “So I marched up to the University of Buffalo and said, I think I want to get my Masters, who do I talk to?” 

Even though she now has her Ph.D., Lewis’ life won’t change much. She is still the deputy director of the Keys Marine Lab, and dives every chance she gets. 

Lewis is working on a way to explain coral bleaching to her young grandchildren. Through a collaboration with a children’s author, she is creating a book focused on the issues facing marine life.

The recent graduate wants anyone, regardless of age to remember, “it’s the best thing in the world to be able to constantly be learning, to never stop learning, because there are always questions to be asked and answers to be found.”

Lewis was also a guest on our news talk show The Golden Hour.

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