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Scientist Q&A Roundtable with Steve Sullivan

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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 3 of a 3 part series, divided up seperately by scientist.


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.

The Nature Museum News 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 Steve Sullivan, senior curator of urban ecology.

Steve Sullivan with taxidermied squirrel
Steve Sullivan and friend.

How do you describe your job to families at the Museum?
I work at a bigger version of the room I built when I was in junior high called Steve’s Museum. It was my systematic collection of natural history specimens and regionally-themed vivaria. Now, I spend a good part of my day learning about animals and teaching people about why nature and science are so interesting and have direct application to their own lives - things I would do for fun anyway.

What fascinated you about nature growing up? What experiences stand out?
One story I always remember is that my grandpa told me he saw snakes in his garden. I had never seen one and I challenged him to bring me one. In the end, he brought me a male and a female garder snake. He put them in a paper bag by the door and all of a sudden I had to figure out how to care for them. When you start to look at the details of a species, there are so many questions to answer. You can learn so much just from watching them; you never get bored.

How did your college experience prepare you for the Museum?
Pets were not allowed in the dorm rooms but we would keep praying mantises anyway. We loved to feed them katydids because these insects are large enough for us to easily see muscles and organs as the mantid dissected it. We invited people to watch the feedings, which had ancillary benefits because people we might enjoy hanging out with would watch with real interest; boring people would stay home.

Steve preparing a bird specimen in the Beecher Lab.
Steve preparing a bird specimen in the Beecher Lab.

Why is there a growing sense of disconnect from the natural world, especially among children?
We have isolated ourselves from nature in a way that our perception of what “nature” is has changed and been simplified. In fact, nature is a complex and amazing system of plants and animals, and many
other kingdoms of life that we are just beginning to figure out. It also includes interactions between living and non-living things like water and air. Nature includes us and is around us, on us, and in us constantly. As we remind people about how fascinating nature really is, they get excited about it and make more sustainable decisions. At the Nature Museum, we are always describing to people how they are connected to nature and trying to interest them in the natural world.

What is the significance of the rising popularity of citizen science?
When people have the opportunity to contribute to a citizen science project such as Project Squirrel, it connects them to an issue in a way they weren’t before. Project Squirrel has had more than 6,000
observations and counting. The data we have access to would literally be impossible to have accumulated without the work of citizen scientists of all ages and from all across the country.

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