Featured Paleontologist: Heather Moffat

Editor’s Note: This issue we feature Heather Moffat, Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.

When did you first become interested in paleontology? Were you a fan as a young child?

I first became fascinated with paleontology as a college freshman. When I started college, I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher. My first year I took a dinosaurs and extinct mammals class figuring it would make me very popular with my future kindergarten students. What I didn’t anticipate was what it would spark in me. After taking that course, I changed majors to geology/paleontology and grabbed onto every field experience I had the opportunity to have. Before college, most of my science experiences had been classroom-based (textbook-oriented) with very few experiments or interactions with nature. My geology and paleontology courses opened a whole new and exciting world to me: they were my first exposure to field work and to the realization that science was dynamic and ever-refining. It was so exciting to learn to read fossils/rocks and to know that I could contribute to our understanding of the history of life.

Heather today at the touch pool at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
Heather today at the touch pool at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Can you describe the path that led you to your current position as the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History?

After college, I completed two master’s degrees which focused on paleontology and sedimentology and was on my third year of a Ph.D. when I realized that, while I liked research, I most enjoyed the teaching part of my days (as a teaching assistant in science lab courses). I also recognized that I missed working with younger students. Around that time, a position opened for an educator at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. It seemed like it would be a great fit. The museum had very few established educational programs, and I was given the opportunity to create and implement a wide variety of programs for visitors of all ages. It was a job that enabled me to combine my science expertise with my love of teaching in order to spark an interest in paleontology in audiences of all types. I grew the public programming offerings and became the museum’s first Director of Education.

Following my six years at the Alf Museum, I became the Director of Education at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. This was an exciting opportunity for me to lead a team and to create and implement educational programs connecting a much larger audience to a broader range of science topics. Within my first year there, my position expanded to also include overseeing the programs at the museum’s sister institution, the Sea Center, and then it grew again to include responsibility for all exhibits at both facilities. As Director of Education and Exhibits, I realigned the museum’s guiding principles to focus on anchoring their educational programs in nature and led the effort to create experiential learning spaces in their indoor and outdoor areas. It was a wonderful eight years of connecting the community to the natural world through exciting exhibits and a wide range of engaging programs.

In February 2015, I was hired to lead the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. I feel as though all of the experiences I gained along the way – as a researcher and collector, educator and exhibit developer, fundraiser, manager and community partner – have prepared me for this position. I deeply believe in our mission so it has been an honor to have the responsibility of crafting the vision which enables our Museum to connect people with nature and inspire stewardship of the natural world.

What is a typical work day like for you?  Or, what are some of your favorite parts of your job?  Your least favorite?

One of my favorite parts of my job is that there is no “typical” day. My schedule and focus changes relative to the current and upcoming projects we have at the Museum. As the director, I spend a large part of my time in meetings. I regularly meet with my staff to ensure their projects are progressing well. I also spend a significant amount of time meeting with various community leaders about collaborations and with current and prospective donors to discuss the Museum’s mission and specific programs that they may wish to support. We are a small museum with limited staff so my day may also include working on a grant proposal, discussing tide pool animals with visitors at our live touch pools, or even rolling up my sleeves and repainting an outdated exhibit with other staff.

Heather today at the touch pool at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History
Heather today at the touch pool at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History

Do you have any advice for our readers (both fossil organization members and professionals) about effective ways to get children and teens interested in paleontology and collections?

What has worked best for me is to do what worked on me personally: to engage them in nature doing real field work. Hands-on opportunities which put the young person in the role of naturalist not only show them that science is a dynamic field with much to still discover, but that they are capable of making great observations, asking great questions – being a scientist. Similarly, first hand experiences with collections is the ideal way to introduce students to them. There is nothing like bringing young students into a collections room and letting them make “discoveries” with each drawer they open. Every object is unique and has a story to tell.

Given that goal of FOSSIL is to link amateur groups with professionals, what are your thoughts about the role of amateurs in science?

Amateurs have always played an important role in paleontology and their impact on museums is equally profound. Our museum was founded 110 years ago on the collection of a local amateur malacologist. She grew up along the cliffs of Santa Cruz, exploring the tide pools and the fossiliferous cliffs and collecting specimens throughout her life. Her interest and expertise on the region’s natural history, particularly its mollusks, was renowned. By deeding her collection to the city, she established Santa Cruz’s first museum so that others in the community could learn from her treasures. Her passion for studying and collecting specimens led to the founding of an institution which has inspired generations of Santa Cruzans to explore the unique natural history of our region.