An Interview with Dr. Eleanor Sterling, Curator, Water: H2O = Life; and Director, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation
1. What are some of the things that you find most rewarding about being a scientist at the Museum?
Well I enjoy bringing the excellent science of the Museum to a broader public, and sharing with that broader public our enthusiasm for the research that we're doing and the importance of it in the global arena.
2. What sort of research did you conduct to prepare for the Water exhibition?
Well the topic of water is vast, and so we spent an enormous amount of time at the very beginning of the exhibit process thinking about what we would cover, what's interesting about water, and trying to hone all the various stories that we could tell, down to a manageable amount of information to be able to engage people in the exhibit. So we read a lot about the physical properties of water, the chemical properties of the water, all the way through to the effects of personal care products on water and downstream, with organisms that live downstream of human populations.
3. Have you curated any other exhibitions in the past?
I have, I've curated several photographic exhibits including one on the biodiversity of Vietnam; another one on the corridor that links the Yellowstone area to the Yukon in Canada; and also, a Photovoices exhibit that was pictures taken by communities in China, and they wrote their own captions for the pictures, and so I co-curated that with Laurel Kendall, the Photovoices exhibit.
4. How has curating this exhibition been different in any way?
Well it was a much bigger exhibition than ones I've curated in the past, so it was quite a bit more work, and I think the other thing we ran into quite a bit was that we came up with great stories and ideas that we wanted to cover, and then we had to think about how do you show those in three dimensions? One of the things that the public might not think about is the fact that in a museum with a lot of specimens, we actually can't have very much running water. And so in a lot of the stories we wanted to tell there might be ways to have water tell that story, or it's exciting to have an exhibit on water where you can actually feel, hear or touch water, but of course that's not exactly a great thing to be doing in a museum where we worry about humidity all the time.
5. What are some of your current research interests or projects at the CBC?
One of them related to Water is a project that I'm doing in the central Pacific on the Atoll of Palmyra in the Hawaiian Islands. Along with Dr. Eugenia Naro-Maciel from the Museum here and Dr. Kate McFadden from Columbia University, we're doing a project on sea turtles, looking at sea turtle foraging areas in the central Pacific.
6. What is your favorite interesting fact related to the Water exhibition and why?
I think one of my favorite facts is that it takes over 700 gallons to produce one medium-sized cotton t-shirt. And I think that it's one of my favorite facts because it's just such an enormous number, and no one thinks of water when they think of a cotton t-shirt, you think of water when you have food, when you have a watermelon or a cucumber. But you really don't think about water and the water it takes to process products, and so we have a great part of the exhibit that was developed with the Science Museum of Minnesota, and it's an interactive, a quiz show, where we learn more about how much water goes into the products that we eat and use.
7. If visitors take away only one important point about water, what would you want that to be?
I think the point that the world's water cycles through the atmosphere, the oceans, the rivers...and in the scheme of the world's global water cycle, we are all downstream from somebody else. It doesn't matter where or what it comes from, or where it goes to physically, in this tiny part of the global climate cycle, but the fact that these water molecules are all recycling through the system means that we are in fact inheriting water that's been used by somebody else. And water's a universal solvent so it carries pollutants quite easily, and for that and many reasons I think we need to be thinking about ourselves as part of the global water cycle, and what effect we can have on that cycle.
8. Water is becoming an important global problem, with many different but related issues. Which would you say is the most urgent problem regarding water—where do we need to start?
I think the most urgent problem, particularly in North America, is how we waste water. There are a number of different places in our lives where we waste water, and we need to think better about how we use water and think about better water management: in our home, in our office, in our businesses, in our purchasing choices, and essentially throughout our lives.
9. What advice would you give to a young person interested in becoming a scientist in the field of biodiversity or ecology?
My favorite hint for students is to get out there and work with somebody who's in the field, and get a sense for what it feels like to be a scientist, to be an ecologist or a biodiversity scientist, and to work with a mentor. It's what I did, and it's an amazing experience, and it helps you to figure out what makes your heart sing, and what makes you really—what interests you the most in the field, in this vast field.
10. I remembered reading that you're a world expert on the aye-aye? What can you tell me about it?
The aye-aye is one of the most amazing animals in the world. It's a primate, it's a kind of a lemur; it lives in Madagascar. And it comes out at night, and it's about the size of a house cat. And it has a very strange set of physical characteristics, including continuously-growing front teeth, which is a really unusual thing for primates; it's often found in rodents, for instance, but not in primates. And it has a skinny middle finger that for a variety of reasons is longer than the other digits, and it uses the sequence of morphological traits to gain access to dead wood for instance, it will use the teeth to pry open the wood and then this thin finger to pull out insect larvae, and that's one of its favorite food sources.