By Samantha Schipani, Winter and Summer Intern, Education & Outreach and Encyclopedia of Life
Where are you from and what brings you to the Museum?
I hail from the far-off land of Northern Virginia, but I attend college at Columbia University in New York City. I've wanted to intern at the National Museum of Natural History ever since I was a kid, roaming the hallowed halls with my parents during our weekend trips to the city. I believe my exact words were, I want to own this place so I can ride all the dinosaurs and wear the Hope Diamond, but I think that translates more or less to, "Gee, I think the Smithsonian would be a great place to work!" Presently, the kind of work the Smithsonian does, specifically in the Office of Education and Outreach and Encyclopedia of Life where I have interned, perfectly marries my passion for science and knack for business and communications (I'm currently a Neuroscience and Behavior major with a Business Management concentration).
How did you get "Behind those Doors?"
I was talking with a friend of mine two winters ago while still slaving away on my college applications and heard great things about NMNH. He had just finished his first semester at the College of William and Mary and was a winter intern in 2011. Hearing him describe the incredible research and public outreach work he was doing there showed me the light at the end of the tunnel. I was excited about the potential for awesome experiences that I could have mere months after beginning college if only I finished those grueling applications. We kept in touch, and the next year he led me to the site where I could apply.
After emailing various project managers whose research coincided with my interests, I heard back from Catherine Sutera, an ocean science educator in the Office of Education and Outreach who was focusing on public programs for the Sant Ocean Hall. From there, we discussed hours, duties, and paperwork - pretty soon, I was a full-fledged Smithsonian intern!
This summer, I emailed Catherine again after I finished working for a middle school science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) camp, eager to help out for the remaining month I had before heading back to college. While Catherine had already taken on another intern for the summer, she put me in contact with Breen Byrnes at the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL) who just happened to have some outreach projects for me to tackle. Within a few weeks, I was back at the National Museum of Natural History!
What is it you're doing back there, behind those doors?
Over the winter season, I started by reorganizing the master spreadsheet of specimens in the Sant Ocean Hall. The Sant Ocean Hall is the largest exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History and has about 700 specimens and artifacts on display. Needless to say, it was quite a task. Over the course of my internship, I had the rare privilege of getting to explore the Hall before regular museum hours and becoming personally acquainted with each and every object in the exhibition. The experience was really incredible.
After I finished working on the spreadsheet, I made a collection for the Sant Ocean Hall on EOL, a comprehensive online encyclopedia of all the living flora and fauna on the planet. The EOL Collection tool lets you gather content, like images, articles, or maps that are on EOL, into a virtual collection you can name, annotate and share. The Sant Ocean Hall collection is convenient for an online user who is curious to see all the different species featured in the Sant Ocean Hall or a museum-goer who wants to learn more about a specific trilobite hanging on the wall. I quickly became adept at using EOL tools and am quite proud of the finished product.
This summer, I'm working with EOL once again. One of my primary responsibilities is to sort and tag a large batch of butterfly photos shared by a Smithsonian volunteer for EOL's Flickr pool. In addition, I'm creating new EOL collections based on plants you can find in various gardens around the Institution. I'm also working to spread the word about EOL through Pinterest, a website that lets you organize and share interesting things you find on the web. EOL's Pinterest boards feature hundreds of images from the site, along with links to additional information for the pictured species. Come explore some of the boards I've been working on.
What's been the most amazing or unexpected thing you've seen, experienced or discovered while being part of the NMNH academic community?
The passion of the employees at NMNH never ceases to amaze me. These are people who truly care about the work they are doing, whether it is science research or public outreach. They are also incredibly creative in ways that just blow me away. I had assumed that a certain level of sophisticated creativity was required to run such an amazing, unique institution, but I've even found it in the most unexpected places! Katja Schulz of Encyclopedia of Life, who works two desks down from me this summer, makes the most hilarious, wonderful collections on EOL - they are absolutely worth exploring. Here are some of my favorite collections: Cute!, Genera Named after Greek Mythological Figures, and Species with Funny English Names.
Furthermore, everyone I've met has demonstrated an amazing sense of curiosity for all the work that's happening at the museum. Not only have I had the opportunity to go on tours that are completely unrelated to the departments I've worked in (I especially loved the Cullman Library Rare Book Collection tour), but both of my mentors have gone out of their way to show me exhibits and labs that are particularly cool. Catherine and I went to a feeding at the O. Orkin Insect Zoo (freaky, but awesome!) and Breen and I have talked about exploring the high-resolution photo lab across the hall from our office. It really is an incredible place to work because there is always something amazing happening.