by Liza Roberts
photographs by Chris Fowler
When 1,700 museum professionals from 30 countries gather this month at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for the prestigious global Association of Science-Technology Centers convention, these international scientists, researchers and educators will not only inject a predicted $2 million into the local economy, they also will provide the latest sign that the state’s most-visited museum
now acts on a global stage.
Founded in 1879 to “illustrate the natural history of the state,” the Natural Sciences museum was first led by two English immigrant brothers, Herbert Hutchinson Brimley and Clement Samuel Brimley, who gathered zoological and geological specimens from around the state. For its first hundred-odd years, the museum was typical of the time: beloved and staid, but with an ever-expanding collection and a growing emphasis on making science accessible to the public. Starting in the 1990s, much-lauded director Betsy Bennett brought the museum into the future, doubling its collections and instituting a visionary two-phase expansion that turned it into the biggest natural history museum in the region, a place proudly known as the “Smithsonian of the Southeast.” Treetop ecologist Meg Lowman brought broad acclaim to the research- and education-focused Nature Research Center wing of the museum (anchored by the landmark globe), which opened in 2012.
In the last two years, under the leadership of Emlyn Koster, the museum as a whole has grabbed international headlines. Highlights include the discoveries of new species, including the olinguito, a photogenic carnivore; and the prestigious White House-awarded Institute of Museum and Library Service Medal. Today volunteers give more than 65,000 hours to the museum, which is visited by more than 1 million people a year. It remains free of charge to all who come, and committed, Koster says, to relevance, education, and change.
“The building of a museum is a never-ending work,” said founder H.H. Brimley. “A finished museum is a dead museum.” A day in the life of this “unfinished” museum is an education indeed.
When Emlyn Koster took the helm at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences last year, he brought with him decades of science museum leadership in the United States and Canada – and a commitment to make the museum a player on a global stage.
His calling came early. Science was in Koster’s blood from his youngest years growing up in New Milton, on the south coast of England, where a childhood spent outdoors on a three-speed bike, making his own fishing rods, and exploring the land around him inspired a love of nature. “I became fascinated by rocks and minerals,” he says. He wanted to know how they’d gotten there, why the cliffs on one part of the coast looked like those on another, and where sea levels had been in the past. He took himself by bus at age 14 to his first museum, Red House in Christchurch, Dorset, to learn more about the earth. “I knew the museum would tell me.”
He was fascinated by what he learned. On his own, he taught himself more. In his spare time, he studied fossils and minerals brought home by his father, then a second officer in the Merchant Navy. He also copied his father’s maps, drawing and memorizing land formations. Koster’s interest eventually led to a doctorate in geology from the University of Ottawa.
Today, Koster says his background helps his perspective as he steers the museum into the future. “As a geologist…I tend to take the long view,” he says. He is also a student of leadership, citing Burt Nanus’s book Visionary Leadership as inspiration. Koster uses Nanus’s leadership components of coach, change agent, spokesperson and direction-setter to help him organize his time and chart the museum’s path. He calls the balancing act he aims to strike between daily management and future planning “thinking bifocally” and says he’s committed to constantly adapting the museum to remain relevant in a quickly changing world.
The museum field as a whole needs to do that, Koster says. Museums should serve as forums for community, discovery, and education, and as “engines of progress” with “a particular societal responsibility.” For a science museum, Koster says the charge is clear: “to illustrate the interdependency of nature and humanity. The museum needs to be a place of conversation.”
Dr. Dan Dombrowski
When North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences chief veterinarian Dr. Dan Dombrowski comes to work on any given day, he’s ready to wear one of several hats: teacher, scientist, researcher, veterinarian. With more than 1,000 vertebrates and thousands of invertebrates under his care, veterinarian is a major responsibility. So are research and educating the public about those animals. That’s why several times a week, Dr. Dan, as he’s known, combines his jobs. With a microphone on his lapel, Dombrowski scrubs up behind a plate-glass window in view of any museum visitor and conducts physical exams, surgeries, and other medical procedures on any animal in the museum collection that needs care. “We’re going to do all of this anyway,” he says. “Why do it behind a wall?”
Behind a wall, it’s safe to say Dombrowski wouldn’t have to describe his every move in layman’s terms, answer real-time questions, or show kids with noses pressed to the window exactly what he’s looking for as he palpates the abdomen of an albino eastern king snake, as he did one recent morning. But what would be the fun in that? “It’s not hard for me,” he says. “I kind of talk the whole time anyway. And this way, the visiting public can participate. It’s kind of addictive.” He shows seven rapt kids how he uses “a special little medical tool called a guitar pick” as a tongue depressor to look down the snake’s wriggling throat, and explains that the five lumps he feels will require an endoscopy.
Dombrowski says a larger goal motivates him to educate as he treats. He hopes that by watching him perform a procedure and hearing him explain it in plain language, “folks can tell that it’s not out of reach” to become a doctor or scientist. That’s something Dombrowski wishes he’d believed of himself at a younger age. “We hope to inspire people to follow those dreams.”
In the meantime, there are dozens of nose-prints on the window. “Every day we need to clean those off,” he says with a smile. “I have the best job in the world.”
Evolutionary biologist Julie Urban travels the world to catalog and study a 140-million-year-old species of insects called planthoppers, sequencing their DNA to figure out how they’ve evolved to use pathogens to help them survive on nutrient-poor food. But it’s her work studying what she calls “the wildlife of your body” that puts the museum-going public under Urban’s microscope – the creatures that live on us, anyway.
In collaboration with scientists at N.C. State University, Urban collects tiny arthropods called Demodex mites from people’s faces. Nearly every adult human has these microscopic mites that live on the face, and almost anywhere the body has hair follicles.
Urban captures them best with garden-variety superglue. “I’ve tried wax; I’ve tried tape,” she says. “Superglue is best.” One recent day, she demonstrates with Jason Cryan, a fellow planthopper scientist and an undeniably good sport. As Cryan stands by, Urban dons lab goggles and sterile blue gloves. She dabs a few drops of CrazyGlue on to a slide, then sticks it to Cyran’s left cheek. “Just press it and hold it and count to 25,” she says. “And when you pull it off, it should hurt a little. If it hurts, it works.”
He waits, pulls the slide off with a wince, and hands it over. Urban slides it under the microscope. “Yes!” she exclaims. “To the right of the air bubble – see those little legs!” These mites are not germs, she clarifies. “It’s an animal that’s on your face. It’s not a single-celled bacteria. It’s a full animal living on your face.” She aims to reassure with the fact that the mites lack “chewing mouth parts.” Somehow, though, they manage to ingest bacteria and debris in sebum, the oily secretions from sebaceous glands. Anything else one can imagine an animal may also do, these critters do, too.
Urban says there’s a lot of work to be done to learn everything the scientific community would like to know about how and why these mites function and where they’ve come from. Which is why she and her colleagues are collecting samples, studying their evolution and diversification, and mapping the mite “family tree” to see how it corresponds with our own. In fact, Urban and her colleagues welcome anyone who’d like to contribute their mites to the study to do so. But go prepared, because Urban is: “We’re also sequencing bacteria that lives in people’s armpits!”
Adrian Yirka has effectively grown up within the walls of the Museum of Natural Sciences, where he has worked in one way or another since he was a junior curator at 13. Today the 32-year-old manages the museum’s 200 animals used for educational purposes – those that typically interact with the public inside the museum and around the state. From bullfrogs to flying squirrels, rabbits to alligators, Yirka has a small but busy zoo in his backstage animal kingdom, which is kept separate from the animals the museum uses solely for exhibits.
“This is the largest dedicated ‘program’ animal collection in the U.S.,” Yirka proudly notes. “It’s like a living library.” Like a library, the collection is borrowed and returned, and like a librarian, Yirka’s job is to keep it organized and in good shape. With animals, that takes some doing. One recent afternoon, a fellow curator chopped vegetables into a minced salad to feed a finicky lizard. A rabbit needed down time after a presentation to school children. Because they are exposed to pathogens outside their lairs, these animals always have Yirka’s watchful eye.
He not only cares for these animals, in some cases, he also finds them. A rare eastern tiger salamander became part of the collection when Yirka came upon a pond in the Sandhills that was drying up. “I was able to collect an eggmass” that would have died, he says, and brought it to the museum to hatch. “It’s a sustainable approach.”
Follow junior curator Molly Paul around the Museum of Natural Sciences on a weekday afternoon, and it’s clear that this 16-year-old science pioneer is an adored, homegrown phenom. “Our star,” one staffer calls her. She’s known by all for her work in and out of the museum: saving aquatic turtles, and creating a STEM leadership camp for middle schoolers; and for her many awards and accolades, which include N.C. Youth Conservationist of the Year, Action for Children’s Young Eco-Hero, City of Raleigh Youth Environmentalist, Jane Goodall Roots and Shoots National Youth Leadership Council – the list goes on.
In the animal collections room one recent afternoon, she combines chopped fruit and vegetables to feed tortoises. “It’s like a toddler,” she says, “You have to put pretty colors in and make it smell good.” She’s been doing this kind of work here two days a week for four years, which explains her relaxed authority. When she uses oversized tweezers to feed smelt to four longnose gar in a display on the museum floor, she’s not bothered by the stench. “I always smell like fish guts,” she says. “But I don’t even smell it anymore.”
In the museum gift shop, staffers call out to show her that they’ve created a new display for her hand-made turtle-shaped soaps, which she’s sold to raise more than $10,000 to help save aquatic turtles. Her work as founder and director of Raleigh Aquatic Turtles Adoption, which she began in 2006, is one of the reasons museum director Emlyn Koster chose her to join him at the White House last May to accept the museum’s 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, see photo on p.49.
When Paul goes home, her science work doesn’t end. The St. Mary’s School 10th grade honors student currently has 15 turtles she’s rehabbing and a pile of school work that includes two AP classes. “When you love it,” she says, “it doesn’t feel like work.”
Everywhere Bob Alderink looks, he sees science. It’s in the praying mantis egg cases on the backs of leaves he spies as he bicycles with his daughter through Raleigh’s Anderson Point park. It’s in the mosquitos in his backyard birdbath. It’s in the rushes he collects from swamps to turn into oil-lamp wicks, the silk worms he breeds in his house, and the fire ant hill he filled with melted beeswax to make a model of its hidden internal labyrinth, see photo, p. 49.
All of that and more makes its way into the Natural World Investigate lab Alderink runs, which turns scientific experiments, equipment, observation, and research into
real-life, tangible experiences for visitors to the museum. “The whole idea here is to let people get exposure to science and science tools.”
One recent afternoon, Alderink added magnesium dioxide to hydrogen peroxide and dish soap to show a couple dozen children on a field trip from Clayton how astonishing a chemical reaction can be. “Ready, here we go,” he says as a geyser of foam erupted from a beaker, forming a snaking, fat coil. “Elephant toothpaste,” he calls it.
Alderink’s audience is anyone who visits the museum, including field trippers like these and fleets of home-schooled kids who come to learn chemistry, geology, and biology. “This place is always busy.” And Alderink’s busy not just in demonstrating how things work to visitors but also in dreaming up and managing the displays he’s created. He often resorts to his own left arm to feed a chamber of mosquitoes. He went to the butcher to buy “two giant bags of fat” to melt for oil-lamp grease (to use with the swamp-reed wicks). He cut cardboard into slivers to make a bridge-building experiment that teaches basic physics. For a whole year, he grew algae in a tank to create ethanol. “I’m all into duckweed these days,” he says, showing a visitor a container of water covered with the plant. “It pulls nitrogenous waste out of the water.”
Even an invited visitor doesn’t push past the locked door with “Danger: Venomous Reptiles” on it without some trepidation. But behind that door is a place fascinating to visit, one few know: a carefully contained universe of 70-odd rare and poisonous animals, each beautiful in its own brutal way.
There are tiny poisonous pygmy rattlesnakes and large, patterned, long-fanged eastern diamondback rattlesnakes. There are triangular-headed cottonmouths, copperheads, a gila monster. There’s a North Carolina state record-holding snapping turtle – weighing in at 72 pounds – that eats monster-sized salads and lives in a shallow pool the size of a dining room table. (He’s not venomous, but he’s dangerous.) There are poisonous lizard species and poison dart frogs.
Each of these animals lives in its own individually locked cage. Each cage has its own card listing the phone number for poison control and the hotline for CroFab, an antivenom. Each card has its own peel-off sticker indicating the name of the creature inside and the antivenom to fight its bite, which anyone bitten is expected to grab and stick to themselves. There’s a pair of pliers on top of the Gila monster’s cage to open his clamping jaws, should the need arise.
It’s a multiple-redundancy safety plan that – so far – hasn’t really been tested. “We have had zero bites,” says herpetologist Phil Bradley, the coordinator of the museum’s living collections.
That’s because the creatures that live here are fed and handled very, very carefully. Tools of the trade include McGyver-worthy contraptions like a serving spoon attached to a several-foot-long length of PVC pipe, and clear plastic food service boxes with attached locks and metal handles. These are used to move snakes to exhibits or to the vet. Bradley demonstrates how the handled box tops can also be used as a shield. He uses hook-ended poles to pick up and move a snake around (“like chopsticks,” Bradley says, demonstrating with a harmless Northern pine snake) at a distance well out of its “strike zone,” which is generally assumed to be half a snake’s length. The same poles are used to open and close cages from several feet away.
If a venomous snake needs veterinary treatment (see Dr. Dan Debrowski’s profile, pg. 51), it’s enticed into a skinny plastic tube and anesthetized. Should it require surgery, an incision-sized hole is first cut into the pipe, the snake then carefully lined up with its opening.
The point of this collection, Bradley says, is to inspire interest in science among people who might never have paid any attention to the natural world. “If we can introduce these animals to people, we can get them interested in animals. Then they get interested in their habitat. And then they get interested in conservation.” He believes this because it happened to him. Though he describes himself as an indifferent student in his early years, “it was the love of animals that brought me back to science.”