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Biologist at the Helm

Meet Cristián Samper, Acting Secretary

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The Smithsonian Institution has a new leader, at least for now. Cristián Samper, director of the National Museum of Natural History, was named acting Secretary in March, replacing Lawrence M. Small, who resigned amid criticism over his expenses.

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Samper, 41, grew up in Bogotá, Colombia, the son of an American musician mother and a Colombian economist father. Cristián was raised speaking both English and Spanish, and holds dual citizenship. He and his wife, Adriana Casas, an environmental lawyer, have a 17-month-old daughter, Carolina. "I'm learning to be a dad," he says.

As a scientist, Samper, who holds a PhD in biology from Harvard, has specialized in tropical forests, particularly the cloud forests of the Andes. That led him to conservation. "As happens with many biologists," Samper says, "you love what you do and what you study, then you see that there are changes and you start focusing more on why the changes are happening and what you can do about them."

He spent most of the 1990s establishing nature reserves in Colombia and directing that nation's biodiversity research institute. He also helped craft the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, released in 2005. The United Nations-mandated survey of the world's biodiversity pooled the expertise of 1,360 scientists to make recommendations about how to protect ecosystems.

Samper joined the Smithsonian in 2001 as deputy director of its Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Two years later, he moved to Washington, D.C. to become director of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), supervising some 100 researchers. "Cristián has an extraordinary ability to bring people together, even over sticky issues," says Sorena Sorensen, a NMNH curator and research geologist.

Of his time at NMNH, Samper says he's proudest of the Hall of Mammals, which opened in 2003; the Ocean Hall, which opens in 2008; digitizing collections for the Web and his recruitment of new curators. "When I came to the NMNH four years ago, I was one of the youngest people," says Samper. "Now there are many who are younger, and I'm happy about that."

Samper expects to be acting Secretary for up to a year, or as long as it takes for the Smithsonian Regents to name Small's successor. (Samper is himself a candidate.) One of the things he's most looking forward to in his new position is learning more about art, culture and history—which, along with science, are the focus of Smithsonian scholarship and collections. "When you're a scientist you have a curiosity toward understanding things around you," he says. "I think artists are doing something similar, capturing the world through another means. One thing we all have in common across the Smithsonian is curiosity."

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