photo: Renee Rosensteel
Spending time with Ellen McCallie is a little like running alongside a fast-moving train; you know you’ll never catch up, but it’s fun to try. Something of a force of nature, she began studying the world’s ecosystems as an American Field Service exchange student in Indonesia while still in high school. When she wasn’t working on one of her many degrees—an undergraduate in biology, a masters in education, another masters in science, and a nearly complete doctorate from King’s College in London—McCallie was throwing herself into the next big adventure. She conducted ecological and agricultural research in the Amazon Basin as a Fulbright Scholar. And from 2002 to 2006, she starred in a British educational reality series, Rough Science, testing her scientific mettle with four other scientists in remote locations across the globe.
In her ongoing quest to share her passion for all things natural, McCallie entered the world of informal science in 1989 when she joined the staff of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Most recently, she served as the first director of the D.C.-based Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education. But earlier this year, when she was offered the role of deputy director at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, McCallie knew it was time to pack up her limited stuff—“I don’t need much,” she says, matter-of-factly—and her limitless energy and move to Pittsburgh for yet another big adventure.
By Betsy Momich
Where did your interest in the natural sciences came from?
Well, in my family you start going camping before you can walk. So it was all about camping, wild flowers, playing in parks—and museums. Actually, museums were a mainstay of my childhood. For example, when I was growing up in Chicago while my dad was in graduate school, my mom took us to the museums’ free day every Thursday. We were out of the house by 8 a.m. because they opened at 10, and we came back at 5. So, my mom took my sister and me to the museums every week for five years.
So science was kind of your thing?
Being outdoors was my thing. I didn’t have a good science program until I was a sophomore at Grinnell College. But I knew—and this is important—I knew that if I didn’t take science all the way through high school and all the way through college I was shutting doors for myself, and I wanted to keep those doors open. In this world, science and mathematics open doors no matter what you do.
What made you so aware of that? Did you have role models?
My parents are both educators, and although neither of them felt like they were well-versed in math and science they felt that everyone should be. So, in my family, you just did it—like learning to swim and eating your vegetables, you did your math and science.
What did you envision for yourself as a career?
I didn’t go right to college because I needed to see how other cultures approached the human relationship with the environment. How do others live on this Earth? What do they value? In the end, I spent a year in Indonesia and this led me to focus on plants, ecological research, and the link with people. From my various work overseas, I’ve learned that the ethic of caring for the Earth is cross-person, cross-society, cross-cultural, cross-religion.
You’ve said you live pretty simply. Has that always been the case?
Yes. For example, when I was going to school in London, I lived on a boat on the Thames River with 180 square feet of space. It was more space than I needed.
So you don’t need much stuff?
I need my tenting stuff, my computer stuff, my biking stuff. But, you know, I still open my closet and see way too much stuff—while most people open my closet and say, ‘where is the rest of your stuff?’
What made you decide to move into the museum world?
Museums have some of the most active research departments in the world; they rival universities. Here at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, we have a 100-year history of excellence in research. And our research collections—they’re priceless. There really is no way to re-collect what we have here. We have a knowledge baseline for hundreds of years in our collection—millions of years if you include our paleo collections. So there are no limits to how we can make use of those collections in terms of answering questions about what the past was like, what’s going on now, and also what may be in store for our future.
What do you think is a museum’s role in education?
Museums—like all the other modes of informal communication, such as radio, television, libraries, nature centers, gardens, zoos—are crucial to science education. We all should be learning and using science from the moment we get up in the morning to the moment we go to bed; from the time we are tots to the time we are seniors. There’s a new report out by the National Research Council that I’m really excited about, and it talks about how institutions like ours get people motivated and excited about science. For many people involved in science today, museums played a huge role in getting them started.
Do you think we’re doing enough to attract girls to science?
I think girls are inherently very interested in science. It’s all about encouraging and developing that interest. Unfortunately, our culture includes a lot of cues that often turn girls off to science. Just like we need science education and science experiences available to all ages in all places and all media, we need that for girls. Science opens doors and opens minds to thinking about important issues, getting good jobs, and living well.
I think it’s important that we have programs throughout the Carnegie Museums that offer a variety of experiences you can have as you get older. So you don’t grow out of our institutions but you grow with us—and you also challenge us.