During two internships at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Cait Conley ’19 discovered the joy of turning moments of surprise into sparks of curiosity and learning.
“This experience affirmed that I want to go into museum work,” Conley says. “I enjoy being a science communicator. I want to bridge the gap between academic and daily, lifelong learning. Taking what I learned in school and [at Earlham’s] Joseph Moore Museum and applying that to an informal educational setting was a good experience. It was also really empowering to be an intern who wasn’t just fetching coffee. Instead, I took ownership of my project.”
For one of the internships, Conley was tasked with creating a collaborative learning activity for the newly designed Fossil Hall, which is set to open during the summer of 2019.
“I took the lead on designing an interactive activity reconstructing ancient landscapes using fossilized pollen,” says Conley, who is a geology major and museum studies minor.
In addition, they completed a second internship at the museum researching seeds from the Texas Red Beds, geologic strata from the early Permian age that are rich with fossils.
“A mentor from the department helped me to learn how to do research with museum collections and how to gather data from samples,” they say. “I measured, cataloged and took photos of a ton of fossil seeds, and I compiled a huge spreadsheet for exploratory analysis.
“Seeds preserved in the fossil record help us understand how plant communities change over time. Analyzing how plant communities responded to global climate changes through Earth’s history can help us predict how plants will respond today.”
One of the best moments of the summer came when a family took part in an early version of the activity Conley created and concluded that they “weren’t really into plants.” Conley didn’t give up, and after a few more questions and explanations, one of the family members said, “Wow, I guess plants are pretty cool.”
“They were curious, and I was able to answer their questions,” Conley says. “I met them where they were so they could come away with a bigger piece of the whole picture. I valued the opportunity to communicate science to a broad audience. I got to talk about the things I’m passionate about.
“I came away with a strong feeling that I could see myself working in a museum, whether in research or education. Museums are cool spaces where you can connect people with really complex topics, but you’re able to present it in such an engaging, interesting way that people don’t feel overwhelmed or that their intelligence is in question. Informal settings like museums contribute to the lifelong process of learning.”
Conley, who is involved in Dance Alloy and co-convenes Earlham’s Contra Dance Club, has worked at the Joseph Moore Museum for two years. The museum is located on Earlham’s campus and offers plenty of hands-on experience for those pursuing a Museum Studies minor.
“The Joseph Moore Museum and the work I’ve done there is what qualified me for these positions,” they say. “The Joseph Moore Museum gives students real skills and real responsibilities.”
Conley used EPIC Advantage funds to pay for part of the Smithsonian experience. Earlham’s EPIC Advantage offers funded internships and research experiences to all students at the College. These opportunities typically take place during one of the summers before a student’s final year.