For more than two decades, Carrie Manfrino has been the face and driving force behind the Central Caribbean Marine Institute and its Little Cayman Research Centre.

Now, the oceanographer, who set up CCMI in 1998, is turning her focus to local higher education, joining the University College of the Cayman Islands as a research professor and visiting scholar to help build Cayman’s capacity and talents in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Describing the move as a “big pivot”, Manfrino told the Cayman Compass in an interview that she was ready for a new challenge.

She said that while she had devoted much of her life to higher education, “I thought I needed to focus on domestic higher education in STEM. I’ve taught thousands of college students from all over the world but not very many in the Cayman Islands.”

A meeting with UCCI’s president, Stacy McAfee, cemented the idea, as the university’s strategic goals, published in 2019, include a focus on STEM. Manfrino took up her new role last month. Her first project at the university focusses on the global challenges of climate change and COVID-19.

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“As a scientist, educator and community member, I have devoted my career to studying the evolution of modern and ancient coral reefs and on international higher education,” she said. “Two decades later, small island nations are faced with an existential risk because, as the oceans continue heating up due to rapid climate change, coral reefs are stressed, beaches erode, and coastal communities become more vulnerable to storms.

“I am starting a new project …. that will focus on some of the global challenges that we face, including climate change and COVID. My current project, ‘Coping with COVID: Impact on Communities and Conservation’ is a collaboration with scientific experts and college students.”

The project includes the launch of a survey tool earlier this month to collect data to examine Cayman’s vulnerabilities and resilience to global catastrophes, which, Manfrino said, will be the start of a new Institute of Science and Sustainability.

The university stated that Manfrino’s vision “is for young Caymanians [to] gain more exposure to critical thinking, innovation, and problem solving and for them to become invested in tackling current and emerging issues facing the Caribbean”.

Carrie Manfrino has spent more than two decades researching Caribbean reefs.

She told the Compass that while she won’t be lecturing at UCCI, “I will be working as a strategic advisor to organisations, institutions, businesses and individuals wanting to invest in a more sustainable future for our planet and communities. As a marine geologist, my scientific research has focussed on the evolution of modern and ancient coral reefs in response to climate change and man.”

She added, “As the founder, CEO and president of several successful scientific organisations, I created the vision, strategy, and designed funding campaigns to raise over $20 million in support of capital development, programmes, initiatives, scholarships and awards in the US, Caribbean and UK.”

Those projects include CCMI in 1998, the Little Cayman Research Centre in 2005, and Women in Ocean Sciences in 2019.

Between 2000 and 2016, while still involved with CCMI, Manfrino was a professor of oceanography and geology at Kean University in New Jersey. In 2016, she left the university and received a Fulbright scholarship to conduct research on the influence of climate change on reefs in the Indian Ocean surrounding Sri Lanka. Immediately after that, she returned to Little Cayman and worked full time at CCMI, where she said, for a time, she “wore all the hats”, taking on the roles of president, business manager and director of research.

But, after a while, “I decided it was time to start delegating more of the responsibility because the organisation was becoming too big for me to manage on my own,” she said. By last year, CCMI had hired a new director of research and a business manager. “We hired really good people to move it ahead,” she said.

The impact of COVID and the continuing threat of climate change have galvanised her belief that Cayman needs to build its STEM capacity, whereby locally educated and trained residents of the islands will have the skills to do the jobs that are done by imported staff.

CCMI’s Little Cayman Research Centre was built in 2005.

Manfrino first came to Cayman with a group of friends in 1985, staying at Rum Point. “Then I came back a couple of times more. I was a diver. I was always in marine science,” she said.

Soon after completing her PhD in 1999, while on a field trip to Grand Cayman during a Caribbean-wide research project to assess coral reef health across the region, her first-hand encounter with the threats to the local reef system became the impetus for her eventually setting up CCMI.

At that time, her two daughters were aged 1 and 3 years old, and she figured Cayman was a good, safe place for her and her family. She set up a programme in North Side initially, but then in 1999, she went to Little Cayman and “moved everything over here”, and built the research station, designed by local architect John Doak, in 2005.

Manfrino, who was born in New York, has been involved in oceanography and geology since she received a BA in geology from the University of Colorado. She went on to get a master’s degree in science from the Colorado School of Mines, and a PhD in marine geology and geophysics from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

She was inducted into the SCUBA Diving Hall of Fame in 2019, was recognised as the first International Sea Keeper of the World for her commitment to ocean research and conservation in the Cayman Islands, and was selected as an Oris Sea Hero by Scuba Diving magazine.

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