Life on the water: remembering Cynthia Gerstner
A Queens, N.Y., native, Cynthia Gerstner’s passion for the aquatic was ignited by childhood fishing trips off Montauk, Long Island, with her father. After earning a master’s and a doctorate in fisheries and aquatic ecology, she moved to Chicago to take a job as a conservation biologist at the Shedd Aquarium – widely considered one of the best in the country. To add even more water to her life, she sailed with the Chicago Corinthian Yacht Club, where she met her husband, Alfredo Rumilla. It was at the Shedd that Gerstner began researching conservation of the Peruvian Amazon, and she carried this project into her next role as a professor of biology and ecology at Columbia College. Gerstner made it her mission to protect tropical fisheries, earning a MacArthur Foundation grant in 2003 to study the effects of taking fish out of the Amazon and shipping them to home aquariums in the United States – a much-needed source of income for Peruvian villages. Her goal was to work with the fisheries to instill the most sustainable strategies for collecting rare species. Aquatics was her life, and in 2009 Gerstner took to the water in an attempt to save her own. When faced with the news that her breast cancer had not only returned but spread to her brain, lungs, bones, and liver, Gerstner joined Recovery on Water (ROW). The Chicago-based crew team gives breast cancer patients and survivors the opportunity to connect, support each other, and become, quite literally, active in their recovery. At the ROW annual gala in 2010, Gerstner said, “Even if I am exhausted from chemotherapy, just knowing I can get out on the water or do a workout with my ROW friends motivates me. I am positive that ROW has contributed to extending my time on this earth.” After a four-year battle, Gerstner died at age 43 in 2011, leaving behind Rumilla and their daughter, Sarah. Her family and friends donated funds enough for ROW to purchase their first boat, which they named The Cindy. Even in death, Cynthia Gerstner was a dedicated environmentalist. Buried on Earth Day in an ecologically sound coffin made of bamboo and seagrass, Gerstner leaves a lasting legacy through her work with fisheries in the Peruvian Amazon — and in the hearts of women rowing the Chicago River.