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DePauw helps Vernon turn love of animals into rewarding career

Cynthia Vernon announced to her parents at age seven that she wanted to be a naturalist.

She may not have known then that she would attend DePauw University, but it turns out Vernon knew herself pretty well as a second grader. Years later, when she was looking for a university with a strong emphasis on the sciences that would prepare her for a career working with animals, that is exactly what she found at DePauw. She graduated in 1976 with a major in zoology and has been working in the world of zoos and aquariums ever since, currently as the chief operating officer for the Monterey Bay Aquarium. 

Another thing that won Vernon over for DePauw was the opportunity for off-campus study. “The winter-term schedule really appealed to me with the opportunity to focus on a special project or interest area,” she said. “My sophomore year, I took part in a scientific research project on Sapelo Island in Georgia. I did a project on tidal effluence, and it was fantastic. My junior year, I spent the second semester abroad at the University of Bath in England. I studied the natural sciences and participated in a special botany project with one of my professors.” 

An avid athlete who graduated from high school just as Title IX was passed in 1972, Vernon found that opportunities for women’s intercollegiate athletics were limited during her college years.

 “Bing Davis was a wonderful art professor at the time who was also a basketball player and helped to get a women’s program started by my senior year,” she said. “I was on the field hockey team for four years, captain my junior and senior year, and it was a great experience. I have lots of funny memories about travelling to games, sometimes driving our own cars; not at all like women’s sports programs today. Probably the most memorable experience was that we made it to the state championship my senior year and played Indiana University – and we beat them! Our coach at the time, Judy Jenkins, was a great coach; at the end of the season she recommended that I be invited to the tryouts for the U.S. national field hockey team. (It was) a fantastic experience to try out for that team and play at that level. I also have really fond memories of being on various teams playing intramural sports. I was a member of Alpha Phi, and we always had a great team for basketball and volleyball.” 

She even pursued athletics during her semester in England, where she played net ball, a version of basketball. “I walked onto the team and was the star because I’d played so much basketball, so that was quite an experience,” she said. She still enjoys any type of outdoor activity, especially hiking, biking, golfing and gardening. 

At DePauw, Vernon worked as a photographer for The DePauw newspaper, co-founded a campus Girl Scout chapter and was elected president of Alpha Phi her sophomore year. “I learned lots of things about leadership by being a part of the sorority and part of the intercollegiate and intramural sports teams,” she said. “I still keep in touch with my pledge class through an annual round-robin letter and occasional reunions.”

After DePauw, Vernon worked in an alternative high school program for a short time and went back to school to pursue a teaching credential. Eventually, she decided to switch from studying education to the biological sciences and earned a master’s degree in animal behavior from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1981. She did an internship with the Milwaukee County Zoo, a convergence of her love of animals and working with people. Then she found a job at Fort Wayne (Indiana) Children’s Zoo and spent five years as curator of education, learning a variety of skills and knowledge. She continued her career at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago for 13 years. 

“I’ve spent my entire career working in the zoo and aquarium world, working toward conservation, helping people understand about the natural world. Now I’m in charge of the operations and education for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and it’s pretty much a dream job,” she said of her work at the organization where she recently celebrated her 20th anniversary. 

Over the years, Vernon has remained connected to DePauw. “I try to be a regular financial contributor and started giving not too long after graduation in small amounts until I started to get more established in my career. And I’ve always felt that’s important to give back at whatever level,” she said. 

Vernon has been a Washington C. DePauw Annual Society member for many years and is a member of the Board of Visitors. “Being on the Board of Visitors has been really rewarding,” she said. “I feel like it’s an important opportunity to be a sounding board for the president and provide a diverse perspective on a wide range of issues.” 

Vernon lives in northern California with her wife, Monta Potter, retired chief executive officer of the Carmel (California) Chamber of Commerce.

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