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.

volunteers

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.

volunteers2

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.

volunteers3

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.

volunteers4

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!

volunteers5

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.

volunteers6

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.

volunteers7

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.

volunteers8

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.

volunteers9

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.

volunteers10

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!

Here’s to the docents who dress! Costumes give volunteers an added educational edge

Editor’s note: Today’s post was written by Monica L. McHam, a volunteer docent here at the Museum.

“Wow, I didn’t recognize you with clothes on!”

I stopped short and spun around to see my friend and fellow docent, Carl Driever, standing there with an impish grin plastered across his face. Carl continued, “I only meant that I’m used to seeing you in costume, rather than in regular clothes.” With that, Carl whistled his way down the hall.

Docents Who Dress 1

Costumed docent Monica McHam welcomes Museum patrons to Magna Carta.

I thought about that conversation later and realized I do spend a lot of my time at HMNS in costume. Although costuming is not required (or even typical) for docents at our Museum, there is a group of docents that regularly dress for special exhibits such as Civil War, Titanic, and currently, Magna Carta.

Making a costume can take a lot of energy and a lot of time — and it can be pricey. On the other hand, the cost of buying an outfit could equal the GDP of a small developing country! So docents who dress tend to be handy — and have sewing skills. Depending on the time of the year and the exhibit in question, wearing a costume can leave you unbearably hot or miserably cold. Add in make-up, corsets, heels, and wigs, and I wondered, “Why do we dress?” I decided to find out by talking to some of my friends who also “dress for success.”

Docents Who Dress 4

Costumed Magna Carta docent Gillian Callen.

 

Docents Who Dress 3

Costumed Magna Carta docent Eileen Hatcher.

 

Docents Who Dress 2

Costumed Magna Carta docents Nancy Fischer and Kris Mills

I asked docent Kris Mills about dressing, and she had some very insightful comments.

She emphatically agreed that most costumes are hot; in fact, that is what she likes least about dressing. So, what does she like about dressing?

“I think it makes us approachable. We are less ‘teacherish,’ and perhaps less intimidating.” Then she confided that children “terrify” her (because she’s a bit shy)! And a costume is like a mask. “It helps get their attention and sometimes even their interest, but anonymously! Then we can have some fun.”

Nancy Fischer is a docent currently dressing in Magna Carta as the wife of a wealthy merchant. Like Kris, Nancy says dressing is a starting point for conversation. “Sometimes I’ll explain what character I am and then talk about the sumptuary laws and complain that I can’t wear certain colors or materials.” Nancy notes that this conversation often leads to a discussion of medieval life.

During tours of the Hall of Ancient Egypt, I am occasionally asked why I am wearing a shift when the women in the carvings are often bare “up there.” Like Kris and Nancy, I find this is a great introduction to a discussion of Egyptian art and the clothing of everyday Egyptians. I will admit, though, that the first time I was asked this question, by a third-grade boy, I wasn’t nearly as sanguine!

Docents Who Dress 5

Monica McHam “dressed for success” in the Hall of Ancient Egypt — without being “bare up there!”.

So we dress to inspire our patrons, with an added benefit of occasionally convincing other docents to jump on the bandwagon. Take Eileen Hatcher as an example: she decided to dress when she saw other docents “dedicated to costuming” and recognized that it was a fun and interesting way to interact with the public. She currently dresses as a poor peasant in Magna Carta — but elicits rich responses from Museum patrons!

Although docents who dress enjoy it and believe their efforts are worthwhile, occasionally patrons react in unexpected ways.

Kris relates the following story. “The first time I was in Titanic, I had laced myself too tightly into the corset and could not sit down the entire morning. Since I was representing the only woman who climbed out of a lifeboat back onto the Titanic, one kid said, ‘Well, you were pretty stupid, weren’t you?’

Docents Who Dress 7

First-class passengers for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Pat Hazlett.

 

Docents Who Dress 6

First-class passenger for Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition in 2012. Museum docent Kris Mills.

In addition to dealing with corsets, sometimes there is a “wardrobe malfunction” (albeit not of the Janet Jackson variety). Nancy says that the most embarrassing moment was when her headscarf slipped off in the middle of a Magna Carta tour. Knowing Nancy, I have a wonderful image of her holding her scarf with one hand, wrapping the other end of the scarf around her head with her other hand, and continuing her discussion of the relative merits of the English long bow versus the crossbow — without skipping a beat!

Docent Kathryn Fairbanks is often seen in Magna Carta near the Crusader knight, who sports a chain maille hauberk. Kathryn demonstrates the fine art of making chain maille to Museum patrons. While she does so, she dresses in a long black dress and swirling cape.

She says, “While wearing a costume is definitely one of my favorite parts of volunteering, it does have its drawbacks. One of my main problems is getting all the long, swirly cloak/dress/sleeves caught in the wheels of my rolling kit. It’s a minor problem to fix, but annoying when I have to stop every few minutes to retrieve my hemline.”

Like many other docents who dress, I find dressing fun — and I take every opportunity to do so. In recent years, my costumes have included a scribe’s wife for the Hall of Ancient Egypt, a coal stoker for Titanic, and an archaeologist for Lascaux Caves. Kris has dressed as a Civil War-era farm woman, a Renaissance noblewoman, and a first-class matron for Titanic, just to name a few. For Civil War, docent Pat Hazlett dressed as a genteel lady in purple satin with her grandmother’s cameo. For Titanic, Pat morphed into a first-class passenger who could have been the model for a fashion plate from a 1912 Ladies’ Home Journal. (Trivia alert: Ladies’ Home Journal was the first million-circulation magazine in America.)  

Discovering the Civil War with, from left to right, Monica McHam, museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Discovering the Civil War. L to R: Monica McHam, Museum staffer Rich Hutting, Kris Mills, and Pat Hazlett.

Docents who dress agree that dressing helps them bring the exhibit to life and provides patrons with a more meaningful exhibition experience. But dressing is not just about patron interaction. Occasionally, there are personal experiences that can leave a talkative docent, well, speechless.

For example, if you dress as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman while driving to the Museum, you can expect to receive many strange looks from fellow Houston drivers. If driving while dressed as a gorgeous boyar noblewoman is not your cuppa tea, like Kris, that means you have to schlep the costume to the Museum, find a colleague to help you get into the many layers of satin and lace, tie all the ties, ensure the pearls hang just so, find someone to help you take it all off, and then, finally, schlep it all back home again.

Oh yes — somewhere in the midst of all the wardrobe details, you manage to give a tour in costume!

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable driving while dressed, you might get more than just looks. One night, driving home from an evening tour and still dressed as a Renaissance nun, I stopped at a fast food drive-through for late-night fortification. The cashier asked me, in all seriousness, to bless her! Now that was a big gulp! I simply told her that I was certain she was already blessed, took my drink, and hightailed it to the safety of my home.

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici—the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through!

Monica McHam as a Florentine Renaissance nun for Gems of the Medici — the costume that elicited the strange reaction at the local drive-through.

Everyone at our Museum appreciates the many contributions of our more than 300 active docents. Our docents enhance the experience of Museum patrons by enhancing their fun, enriching their educational understanding, and providing a multifaceted appreciation of our permanent and special exhibits.

However, there is a special group of docents that go just one step further to enliven the experience of Museum patrons: docents who dress! Be sure to look for costumed docents on your next Museum visit — and be sure to offer them thanks for their creative efforts above and beyond the call of duty.

                               

Making Baby Bearded Dragons

Today’s post is written by Sibyl Keller, a volunteer recruiter and educational coordinator at HMNS. Today, she tells us about the bearded dragons that live in her office, and what happens when another one comes to visit. 

Sibyl, holding Leonardo.

So…what’s happening in the Volunteer Office other than recruiting new volunteers, interviewing new talents, filling tours, booking docents, scheduling on-going training, handling birthday parties, writing college recs, and just keeping up with the hopping pace around HMNS?  Natural science – that’s what! it’s been happening under our noses – and keeping us all intrigued and inspired by how incredible the animal world is!

It all happened when Chris and Erin adopted their first baby – Monster, a beautiful young female bearded dragon!  Draco and Leonardo are the (lizard) kings of the Volunteer Office.  Draco is a handsome beardie – a gentleman of almost ten years.  And I was fortunate to adopt Leonardo – a young chap beardie of two years this last summer.  And then Monster arrived for a visit.

It was love at first sight -Leo and Monster couldn’t keep their eyes off of each other!  And if you have never seen beardies put on their mating dance – it is an incredibly captivating event. Leo – so eager to impress his new friend – totally bearded out with a solid heavy black coloration under his chin (it is this behavior that gives the species the name “bearded dragon.”)  Between the black beard and the head bobbing with determination – Monster was truly moved! She began waving gracefully, first with one arm, then the other. 

Even with an office full of museum staff watching the mating dance, you could have heard a pin drop until Chris expressed that…this was kind of weird…He didn’t don’t know if it is a good weird or a bad weird!

Unfortunately, I don’t have a video of our beardies dancing, but I found a video of another beardie bobbing away.

So when Chris left with the HMNS Paleo Team to head to Seymour, Texas on the Fossil Dig five weeks ago – I got to babysit Monster for a couple of weeks!  So – here we are, 5 weeks later (which happens to be the gestation period for beardies) – hummmmm…

Can you see the eggs?

After mixing together a nice compost for Monster, Googling to find out what beardies like for a nest – the waiting game began!  Day after day, Monster redistributed her compost from one side of her habitat to the other.  She started practicing her digging skills in between warming her growing belly on her heat rock.  Karen (my fellow volunteer coordinator) described her well – what a keen resemblance Monster had to a Portobello mushroom!  And – what an appetite!  Crickets, juicy superworms, carrots and collard greens – of course, the crickets were presented to her with a nice coat of calcium for the mother to be.

Then last week – the discovery was made!  After a long night – it must have been, Monster had created a mountain from her compost on top of her heat rock and was playing king of the mountain just about all morning.  It wasn’t until she got a superworm treat that she would inch away from her mountain!  My work began. 

Karen Fritz, marking the eggs.

Carefully sifting through the compost a little at a time – I was in search of the mother load – a nest of beardie eggs – Monster’s first clutch.  Totally amazed that not an egg was found, I started to think that she didn’t look so much like a Portobello mushroom, there were no eggs – maybe my imagination just got the best of me.  The Princess was so lethargic, I started to worry that maybe she was sick. 

After watching her all day, I felt better when she had a healthy appetite.  I decided to start sifting some of the mulch out of her habitat – as ingesting any of this could be very harmful to her.  As I cleaned her aquarium, I lifted her large heat rock and the discovery was made!  We hit the jackpot with 24 small marshmallow-size beardie eggs!  It is truly amazing that this little lizard knew just what to do to keep her clutch warm.  I cannot even imagine how she was able to dig out the dirt under her heat rock to lay 24 eggs without crushing them!  Nature is amazing.

How did this little Princess lay 24 eggs?!  Well – from the Internet, I discovered it was not at all uncommon for a Bearded Dragon to lay up to 30 – 50 eggs in a clutch!  But – the female wouldn’t necessarily lay all of the eggs at one time.  She could choose to lay a couple of eggs one week, one or two a week later – and as the process continues – it could be months before the whole clutch was laid!  Dang – that meant I would be spending quite a time of the Christmas holiday egg-sitting in the Volunteer Office at HMNS!  Lucky for me — and I’m sure happily for her — Monster laid all 24 eggs during one evening after hours, probably while the music played and laughter was heard during holiday celebrations taking place through out the exhibit halls up above!

The eggs, with black lines to
mark their original positions.

You might notice black lines imprinted along the length of each egg from top to bottom.  The lines were introduced by Karen Fritz, my Volunteer Office co-partner in crime, who has a smooth and steady hand and a good sharpie!  I learned of this process from me earlier research.  It is extremely important to not rotate or change the position of the eggs while moving them.  After carefully uncovering the eggs, Karen marked each egg in order for us to move them in this order.  She wanted to mark them 1, 2, 3…up to 24 — until she understood we just needed a line to identify top and bottom of each egg!  If any eggs were turned upside down, it would surely damage or kill the developing embryo.  We then placed them in small deli cup containers filled with dampened vermiculite that would hold moisture throughout their time of incubation.

Eggs, in the incubator – where they
will stay until they hatch!

As the incubator is quietly protecting these little jewels for 60 to 70 days, Monster is now far away from her little 2 week vacation spent in the Volunteer Office.  She is back home with Erin and Chris – I understand with a frisky new way about her and a grand new appetite!

Monster at home

Energy Hogs and Lava Lamps: An Energy Education Day

Where can you bring your children to have fun learning about energy? The Houston Museum of Natural Science Wiess Energy Hall of course!!

On September 24, Shell had an Energy Education Day here, where children of all ages learned about science with fun activities, games, talks with people in the industry, tours of the Wiess Energy Hall  and a visit from the Energy Hog.

Shell had a conference of new employees at a nearby hotel, so they came a day early to volunteer at HMNS. If you missed all the fun, Shell has a great Web site called Energize Your Future where teachers, parents and students can learn all about energy and do fun activities.

Some of our favorite activities are described below:

Bouncing Glue Balls: (these are so much fun to squish in your hands!)

1. Mix a teaspoon or so of Borax with about 2 cups of water in a container large enough to get your hand down into.

2. Put a drop of food coloring on a plastic spoon.

3. Add white school glue on the spoon until it is full, mix with toothpick until color is distributed.

4. Dip the spoon of glue into the Borax water and stir lightly so the glue does not come off the spoon. The Borax water will react with the outside of the glue and start the chemical reaction.

5. Next, use your hands to pull the glue ball off of the spoon.

6. Dip the glue ball and your hand into the Borax water.

7. Squeeze the glue ball and knead it to expose the interior of the glue ball.

8. Alternate between the Borax water and kneading the glue ball until the ball has started to harden.

9. Roll the glue into a ball. It is ready for bouncing!

A great explanation of the scientific process involved can be found here.

How to Make a Bubbling Lava Lamp

Fill tube 3/4 full with oil (we used cheap vegetable oil).

Add a capful of water to the tube. Add 10 drops of food coloring. Divide an Alka-Seltzer tablet into 4 pieces. Drop one piece into the oil & water mixture – watch what happens. When the bubbling stops, screw the soda bottle cap on and seal with duct tape. Be sure the bubbling totally stops. This will take a few minutes and the children love watching the fizz. Turn the test tube slowly back and forth to see your lava lamp flow.

What is happening in the lava lamp?

Oil and water molecules are so attracted to themselves that they do not mix together, even though they will mix with other substances. Oil has a lower density than water so it floats on top. The food coloring only mixes with the water and goes through the oil to reach the water. The alka-seltzer reacts with the colored water to make bubbles of carbon dioxide gas. These bubbles attach themselves to the blobs of food colored water and causes them to float to the surface. When the bubbles pop and the carbon dioxide escapes, the blobs sink back to the bottom.

The Energy Hog teaches about conserving energy and not hogging it. He was a big hit with most of the children – some were a little skeptical!

The Energy Hog Web site has some interactive activities, games and lessons to help children learn how to conserve energy. The Shell volunteers had a great time learning from the HMNS docents about each of the halls so they could teach the children about what they see in the Museum.

Keep you eye out on the HMNS Web site for future Energy Education Days at HMNS or contact me at cscoggin@hmns.org to be put on our Energy contact list.