Special Report

How Museums Are Fostering the Workforce of the Future

The Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum gives high school students an inside look at collections, labs and the people who run them

Technician Maggie Halloran explains to a group of high school students how DNA sequencing works at the National Museum of Natural History’s new Laboratories of Analytical Biology (LAB), a molecular biotechnology hub. (Marina Koren)

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Students heard about real-world applications of barcoding from Matthew Kweskin, LAB’s IT manager. After a US Airways flight suffered a “bird strike,” forcing Captain Chesley Sullenberger to land the plane in the Hudson River in 2009, authorities shipped bird remains found in the plane’s engine to the Smithsonian for analysis. Researchers entered the DNA sequence extracted from the specimens into the Barcode of Life database, a search engine that parses through countless files of sequenced bird species, and confirmed that the samples were from Canada geese. This data is used to help airfields understand the kind of birds that cause problems at airports.

The tour then moved out of the lab and into the museum’s storerooms, where students got a peek at the invertebrate zoology department’s collections. The final stop was inside the botany department, where collections manager Gregory McKee told the students about the Institution’s plant collections, which holds 4.5 million specimens.

McKee passed around several preserved plants, explaining how researchers collect and preserve them. He harkened back to LAB’s research efforts, saying that DNA sequencing technologies could help explain the mystery of why one species of bamboo flowers blooms only once every 120 years.

“They pay me a little bit of money to go out into the woods and get dirty filthy, and I don’t have to wear a tie,” McKee says of why he loves his job. He told them about meeting a 70-year-old man in Mongolia who was such an expert on botany that he knew just what pinecones to eat, which he scampered up trees himself to retrieve.

“That’s amazing,” says Jesse McElree, a 15-year-old student. The Annapolis native says while he enjoys math most and hopes to become an engineer, McKee’s discussion was the highlight of the tour.

Jacob Mondoro, 15, of Edgewater, also found the botany department to be the most compelling stop on the tour. He too wants to pursue engineering, but says he suspects a career in plant science would be valuable in the future.

“Botany seems like the kind of thing that’s going to be very intense later on due to the global warming situation,” Mondoro says. “Without a proper workforce, there’s not going to be many people who can actually sustain the Earth and the way it needs to be.”

Lab technician Caitlin Baker, who led McElree and Mondoro’s group, says the tour seemed like an eye-opening experience for the freshmen, especially the female students, who were outnumbered.

“I think it’s really empowering to see women in science and doing very cutting-edge research,” Baker says. “I hope that the fact that there are so many more males in this group doesn’t give the girls some sort of sense that it’s a male field. It really isn’t anymore.”

For Lauren Suite, a 14-year-old student from Edgewater, the inside look was informational. “It gave me more of an insight into what I might want to do in the future,” says Suite, who is considering medical research. “I’m trying to stay updated with everything and hopefully be a part of developing new [technologies] in the future.”


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