Raleigh’s new ‘rock star’ head scientists

April 15, 2012 

A key feature of the N.C. Museum of Science’s new Nature Research Center is that visitors will be able to interact directly with scientists. The people doing research work won’t be cloistered away out of sight – they’ll be working in glass-walled labs and coming out to talk about what they’re doing. They’ll do it long-distance, too – either to classrooms around the state, or broadcasting via satellite feed from out in the field to the SECU Daily Planet.

The NRC will have 21 permanent staff scientists, and the most visible figures will be the ones running the center’s four main departments. Drop by, and maybe one of these team leaders will be out on the floor talking about ongoing research.

Roland W. Kays

• Director, Biodiversity Research Laboratory

• 40 years old, from the New York State Museum of Albany

• Will also teach at N.C. State University

Roland Kays studies mammals, especially those on the go. His specialty is movements of birds, bees, coyotes and other migratory creatures. Because it’s impossible for anyone to be everywhere at once, Kays is already working the citizen-science angle for his work at the Nature Research Center.

“We’ve been loaning out some cameras ahead of the grand opening, and we’ll have people bring them back then,” Kays said. “We’re having people run camera traps near backyard chicken coops to see what predators are attracted, see which predators live in different areas. We’ll share videoclips at the Daily Planet as they come in, make some maps and graphs.”

That will be just the start, if Kays has his way.

“This is really exciting, to get other people excited about science,” he said. “The scientific process can seem like a scary thing, but it’s the kind of thing we do every day. We just have to show people.”

Lindsay Zanno

• Director, Paleontology & Geology Research Laboratory

• 35 years old, from the Field Museum in Chicago

• Will also teach at N.C. State University

Lindsay Zanno’s major areas of expertise include modern birds, feathered raptors and Tyrannosaurus rex. She looks forward to the outreach aspect of the Nature Research Center.

“At a lot of institutions, unfortunately, productivity is measured only by scientific results,” she said. “We want to bridge the gap in the community, create understanding that scientists aren’t just sitting in a room somewhere figuring out how the world works, but trying to do it in ways that benefit society and move us forward.”

Zanno will also continue with a project that’s been a major focus for her the past few years – a quarry in Utah where an entire population of plant-eating dinosaurs perished en masse about 125 million years ago.

“We’re trying to understand the dynamic of this population,” she said. “How it grew up and changed, what this group looked like. The fossil record is usually just pieces, so you get snapshots. Rarely do you get a single large sample like this.”

Julie Horvath

• Director, Genomics & Microbiology Research Laboratory

• 37 years old, from Duke University

• Will also teach at N.C. Central University

Julie Horvath’s specialty is genomics, mapping the genetic makeup of organisms. She tends to work with primates, studying the evolution of diet through tooth formation in chimps and humans, for example.

“Teeth tend to be the first part that comes into contact with what you eat,” Horvath said. “Enamel thickness varies within humans and between species, so we’re looking at genes to learn about how it forms.”

Horvath came to Duke because of its lemur center, where she worked on finding links between behavior and genetics. That’s work she hopes to continue at the Nature Research Center.

“There’s a lot of great citizen science about the behavior of chimps, so let’s try to come up with a genetic approach,” she said. “We can be informative and show the public that research becomes more powerful with different angles and approaches.”

Rachel Smith

• Director, Astronomy & Space Observation Research Laboratory

• 38 years old, from California Institute of Technology

• Will also teach at Appalachian State University

Rachel Smith’s specialty is astrochemistry, trying to figure out how solar systems form. Her research will involve some work at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

“I work on early solar-system chemistry, gas that is analogous to our solar system 4.6 billion years ago,” she said. “It’s gas around stars before planets form, and it may form planets. The work also involves solar data and meteoric data.”

Much of the work at the Nature Research Center will happen in full view of the public, and Smith hopes people will come away with a better understanding of how the universe works and our own planet came together.

“The lab will create visualizations of ongoing projects, state-of-the-art simulations relating the data to our own solar system,” Smith said. “That’s my vision, working with people to create meaningful interactive activities.”

David Menconi

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