Doing better: We heard you out, now we’ll fill you in

Hall_of_Ancient_EgyptRecently, we were featured in a Houston Press article, “10 Things the Houston Museum of Natural Science Could Do Better.” While we welcome both positive and negative feedback from our guests — from pithy tweets to local press — we now realize that we’ve been a bit remiss in filling you in on our master plan. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to share our plans with you. It may help clear up a few concerns and put some happenings here at the Museum into a “big picture” context.

You may have heard of (or visited!) the new Morian Hall of Paleontology. Or perhaps you’ve wandered the cavernous galleries inside our new Hall of Ancient Egypt. You may not realize it, but you’re visiting brand new permanent exhibition halls located in the new Dan L Duncan Family Wing that opened last summer. This expansion more than doubled the size of the Museum’s public exhibition space.

Now that the new wing is open, we are focusing the majority of our energy and resources into completely renovating and upgrading the preexisting, older permanent exhibition halls and displays.

In fact, we’ll be unveiling our newly revamped Welch Chemistry Hall in the fall of 2013. In 2014 and 2015, our Evelyn and Herbert Frensley Hall of African Wildlife and Graham Family Presentation of Ecology and Conservation Biomes and Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife will follow. Our vision is to enlarge, renovate, remodel, and refresh every permanent exhibit hall in the Museum within the next five to seven years.

We hope this explains why some seemingly small changes — while definitely important! — have taken a bit of a backseat to these gigantic renovations. As an institution, we are dedicating investments in time, energy and money to maintaining the Houston Museum of Natural Science as a world class collection of artifacts and exhibitions. Doing so will enrich the lives of our current patrons as well as future generations of nature and science lovers.

Of course, we know you’ve got questions for us. And as your hometown museum, we have answers for you. You’re always invited to send your suggestions, ideas, hopes, and dreams to us. We’re listening. Feel free to send an email to webeditor at hmns dot org if you’ve got something on your mind. We can’t guarantee immediate action on the particular request, but we can guarantee a real, live human being will respond.

Thank you so much for being the most important part of our community. We look forward to being your source for the latest and greatest in the scientific world for years to come!

X-treme astronomy: Go behind-the-scenes of The X-Planets on April 18

In this day and age, it seems like everyone is trying to add some excitement to their lives. Now that we no longer have animals trying to hunt us and have enough infrastructure that one bad harvest won’t wipe us out, we’re looking for something to spend our excess energy on. People have taken to jumping off bridges with giant rubber bands, getting charged by bulls and jumping out of the way, or even eating fugu every chance they can.

Some of us less adventurous (and less crazy) folks have other ideas about how to heighten the adrenaline we get out of our hobbies. One of the more superficial ways to do this is to just add the word “extreme” (or, if we are hardcore enough, we might leave out the e and be “x-treme”).  It started out with extreme sports. Then it went to x-treme makeovers and weight loss.  And now, it has passed on to x-treme couponing. I expect x-treme snail fighting will be coming along some time soon.

While we could put the x-treme in front of astronomy to make it even more exciting, astronomy beat us to it with an “X” of its own: Extrasolar planets (called exoplanets or x-planets for short).

X-Planets: Now Playing at the Burke Baker Planetarium

An x-planet is a planet outside our sun system. Once thought to be purely fiction, there are over 860 such identified planets (and by the time you read this, the number will have gone up). The first definitive finding of an x-planet was in April of 1992 in orbit of PSR B1257+12. (Unfortunately there are a lot of stars out there without names and only unwieldy catalog numbers.) The first multiple planetary system was found in 1999, in the Upsilon Andromedae star system — only 44 light years away.

But the search is still on for other habitable planets. Alpha Centauri has a planet the right size, but far too hot. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb (try pronouncing it, it’s a fun series of sounds) is larger than our planet, but too cold to support life. We have yet to find one that’s just right.  When we do, it will still be a long drive to check and see if we have some neighbors.

Until then, the best way to experience what an “alien world” might be like is the X-Planet show in the HMNS Burke Baker Planetarium. And what better way to experience it than after-hours with the creators of the show, Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes?

Explore exoplanets at the Burke Baker PlanetariumWhat: Behind-the-Scenes Tour of The X-Planets
When: Thursday, April 18 at 6 p.m.
Who: Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes
How Much: $18

Since its launch in 2009, NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler Telescope has uncovered 2,740 new extra-solar planets, also known as exoplanets or X-planets. Now scientists are working to identify gases in the exoplanets’ atmospheres that can support life. It is just a matter of time before an “alien Earth ” is found. Join Dr. Carolyn Sumners and Adam Barnes of the Museum’s astronomy department for a behind-the-scenes look at the science behind X-Planets, the making of the film The X-Planets and a viewing of the film in the Burke Baker Planetarium. To purchase tickets and read more about the film, click here.

Ecoteen Myria Perez earns Girl Scouts’ highest honor — and a congrats from the Mayor — for collaboration with HMNS

Editor’s note: Museum volunteer and Ecoteen Myria Perez was recognized by Mayor Annise Parker on Friday after earning the Girl Scouts’ highest honor for her work with HMNS. Perez collaborated with the HMNS paleontology department to construct a Permian-period touch cart using specimens that she helped uncover at our dig site in Seymour, Texas. We caught up with Myria to talk a bit about her project and what it means to get the mayoral stamp of approval.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria with the Mayor

HMNS: You were an Ecoteen and have logged some 1,000 volunteer hours at the Museum. When did you start volunteering at HMNS and what’s been your favorite project or memory?

Myria Perez: I started volunteering at HMNS in the fall of 2008 when I was 12 years old. During that time, the Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy CSI exhibit was up on display. During my visit to the Museum for Leonardo’s exhibit, I found out about Dino Days and Breakfast with Dr. Bakker and immediately saved the date. When November came around I was able to meet paleontologist Dr. Robert Bakker. There I was, wearing my over-sized Leonardo Dinosaur Mummy shirt with a pen and drawing in my hand for him to sign.

Volunteering was brought up during our conversation. “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” And of course, I responded, “12.” Dr. Bakker looked at me and repeated the question. “12,” I chirped once more, until I realized I had repeated my mistake. The third time, “The minimum age is 14; how old are you?” I was 14 now! The first thing I learned from paleontologist Dr. Bakker was to lie about my age; I was good to go!

My favorite memory was helping my mentor [associate curator of paleontology] David Temple with the new hall of paleontology during the summer of 2011 by preparing, painting, and packing up specimens such as the Megalodon jaw, Triceratops skull, and Edmontosaurus bones. An unforgettable memory was a trip to Seymour, Texas for a paleo excavation in the Permian red beds. The drive is around eight hours, so my mom and I arrived in the town of Seymour around midnight. My mom decided to stop and stay at the Sagamar Inn, the one and only inn in Seymour. The rest of the crew was staying at their normal place.

My mom and I checked in and got ready for bed. About an hour passed since I had drifted to sleep when I woke up to foul words from my mother’s mouth. She was half-awake, jumping up and down, throwing her hands around with a disgusted look on her face. Her bed sheets were stripped away and little black and red bugs scurried, fearful of the lamp light.

This was the horrific bed bug encounter. From nymphs to adults, each part of life cycle stages were present. They were in my sheets, as well. At 1 a.m. we notified the people in charge; they denied the bed bugs and offered us another room — the room next door. Of course, we called poor David Temple and relocated under the darkness of the premature morning to the old tractor factory to join the rest of the crew.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria in the field

HMNS: What got you interested in paleontology? Is it something you’d pursue as a career path?

Myria Perez: I caught fossil fever back when I was 2 years old, and still to this day have yet to find a cure for it. I never played with Barbie dolls. Instead, I spent my time analyzing dinosaur bones (garden rocks in my backyard) and conducting prehistoric battles with plastic dinosaurs. Every year, my mom would take me to the Houston Museum of Natural Science to see ancient life. I could say I just grew up with a passion for paleontology.

My ultimate goal is to achieve my doctorate of vertebrate paleontology. I want to study the paleobiology of ancient life.

HMNS: How many hours did you spend on the touch cart? Can you tell us a bit about the process?

Myria Perez: I spent a total of 129.5 hours on the Permian touch cart. This included the planning, presentation of the cart to the museum guild, the Seymour trip to collect fossils with the paleo crew, specimen molding and casting (as well as painting), creation of the manual, docent/volunteer training on the cart, and touch cart presentations to museum visitors.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Myria poses with her touch cart in the new Morian Hall of Paleontology

The Permian touch cart was a great opportunity to combine Girl Scouts, paleontology, and earth science education. The timing could not have been better with the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s new hall of paleontology that opened the summer of 2012. The Permian time period (around 287 million years ago) and the critters that inhabited the earth at that time were and are still being excavated and studied by the paleontology crew at HMNS. This was the perfect opportunity to show museum visitors the entire process of fossil display. In the touch cart, I was able to include items such as excavation site pictures, tools used in the field, and a “fossil hunt” for visitors to spot the fossils as if they were looking for them in the field, ultimately achieving the goal of “bringing the field to you.”

HMNS: What does it mean to you to be receiving the Girl Scout Gold Award, and to receive personal commendation from Mayor Parker?

Myria Perez: The Girl Scout Gold Award is the highest award to be earned in Girl Scouts (it is the equivalent of the Boy Scout’s Eagle Award). The project must be sustainable and address a community issue. I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of this project because I was always learning about not only myself, but also about how to work with all kinds of people, how to write a manual, and important paleo skills such as molding and casting specimens. This project has been a wonderful experience and opportunity for me to meet and work with new people and promote earth science education.

To be able to share the HMNS paleo crew’s discoveries in Seymour with Mayor Parker was an honor! It made it very exciting to share a few fossils with her, as she also exhibited great interest in ancient relics. She enjoyed a coprolite (fossilized poop) from a Permian shark called a Xenacanth as well a skull from the boomerang headed amphibian, Diplocaulus.

An Ecoteen meets the Mayor
Mayor Parker examines a coprolite

A year in the life: Personal photos of the mayhem and magic that is working at HMNS

The end of one calendar year and the beginning of the next is always a good time to do a little tidying of your personal life. Calendars get replaced, inboxes get emptied and, for me, extra bits on my phone get dumped. So, under the auspices of cleaning out my phone, I came across some totally work-related photos I would like to share with you. They are weird, but so is working for a science-based non-profit.

For those that know us, Dave (Temple — HMNS’ Associate Curator of Anthropology and my husband) and I make sense. I am a little bit like the Martha Stewart of dead things and Dave is more like the Indiana Jones of Dimetrodons (although he would argue that he is the Alabama Dave of Dimetrodons). Perhaps with these photos you will get to know us — and the Museum — a bit better.

Enjoy!

Zombie Nicole. We run an overnight program here, and we like Halloween. ‘Nuff said.

Zombie Nicole

Chewbacca getting his fortune told.

chewbacca

Dave versus the tufted-ear Marmoset.

Marmoset Dave

True fact: Green-cheeked conures like watching Dr. Bakker.

bakker birdies

This is the kind of thing that can be found in our freezer. Crickets don’t cook themselves, people.

bug cooking

Eww.

HUMAN TEETH!

Me and Bobby McGee hanging out and waiting for our ride. We had an appointment with Dr. Dan that day.

Taxidermy Nicole

Making new friends during the Paleo Hall installation.

paleo install

Granted this photo is a little blurry, but check out that tiny frog!  There is a dime just visible in my hand for scale.

Teeny Tiny Froggie!

Dave at an ecological research station in Brazil. The park ranger there is referred to as the “Chuck Norris of Brazil.”

Brazil Dave

Pitcher plants = Awesome.

Pitcher plants

New officemate. Likes to give hugs with his mouth.

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