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!

A Story of Workday Blues, or, How HMNS After Dark Improves Your Week

Monday inches along like a tectonic plate, and you feel the weight of the week on your shoulders. Mildred made the coffee wrong, but your boss doesn’t like waste, so you had to suffer through two mugs of the bitter swill because no one else would drink it and you’re the only one in the office with a caffeine addiction this strong. You hear Andrew yell at the copier again, and you wonder whether life wouldn’t be more exciting if we were raptors.


What you wish the office looked like.

You remember it’s been nearly a year since you’ve been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The last time you were there, you learned raptors weren’t at all like the ones in Jurassic Park; those CGI characters were closer in size to Deinonychus. Velociraptors were only as large as a cat, and you remember wishing the little guys were still around so you could have one as a pet, then wondering what you might feed it — cats, maybe? ALF ate cats.


What you see when you imagine raptors eating cats.

Dude! You think. I’d totally rather be looking at dinosaurs than the walls of this cubicle right now. And the more you think about it, the stronger your urge to feed your scientific curiosity with a visit to HMNS.

By the time you’re about to punch out, you’ve already decided to venture to the museum to improve your mood. It’ll be a great way to unwind a little before heading home to walk the dog for your significant other. The dog can wait another hour or so; you need some time to yourself. This day has been awful. You send one last email, and with a huff, you swing your bag over your shoulder and you march out the door, your good-byes disingenuous.


The walk to your car.

It’s raining again, but with dinosaurs on the brain, it’s an acceptable discomfort. In fifteen minutes, you’ll be standing below a magnificent 40-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex. You round the corner onto Hermann Park Drive. Your heart thumps, faster, faster as the concrete building looms above you. The butterflies in your stomach remind you of the explosion of color at the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and the thought of color reminds you of the sparkling Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and then, finally, you’re at the parking garage!


What you wish you could un-see.

Which is closed. It’s 5:25, and the museum has been shut down for the day. Worst Monday ever.

You get back home, walk the dog, take a shower with the water as hot as you can stand it, then go online to check the museum’s hours, dreading that you’ll have to wait it out until the weekend. But, lo and behold! They’re offering a new service — something called HMNS After Dark.

“You asked, and we answered,” you read. “For everyone who has wished for access to the museum in the cool evenings after work, here’s your chance… HMNS will stay open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, May 25!”

Holy cow! That’s this week! Bless my lucky stars!


What you wish you could always see.

You rub your eyes and double-check to make sure. But this ain’t no fiction, buster. This is the real thing! Everything’s awesome, and everything’s open. Looks like you won’t have to wait until the weekend after all.

That very night, you make plans with your significant other to come out to HMNS After Dark. Tuesday and Wednesday speed along after that.

Crater Science Reaches New Depths at Chicxulub, Ground Zero for the End of the Dinosaurs

If there was ever any doubt whether an asteroid impact killed off the dinosaurs, field scientists continue to bring back proof from ongoing research in the Gulf of Mexico.
Last week, geologists working in the Yucatán Peninsula reached a major milestone in an offshore drilling project of the Chicxulub Crater, now known to be the remnant of a 66-million-year-old collision of a gargantuan asteroid into the Earth’s surface. Reaching a depth of 670 meters (2,198 feet) in the crater’s peak ring for the first time, the scientists brought up core samples of the original granite bedrock that occurred as a result of this Earth-shattering impact.

Discovered in 1978 by geophysicists Antonio Camargo and Glen Penfield, the crater has been the subject of study and controversy for some time, but this is the first time scientists have dug this deep offshore, into the inner ring of the double-ringed crater. From the core samples, taken from below 66 million years of sediment piled onto the original molten rock formed at the time of the impact, paleontologists now have a completely new data set to study the earliest moments of Earth after the Cretaceous.



With this evidence, we can now put to rest a point of contention regarding the exact border between the Cretaceous and the next age in the life of the Earth, the Paleogene, known as the K-Pg boundary. Prior to this project, paleontologists defined the K-Pg boundary with the appearance of foraminifera, fossils of small shelled creatures. In a sense, the drilling project took science back in time through rock layers never before investigated and passed the K-Pg boundary at ground zero. Because this layer of ancient rock is so thick and and so unique, the drilling team is considering re-naming it the “event layer.”

This news highlights a great number of phenomena in both natural history and astrophyics. Astronomers have studied peak rings in craters on the moon, Mars and Mercury, but never before on our own planet. The Chicxulub now offers a local opportunity to study this type of supermassive impact.

Apparently, peak rings form in a matter of minutes when an asteroid is so big, its impact liquefies rock, causing the center of the crater, while it’s in motion, to splash upward in a cone shape like a drop of water into a filled sink. This molten rock creates a distinct layer of minerals that only form from asteroid collisions. As the team continues to bore deeper, now working more slowly to study this unique type of rock, they will search for rock layers “out of order,” testing a proposed model for this type of impact. Theories state when these impacts occur, older rock layers are tossed above younger rock layers.



The discovery of Chicxulub is a fascinating story in itself, and shows how difficult this thing was to find. Essentially, the crater is so old, the only evidence of it is a trough that forms a faint semi-circle on the western portion of the Yucatán Peninsula and a system of thousands of cenotes, sinkholes formed as a result of the impact. (We’re still unable to explain why.)

Prospecting for oil drilling sites for the Mexican oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Penfield noticed a huge underwater arc 40 miles across in his geophysical data. He found another arc on land years later. Penmex suppressed specific data to the public, but allowed Penfield and Camargo to present the findings at the Society of Exploration Geophysicists conference in 1981, which was poorly attended.

In 1980, unaware of Penfield’s discovery, Alan R. Hildebrand, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, published the first paper proposing the Earth-impact theory and was searching for a probable crater. He and his team found evidence of an impact in shocked quartz, a type of deformed quartz created by intense pressure and limited temperature (the conditions of an impact crater), and tektites, beads of glass shaped like drops of water that form when molten rock is ejected into the atmosphere. Both of these materials occur in large deposits in the Caribbean basin.



Carlos Byars, reporting for the Houston Chronicle in 1990, connected the dots between Hildebrand’s theory and Penfield’s discovery, and Hildebrand and Penfield obtained Penmex drill samples stored in New Orleans for Hildebrand’s team to study. The samples matched Hildebrand’s theories.

Further research into the crater in the late 1990s using gravitational anomaly imaging showed the crater is a system of two concentric circles, the outer circle measuring 190 miles in diameter, nearly five times the diameter of the inner circle.

Personally, as a Texan, a Houstonian and a dinosaur nerd, I take pride in these developments. 1. The Chicxulub crater was discovered by a Mexican oil company. 2. A Houston reporter identified the crater as the one that killed the dinosaurs. Two points for Texas, a state steeped in petroleum science and Mexican culture.

For a grandiose, and slightly terrifying, example of how an asteroid impact can change the face of the Earth (the Chicxulub crater was created by a much smaller asteroid), watch this Discovery Channel simulation set to Pink Floyd’s “Us and Them.”

The Adventures of Archie the Traveling T. Rex: Big Bend National Park

by Charlotte Brohi

Well, it’s Archie reporting in….

After my visit to Paris, I thought it high time I went to a place closer to home that has fossil records of some of my friends in the dinosaur world. Can you guess where?


So, I hunkered down in my suitcase for the short flight to Midland, Texas, my jumping-off point for my adventure to the Big Bend National Park. Don’t worry. I brought sun protection (a hat) and extra water because I was planning to hike as well as learn a few things.


You are probably asking, “but Archie, why Big Bend?” To be honest, I was totally inspired to go WILD and visit a national park ever since I saw the new Giant Screen/IMAX film at HMNS called National Park Adventure 3D. That’s me in my 3D glasses below. Spoiler alert: this film showcases 13 of the famous parks and it has better music than what is on my playlist!


Feeling adventurous, and having learned that this year marks the 100th anniversary of the National Park system I just knew I HAD to go! How often do we get to celebrate a centennial? Do you know who is credited with this monumental feat? If you shouted to yourself, “President Teddy Roosevelt” then you would be correct! Sadly, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day but he credited his time in the wilderness as crucial to his emotional healing and thus inspired him to protect the wilderness. I LOVE being in the wild too, don’t you?


Because I didn’t want to play favorites I also ventured to Big Bend State Park. You can’t tell from this photo, but Big Bend is considered moderate-altitude (between 5,000 and 6,000 feet). I still had to catch my breath and take it slow up the trail. Remember, altitude can negatively affect those who are older and can only use half of their appendages when walking… Like moí! See, I did learn something in Paris.

As I prepared for my hike, I took a look around and remembered that Big Bend has the youngest of all Texas dinosaurs, dating to the end of the Mesozoic, 66 million years ago! I am walking in the footsteps of greatness!


The next day was pretty hot (100 degrees, to be precise) so I decided to stay cool in my traveling suitcase as I pondered the fact that more than 90 dinosaur species, nearly 100 plant species, and more than two dozen fish, frogs, salamanders, turtles, crocodiles, lizards, and even early mammals have been discovered here. But to most of us, it’s just so darn BEAUTIFUL!


And because I’m a good steward of the environment, I didn’t pack anything extra to take home with me. It’s important to preserve all cultural and natural artifacts. So I only took photographs and left only footprints.


Did you know that the Rio Grande River is the international boundary (1,000 miles) between Mexico and the United States, and the “big bend” follows more than 100 miles of that boundary? In fact, the park was named after the area, which has a large bend in the river. I love learning the origins of names. Just like my name, Tyrannosaurus Rex, which comes from Greek and Latin roots that mean “tyrant lizard king.” My friends just call me T. rex, though. Or Archie. It’s less intimidating.


The Stars at Night are Big and Bright…

Once the sun went down, I gazed at more than 2,000 stars. Big Bend has the least light pollution of any other National Park in the lower 48 states. There’s even a song to celebrate its greatness. I also used this cool app called StarView to identify stars and planets in the night sky. Jupiter, one of the five bright planets, was indeed bright and beautiful!

I didn’t want to leave, so I promised myself I’d come back when it’s a little cooler. Shoot, I may even decide to head to the McDonald Observatory in Ft. Davis (which has nothing to do with burgers and fries). But until then, I’ll get my stargazing fix at the George Observatory in Brazos Bend State Park, another very cool place to see the stars and enjoy the natural beauty of the great state of Texas.

You can find Archie and the whole Adopt-a-Dino family in the HMNS Museum Store. Drop by and take one home!

Editor’s Note: Charlotte is the Vice President of Film Program and Distribution for the Houston Museum of Natural Science.