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Scientist Q&A Roundtable with Dr. Doug Taron


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 2 of a 3 part series, divided up seperately by scientist. Part 3 with Steve Sullivan will be published on 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.

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 Dr. Doug Taron, curator of biology, vice president of conservation and research.

Dr. Doug Taron
Dr. Doug Taron

How do you describe your job to families at the Museum?
A lot of what I do is overseeing the live animals and plants, and helping to manage and take care of the Academy’s collection. My own research focuses on imperiled butterflies in the Midwest, particularly butterflies of the wetlands. I also lead the Museum’s work with Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network, which engages citizen scientists to collect data on butterfly populations. This allows land managers to evaluate longterm trends in a changing landscape.

What fascinated you about nature growing up? What experiences stand out?
My siblings and I learned from a young age that when you passed a brown sign on the highway, something cool was nearby. We enjoyed feeding the birds and doing all sorts of things that kept us in touch with the natural world. I got my first butterfly net from the Easter Bunny when I was seven years old. In middle school, I started taking shoe boxes and cutting the fronts and back out and making a cage to keep butterflies. It was a mini-butterfly haven. I had no way of knowing what I was doing would presage a future career.

Dr. Doug Taron working in our butterfly receiving room.
Dr. Doug Taron working in our butterfly receiving room.

How did your college experience prepare you for the Museum?
In high school, I discovered chemistry and ended up majoring in biochemistry in college. When I was at graduate school at Northwestern and living in Evanston, I started to feel disconnected from the natural world. That’s when I discovered the prairie restoration projects in the Chicago area. Then in 1982 I began volunteering at Bluff Spring Fen. That was very important in my ultimate career trajectory.

Why is there a growing sense of disconnect from the natural world, especially among children?
It’s puzzling and troubling that so many people feel disconnected. So much of the news on the environment is dire. One way to get people to care and forge a bond with the natural world is to describe the wonder of the natural world and hook them on it. All we need is the opportunity to make “nature’s case.” The subject material is so wonderful that it sells itself.

What is the significance of the rising popularity of citizen science?
Citizen Science empowers people and gives them the opportunity to contribute directly to scientific research. The citizen scientists of the Illinois Butterfly Monitoring Network have not only gathered important data, but the Network is now a model for the rest of the nation.

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