About Guest Contributor

From distinguished lecturers to scientific scholars to visiting curators to volunteers to leaders in their respective fields, we often invite guest authors to contribute content to our blog. You'll find a wealth of information written by these fascinating individuals as we seek to expand your level of knowledge with every post.

Kids Can Learn About Physics at This Block Party, Too!

by Kavita Self

The Houston Museum of Natural Science at Sugar Land’s summer special exhibit, Block Party, Too! opened Friday, June 3. At the End of School Festival the day before, patrons got an exclusive sneak peek at the summer fun, and it was a big hit!


Similar to Block Party at HMNS, but with a Sugar Land twist, kids of all ages had a wonderful time exploring and building in the five Build Zones. Each zone highlights principles of science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) in a family-friendly, hands-on environment. With connecting building blocks, magnetic tiles, foam blocks, oversized bricks and more, we had creative inventions — a bridge, a chair, a life sized person — in every zone!


The Game Zone, featuring classic games like Giant Tic-Tac-Toe, Giant Snakes and Ladders, Twister and more, saw kids (and adults) competing fiercely for the win! We hope to see these families return again and again as the popularity of our newest hands-on exhibit continues to grow. Take a look at the rest of these preview shots, then come on down and build using your own imagination!

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Editor’s Note: Kavita is the Director of Programming for HMNS – Sugar Land.

Leave Unique Meetings to the Experts: HMNS Has Special Events Down to a Science


by Ashley Zalta

unconventional6Recent studies have found the current attention span of a human is between eight and nine seconds. That’s the same attention span of a goldfish! To say the least, your typical boardroom meetings aren’t capturing people’s attention anymore, so how do we make more interactive and engaging meetings? Well, the Houston Museum of Natural Science Special Events Department has a few answers for you.

1. Hold a meeting in an unconventional location.

Unconventional locations capture attention from the get-go, as clients’ senses are heightened in unfamiliar spaces. At HMNS, we offer meeting spaces that allow guests to view all of our permanent exhibit halls during their breaks. This gets people up and moving and not in a “meeting-coma” as the day proceeds.

Desmond Dino Tour 22. Seating matters

Nowadays, you have so many more options than typical conference chairs and board tables for meetings. The trends are leaning towards a more fun style of seating. Try using bean bag chairs. This allows guests not only a comfortable place to sit, but also elicits more group conversation.


Also try charging furniture — that is, furniture with outlets. With all guests “plugged in” these days, it’s hard to find enough outlets for everyone without wiring up the room. Well not anymore! Charging furniture now puts live plugs both wall style and usb right into the couches, chairs, and tables where guests are sitting.

unconventional3. DIY food stations

The food served at a meeting can be a great way to get people up and moving and create new conversations during an event. With DIY food stations, people not only create the exact food perfect for their dietary needs, but this type of meal can also be a point of conversation, and for some, even a competition.

Taco station — it’s a festive spin on Tex-Mex that leaves everyone satisfied.


Salad bar — something healthy, something for everyone.


Decorate-your-own gingerbread cookie — perfect for informal competitions!


At HMNS, we’ve got engaging audiences down to a science, so contact us at specialevents@hmns.org to help make your next event truly unique.

Editor’s Note: Ashley is the Assistant Director of Special Events at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Meet the Volunteers Who Have ‘Donated Their Bodies to Science’

by Gail Peterkin, HMNS Volunteer

“Donate your body to science — volunteer at the Houston Museum of Natural Science!” Or so the tagline goes. Apparently, some volunteers have interpreted the phrase quite literally, and a number of volunteers have spent many years, if not decades, as HMNS volunteers. HMNS currently has 610 active volunteers at all three of our campuses — Hermann Park, Sugar Land and the George Observatory. Collectively, volunteers gave 41,783 hours of service in 2015. That’s a lot of hours! Volunteers contribute to the museum in a variety of ways. Although the vast majority are docents who interact with and educate visitors of all ages about the museum’s exhibits and items on display, others work behind the scenes with the museum staff, and a very select few, with special knowledge or expertise, work directly with museum curators.


Sandy Wilkins

Sandy Wilkens began volunteering at the museum during the 1982-1983 school year, when her daughter was in second grade. With a degree in education and a teaching certification, she found a niche at the inception of the Early Investigations program, a science education program for younger children. She recalls sitting on the floor around a teepee, telling inquisitive K-2 students about life on the Plains. Sandy likes to use everyday things to give kids a sense of perspective. For example, she points out that a child’s foot is about the same length as a T. rex tooth! Sandy and her family donated a corn snake named Houdini to the museum. An escape artist like his namesake, Houdini was known for vanishing from his tank. Helpful hint: To capture an escaped snake in a classroom, set up a small, sealed container full of mice (i.e., dinner) on the floor. Chances are you will find the snake wrapped around the container within the next day or two! Most recently, Sandy has coordinated the annual staff appreciation luncheon, given by volunteers to thank museum staff for their support.


Mary Briscoe preparing for a Guild luncheon.

Mary Brisco, a retired pharmacist, became a volunteer in 1987 to further her interest in science. Over the years, she has volunteered in almost all of the permanent exhibit halls, although she admits that the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals is a personal favorite. Mary likes to tell visitors about the mesolite with fluorapophyllite specimen. Extremely fragile, it traveled by air from India on a first-class ticket, packed in powdered soap for protection! Mary has served in many roles in the Volunteer Guild, including a term as Guild President. Mary’s most memorable museum experience was winning a raffle for a gold-and-diamond necklace and earring set at one of the Galas! Nowadays, Mary is enjoying a change of pace, working in the Cockrell Butterfly Center’s greenhouse on the seventh floor of the parking garage.


Elaine Swank with HMNS President Joel Bartsch.

Elaine Swank came to HMNS in September 1988, when HMNS President Joel Bartsch was a museum security guard! They became friends, and she remembers when he returned to HMNS as Curator of Gems and Minerals. Elaine especially enjoys school tours, and she continues to work regularly with Houston fourth graders through the HISD/HMNS Program. Although she has experience in all the permanent halls, she usually takes the kids to the Hall of the Americas, where she tells them what to do if they discover an archaeological artifact, and then brings them to the Morian Hall of Paleontology. She always reminds the kids to look up, to see the Quetzalcoatlus from Big Bend National Park in Texas flying overhead! Elaine is well known for carrying an artificial rose, to keep her school groups together.


Crafty Inda Immega.

Inda and Neal Immega are well known to frequent museum visitors. Inda and Neal are both geology Ph.D.s who worked in the oil and gas industry. Inda, a mineralogist, began consistently volunteering around 1996. She spends much of her time in Gems and Minerals, but also enjoys the challenges posed by special exhibits — here today and gone tomorrow. She claims she could easily spend a lifetime among the exquisite pieces in Fabergé: From a Snowflake to an Iceberg. Inda is popular with families and young visitors — she organizes and assembles kids’ crafts and activities for Members’ Nights and other special events. Her most memorable question was when an adult visitor asked about Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition: “Is the real ship in there?” Uhh, no, check the bottom of the North Atlantic … Of course, Inda takes all questions seriously and responded politely!


Docent training with Neal Immega.

Neal became a regular volunteer after retiring from Shell Oil in 1999. A paleontologist by training, he was thrilled to return to the world of paleontology. Neal says simply, “Paleo has always been my home.” He conducts tours, trains other museum docents, and provides specimens and repairs for the touch carts in Paleo, the Wiess Energy Hall, and for special exhibits like Amber Secrets: Feathers from the Age of Dinosaurs. Neal also works on special projects in paleontology. He curated the Zuhl petrified wood collection, which entailed working closely with Mr. Zuhl; has written labels for some special exhibits; and helps out with “orphan exhibits,” such as repairing and maintaining the steam engine on the lower level. Neal excels in artifact reproduction (fondly called “Nealifacts”), and he is particularly proud of the copper chisel and Egyptian-style wooden hammer he produced for one of the touch carts in the Hall of Ancient Egypt.


Neal and Inda Immega.

The Immegas both came to the museum at the urging of Irene Offeman, who was then the Curator of Paleontology. She said the museum needed more volunteers with formal geological and paleontological backgrounds, and the rest is history! Both Inda and Neal have joined HMNS and Curator of Paleontology Dr. Robert T. “Bob” Bakker at the museum’s Permian excavations in Seymour, Texas, and Inda recalls going on a “Dipsy the Diplodocus” trip to visit the original dinosaur quarry in Wyoming. They also got a close-up peek at the scaly skin of Leonardo, a Brachylophosaurus dinosaur mummy.


Malacology volunteers, from left: Barbara McClintock, Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway, Lucy Clampit, Jim Lacey, and Rachel Zelko.

The intrepid team of malacology volunteers deserves special mention. They have convened regularly for as long as most museum staff can remember! In fact, two malacology volunteers, Barbara McClintock and Jim Lacey, preceded the arrival of Associate Curator of Malacology Tina Petway! Barbara, a retired biology teacher, has been involved with HMNS for 64 years. When her children were small, she drove them up from Baytown to attend museum programs. When she retired from teaching in 1995 or 1996, her daughter Margaret (also a volunteer) told her to investigate volunteer opportunities at the museum. Barbara found a home in malacology and has never worked anywhere else — although she admits to a secret fondness for Gems and Minerals, too. Jim, a retired geology Ph.D., originally wanted to work on paleontological specimens. When he was told there were no paleo openings available, he switched to malacology and has remained there since 1998.


Colonel Currie’s Epitonium — see if you can find it in Cabinet of Curiosities!

Tina Petway came to the museum as a volunteer under former Curator John Wise, who relied on her shell identifications; Tina has a photographic memory for shells. A former schoolteacher, Tina has been a member of the Houston Conchology Society since age 12. Tina recruited the newest members of the malacology team: Lucy Clampit, a retired librarian and longtime member of the Houston Conchology Society, in 2005, and Rachel Zelko, the “baby” of the group who joined in 2015. While they don’t interact directly with the public, and work “behind the scenes” at the museum’s collections facility, the malacology group has established close personal relationships based on their shared love of shells and good food!

The group meets every Thursday, and usually more often. Rachel, for example, often comes in three or four times a week. They work on new collections—checking the data on incoming specimens, cataloging specimens, verifying identifications and the like. They have been very busy lately. Over the past several years, more than 20,000 specimens were added to the scientific malacology collection — a collection that is worldwide in scope and becoming one of the best in the world by reputation. An exciting discovery in one of the new collections included some shells collected by Colonel Edward Currie, who died in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 — along with their original handwritten labels! These Epitonium shells are now on view in the museum’s Cabinet of Curiosities exhibit.


Malacology volunteer Barbara McClintock on the HMNS trip to Ethiopia.

Astute readers may have noticed that volunteering at HMNS is often a “family affair,” and there are many families who volunteer together — husband and wife (like Inda and Neal), parents and young adult/adult children, even grandparents and grandchildren. For example, Julie Swank, a summer volunteer on break from Baylor University, took photos of her grandmother and interviewed her for this blog! Barbara McClintock has several family members who have joined her at HMNS — son John McClintock, daughter Margaret Slutz, and daughter-in-law Susan Peterson.


Second-generation docents Jody Vaughan and Peyton Barnes.

Peyton Barnes and Jody Vaughan are both “second-generation” volunteers. Peyton, a retired surgeon, only became a volunteer three years ago — but his mother, Mrs. J. Peyton (Gertrude) Barnes, Sr., preceded him and served as Guild President in 1971-1972. Jody’s mother, JoLene Whitehurst, was an HMNS volunteer in the 1970s. An RN, she worked in the museum’s health and biology area, which featured a giant mouth and toothbrush, a life-sized transparent plastic body named Tammy, and models of human development from zygote to newborn. HMNS was an important part of Jody’s childhood — her Mom even gave her a museum membership as a wedding gift! Jody is honored to follow in her mother’s footsteps as an HMNS docent and fondly recalls bringing her Mom back to the museum after becoming a docent herself.

So why don’t you yourself make some lasting memories, share some quality family time, or simply join the fun by becoming a volunteer at HMNS? You can join us, too! No advanced degrees required, and prior scientific knowledge isn’t necessary — just interest and enthusiasm. Information on volunteering is available on the museum’s website. Consider giving your body to science, and maybe we’ll see you in the halls!

The Timeless Beauty of Wilderness: Mark Burns on his Photo Exhibition, The National Parks Project

by Mark Burns

If you were to ask most Americans to name significant historical occurrences of 1864, most answers would probably involve the Civil War. But in fact it was in that same year that President Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant protecting the land that formally became Yosemite National Park in 1890. This action by President Lincoln was truly historic as it laid the groundwork to begin a movement in America toward protecting natural places for the enjoyment of the people. Eight years later in 1872, legislation by congress and President Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park, thus becoming the world’s first national park. By 1916, America had established several dozen national parks and national monuments. The National Park Service was created to manage these public lands.

Mark Burns - Grand Teton National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Mark Burns – Grand Teton National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Prior to and throughout these events, explorers, scientists, painters and photographers worked in these western territories, many with the goal of preserving these special places of awe-inspiring natural beauty for generations to come. Arguably, it was the reaction and response to early paintings and photographs that had some of the biggest impact on the public and the politicians back east who helped draft legislation to ultimately preserve these amazing natural places. For me, as a photographer and artist, this was profound. I decided in 2010 that I wanted to photograph each of America’s 59 national parks as a tribute to those early painters and photographers whose work helped to protect many of these special places for generations to come. So I began ‘The National Parks Photography Project’.

Rialto Beach Seastacks. Mark Burns.

Rialto Beach Seastacks. Photograph by Mark Burns.

As a fine art photographer, I’ve always loved working in the black-and-white medium, and for this project, I felt it was a perfect fit. A contemporary yet timeless presentation of images, one of each of America’s 59 national parks in black and white would be my bridge back to the past century.

For five years, I traveled across America photographing the parks. My life on the road became one governed more by the environment than by people and modern demands. Much planning went into my trip scheduling as I was always chasing weather, guided in large part by the cycles of nature and the angles of the sun and moon.

Roaring Fork Branch. Mark Burns.

Roaring Fork Branch. Photograph by Mark Burns.

By the time the project photography was completed in October 2015, I had driven my Toyota FJ Cruiser to every national park in the Lower 48 at least once, and multiple times to many of them. The eight national parks in Alaska presented unique transportation challenges, most only accessible by bush plane, float plane or boat. For five weeks each summer in 2014 and 2015, I based myself in Anchorage, Alaska, flying out with bush pilots to remote areas for the photography. Getting to the parks in Hawaii, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands was relatively straight forward via commercial airlines.

Watchtower Evening. Mark Burns.

Watchtower Evening. Photograph by Mark Burns.

People are always asking me, “What is your favorite park?” That’s really difficult for me to answer. I have so many special memories from so many of them. With that said, I love the classic western parks — Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton — all truly beautiful places befitting of the title of ‘national park’. The immense feeling of true wilderness that I experienced in Alaska was a bit different. I will never forget the pristine ice blue water of the Ambler River near its headwaters in Gates of the Arctic National Park, or the vast solitude of Denali. I left these places with the belief that wilderness is vital and important… just for the sake of being wilderness.

Yosemite Valley - Tunnel View. Mark Burns.

Yosemite Valley – Tunnel View. Photograph by Mark Burns.

I’m also frequently asked about wildlife encounters, and most often about bears. In my experience, it was moose that occasionally were a minor problem. Moose are large, unpredictable animals. Bull moose chased me off trails a few times, and once in Grand Teton National Park just before sunrise, a cow moose with her young calf popped out of the trees within about 10 yards of me. She rolled her ears back, glared, snorted and stomped. I remember standing there in the pre-dawn light behind my camera and tripod trying to be completely non-threatening. I was lucky, after about a minute she turned and headed away with her calf following.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse - Study #1. Mark Burns.

Bass Harbor Lighthouse – Study #1. Photograph by Mark Burns.

As America celebrates the Centennial Anniversary of the National Park Service, we reflect back on the rich history of our national parks. But it’s also a time to look forward toward the next 100 years. Today our national park system faces much different issues than it did in 1916. Modern transportation and infrastructure make it easier than ever to visit our parks. It has been said that America’s national parks are being “Loved to Death”. In some areas, encroaching cities, towns and industry are presenting haze issues, and global warming is contributing to melting glaciers. Protecting and preserving these natural places during the next 100 years is vital and will present a multitude of unique challenges. After spending much time in the parks, I have my own opinions. I feel that potentially ‘easy’ accessibility should be limited meaning that if you want to get to a remote corner of a park you may need to hike some distance and/or backpack. I also feel that in some cases the parks should be viewed as natural ecosystems more so than just man-made boundaries on a map. The parks should represent the best of our natural world.


Mark Burns – Olympic National Park. Photograph by Craig Robbins.

Today, for me, with ‘The National Parks Photography Project’ completed, I’m honored to have this collection of photographs traveling to various museums to be displayed for people to see.

It is my hope that the photographs will instill an awareness of America’s national parks in the viewers. Nothing is more rewarding than someone approaching me in a gallery and sharing that after seeing the exhibit, that someone is heading out to a park to explore and enjoy. In today’s digital world of minute-by-minute news and information, our national parks are a vital resource now more than ever. Our national parks can be recreational, they can be classrooms in nature, and they can be restorative places that are good for the soul.

During this Centennial Anniversary year, the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation have launched the marketing campaign titled #FindYourPark. I couldn’t agree more!

Editor’s Note: Mark Burns is the photographer of the upcoming Special Exhibition, The National Parks Photography Project, open June 17 to Sept. 28. Exhibition is free with purchase of general admission.

After touring Burns’s exquisite photographs, watch National Parks Adventure 3D at the Wortham Giant Screen Theater.

Hear Burns’s take on the wilderness for yourself at his Distinguished Lecture, “The National Parks — America’s Cathedrals of Nature,” Tuesday, June 21 at 6:30 p.m.