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Scientist Q&A Roundtable with Karen Kramer Wilson

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Tags: scientists, citizen science, roundtable, career, science, science education

Created: 1/2/2014      Updated: 8/9/2016

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This blog post is part 1 of a 3 part series, divided up seperately by scientist. Part 2 with Dr. Doug Taron and part 3 with Steve Sullivan will be published at a later date.


Before Doug Taron, Steve Sullivan and Karen Kramer Wilson were scientists at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, they were like many of our young guests. They loved immersing themselves in nature, visiting museums and asking questions.

Decades later, after studying science and nature in college, the trio have made nature their laboratory. They work at the Nature Museum and answer questions from colleagues and guests. But that love of nature and spirit of inquiry has never left. In fact, they ask just as many questions today as they did when they were children.

We sat down with Doug, Steve and Karen for a wide-ranging conversation on why they fell in love with nature and science as children, what it’s like to work at a Museum and why it is critical for people to maintain a connection with nature. The following is the interview with Karen Kramer Wilson, Living Invertebrate Specialist.

Karen Kramer Wilson
Karen Kramer Wilson

How do you describe your job to families at the Museum?
I tell people I work with the things that people are most creeped out about, but that are also the most numerous species on the planet and among the most interesting. There are so many compelling stories and information to discover. Even the things we think we know about entomology we don’t fully understand.

What fascinated you about nature growing up? What experiences stand out?
We had a dense garden, and some of my earliest memories were of mucking about in the gardens. Across the street, there was a vacant lot with a stream and we spent almost all of our summers there. I vividly remember when I was in seventh grade they fenced in the lot for some kind of development and we lost the sounds of the frogs every night.

How did your college experience prepare you for the Museum?
As a freshman in college, I took an environmental science class, and it struck me that one of the biggest sources of pollution was agricultural chemicals. I found that interesting. Instead of strapping myself to a tree, I decided to see how the industry worked from the inside and how we could pollute less. As part of that, I ended up taking an entomology class that started at 7 a.m.. My classmates in the program were from farming families in the surrounding communities and really had a grip on their farming knowledge. But the Entomology came more naturally to me. So I ended up tutoring them in that class. I was hooked.

Working on the Nature Museum's rooftop beehives.
Working on the Nature Museum's rooftop beehives.

Why is there a growing sense of disconnect from the natural world, especially among children?
For many kids, exposure to the natural world consists of the mowed grass of a football or softball field. They don’t have the opportunities we used to enjoy of simply hanging out and exploring; many parents don’t consider that to be a good use of time and I think that’s incredibly unfortunate. Some kids are now afraid of nature. Our challenge is to turn that fear into curiosity so that curiosity can become amazement.

What is the significance of the rising popularity of citizen science?
It’s fantastic. We like to say the natural world needs citizens, and citizens need this natural world. This gives people a structure and a chance to realize the power of their own observations. It should be
empowering for citizen scientists to realize how much professional scientists need and value their input.

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