Why the American Museum of Natural History's Ellen V. Futter Chose to Dedicate Her Life to ScienceS

You don't become president of one of the greatest institutions for scientific research and education on Earth without harboring a serious passion for science and education, so where did Ellen V. Futter — who practiced law and served as president of Barnard College before taking over the American Museum of Natural History in 1993 — first develop her fascination with these things? We recently had the opportunity to ask her ourselves — here's what she told us.

For me, like most people, it was a combination of things. On the one hand, having grown up outside of New York City (but with family in the city), I visited the museum regularly as a child. My grandmother used to bring me to the museum a lot, and my older brother often had birthdays in the planetarium.

At the same time, as a youngster i was sort of an amateur naturalist and collector. You'll notice we have a beautiful live butterfly collection at the museum — and that's not completely unrelated.

I was also of the generation when we started with the space race; I recall being very inspired by President John F. Kennedy saying "let's go to the moon, not because it's easy but because it's hard."

All of these experiences really came together for me. They fused around a real belief — one that I maintain very powerfully — that this kind of quest for progress is something that gives us hope, a sense of possibility and optimism. I believe that its presence, in a positive sense, is a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes things happen, and that its absence may well be a self-fulfilling prophecy that inhibits our ability to advance, improve and explore.

When I was in college, I was an English major not a science major; but even though I was going to law school, I was certified to teach and did student teaching. That work really filled me with a sense of the power of teaching and the joy of working with young people, of opening up doors and awakening curiosity. And of course the Museum of Natural History itself is all about awakening curiosity, and understanding that that's the gateway to real learning.


What Was It is a series of short interviews co-hosted on io9 and Gizmodo that asks the luminaries of science and science fiction what inspired them to delve so deeply into the only kind of magic we have in the real world - science and technology. What was it that first opened their eyes? Find out more at What Was It?