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Dr. John A. Cigliano, Biodiversity and Conservation Biology

One Cedar Crest Professor’s Long-Time Passion for the Ocean May Lead to Long-Term Solutions for Our Ailing Planet Earth

Today, you might not find too many kids who would say they wanted to be Jacques Cousteau when they grew up.  But for a young John Cigliano, watching the celebrated ocean explorer’s PBS television program inspired an awe that would lay the groundwork for his future.

Growing up in the seaside environs of Long Island did not hurt either. Crabbing, clamming and fishing were much-loved activities, but what happened once the creatures were on dry land seemed to fascinate the young boy even more.  “I fell in love with the ocean, and everything it contained. I was always the one cleaning our catch in preparation for its final destination – our dinner table.  I just loved to get my hands on them, to dissect them and see what they were made of.”

And so, despite a brief period of aspiring to starrier heights as an astronaut, Cigliano’s early passion for marine life had all but solidified his desire to be a scientist and, more specifically, one who studies the diverse life contained in the ocean.

As an undergraduate biology/geology major at the University of Rochester in New York, a semester in a marine lab in St. Croix clinched it.  It was during this time that Cigliano began to focus his research on a species that had fascinated him since he was a boy – the octopus.

“Not only is the octopus an amazing creature to behold, it is also incredibly tasty.  I come from an Italian family. I can hardly remember a Christmas Eve feast where pulpo, the Italian word for octopus, was not on the table.”

Cigliano’s research on the eight-armed cephalopod continued through his under-graduate and graduate studies.  It culminated in his doctoral dissertation that examined the behavior and ecology of two types of octopus.  But his graduate studies at Boston University also proved to be a time of change for the young scientist as his career path began to follow a slightly different current.

“Up until then I was still convinced I wanted to be the Jacques Cousteau of my field.  I saw myself scuba diving and studying the octopus in its marine habitat for a long time.  But as a graduate student, I started to become more aware of the role conservation plays in the big picture of marine biology.  I was also fortunate enough to have a professor and advisor who genuinely loved teaching and was ardent about its importance in developing future scientists.”

And so, after completing his degree, Cigliano did not head immediately back to the Caribbean.  Instead, inspired by that professor, he took a teaching position at a small liberal arts college in Bradford, MA in 1996.

Unfortunately for the college, it closed in 2000.  Fortunately for Cedar Crest, Cigliano’s experience there convinced him that he wanted to continue teaching in that kind of learning atmosphere.  He joined the faculty at Cedar Crest as an assistant professor of biology and developed the College’s biodiversity and conservation biology program.

“It’s about knowing where you can do the most good.  And for me, I am convinced that a small four-year college is the place where I can give my students the best education.  Having the opportunity to get to know my students makes the learning experience more engaging and exciting for both of us.  Cedar Crest College was a perfect fit in that respect.”

It was during this time of transition that Cigliano’s research interests began to shift as well.  And this time, the impetus didn’t come from the ocean itself, but from a chance encounter at an airport.

“By 2000 I was still studying octopus, but the questions I was asking had changed.  They had become much more conservation based.  I was looking at how things like fishing were affecting the population.”

But on the way home from a marine field course trip in the Bahamas, Cigliano unexpectedly met another professor in the field who had information that led to a big change in Cigliano’s research efforts.  He learned that two new marine reserves had been proposed in the region, one for groupers and the other for queen conch, and scientists were needed for each.

“I was immediately interested in the queen conch because, well, I loved to eat them too – squingili being yet another of our Italian Christmas dishes.  I joke with my students about it now.  I tell them I won’t study anything unless it tastes good.”

The queen conch is a large snail found throughout the Caribbean.  It is also a highly valuable economic and cultural resource and the second largest export in the region.  Unfortunately, its status as a sought after food source has resulted in over-harvesting and the population is on the verge of collapse.  In some areas, it is already economically extinct.  Since learning about the queen conch marine reserve, Cigliano’s professional research has focused almost exclusively on the conservation ecology of the species.

As director of the biodiversity and conservation biology program at Cedar Crest, Cigliano has always stressed the importance of field-intensive courses and has taken many students to Belize so they have the opportunity to study a species in its own habitat.  His research and expertise with the queen conch has most recently garnered a major grant from Conservation International and the Earthwatch Institute.  The funding from this international non-profit organization has Cigliano and Cedar Crest genetics professor Richard Kliman working with Cedar Crest students and training volunteers from around the world to collect field data that could help create viable solutions for preserving and protecting this threatened species.

“It’s the best of both worlds really.  I travel to Belize every few months where I get to do the field work that I love, but I am also opening my students’ eyes and fostering that same passion for science and what it can accomplish that my teachers gave me.”

In recent months, as much public attention has turned to global warming, energy conservation and green living, Cigliano finds his mission as a conservation science educator taking on even greater importance.

“Global climate change is one of the most important and critical issues we face today.  Our planet is like a big puzzle that fits together just so.  When one of those pieces, like temperature, begins to change, it starts to affect all of the other pieces.”

Cigliano admits that there is a measure of this process that occurs naturally.  However, scientific study has shown that some of this change is being caused by how the human race is living and utilizing Earth’s natural resources.  He maintains that there are things people can do as individuals and as a society that can help to slow the warming trend and reduce our carbon footprint.  He sees the possibilities for change on a small and large scale as endless. But for every possibility there are also endless factors to take into consideration along the way.  This has become one of Cigliano’s core messages to his students.

“Many of my students come into the program with a great deal of passion, which is certainly necessary to be successful in the field.  But I advise them very early on to temper that passion with science and with knowledge.  You can’t just go out and hug a tree.  You must understand the science behind your cause so that you can offer reasonable solutions.”

And those solutions, Cigliano warns, must factor in that people will always be part of the equation.   A person can have the best solution in the world for a problem, he says, but if they neglect to account for the human element – the social, cultural, political and economic ramifications – they will not achieve the success they desire.  It is a huge challenge, but one that the professor takes seriously.

“The planet is in trouble.  Things need to change.  My goal is to impart the knowledge and the tools to effect the change.”

For Cigliano, it is a goal that has many layers, both personal and professional.  As an educator he feels the responsibility to inform not only his students, but also the public about the problems and issues facing the planet.  To that end, the department frequently holds events and lectures and Cigliano offers his expertise as a spokesman.  As a member of the Cedar Crest College community, Cigliano is looking for ways that the campus can become even more eco-friendly and serve as an example of environmental stewardship.  And perhaps most importantly to him, as a father, he is doing everything he can to teach his children what it means to live an environmentally responsible life.

“You have to build those habits in your kids by setting an example and doing your best to live by it every day.”

And what do Marisa, 9 (and, incidentally, named for the ocean), and Olivia, 6, think of it all?

“It is something we talk about a lot at home.  They love the ocean and love to go exploring with me. They think what Dad does is ‘way cool’ and love that my job is to, in their words, ‘save the planet.’”

Fact File

Who: John A. Cigliano, Ph.D. – Associate Professor of Biology, Director of Biodiversity & Conservation Biology Program and Academic Coordinator of the Hawk Mountain Program

CCC Faculty since: 2000

Academic interests: Marine reserve design; conservation ecology of queen conch (Strombus gigas) and Octopuses; invasive species; and conservation education.

Courses taught: ecology; freshman biology; biodiversity and conservation biology; marine biology; Animal Behavior: An Evolutionary Approach; genetics; marine field ecology and conservation biology; capstone research.

Last Updated: 4/1/09