Liz Baird is Director of Education at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, who works to give people fresh eyes to the world around them and to build excitement for science and nature. Read the full text of Liz's interview below to learn more about her job.
What is your title?
My title is Director of Education.
Where do you work?
I am at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Do you travel often? To where?
My position at the Museum includes travel to many different places for many different reasons. One of my favorite reasons to travel is helping educators by leading them on field-based treks from as close as their school grounds to as far away as the Amazon. I even got my bus driver’s license to help lead a trip from North Carolina to Boston and back, learning about climate change and marine mammals. I have had the privilege of being involved in deepwater corals research, helping provide the outreach and education, since 2001. Those missions take place on research vessels, generally in the South Atlantic, from the tip of Florida to off the coast of Delaware. I also attend and present at conferences around the nation when I get the chance.
What are the educational requirements for your job?
The educational requirements for my position include a Master’s degree in one of the science areas and experience in education. I think it is really valuable to have had both formal teaching experience in a school, and non-formal experience, such as at a museum, in order to support programs for all of our audiences.
What is the salary range for someone with your type of job?
The Museum is a state-funded institution, so the salary range for my position is determined by the state. It ranges from about $45,000 to $60,000 a year.
How many hours do you work per week?
My work week varies dramatically depending upon the needs of the Museum and my task for the day. A typical work week is 40 hours; however, when leading trips or out at sea it is not unusual to have a 72-hour week for a couple of weeks at a time. Luckily, I earn compensatory time and can take a few days off to make up for that excess time.
Tell us about your research and the types of things you do.
I have the best job in the world and work with the best people in the world. My job is quite varied, but all revolves around the central theme of sharing my passion for science with others.
During research cruises I see myself as a “translator” of science. I help people understand the work of the research team by writing blogs, uploading pictures, and helping create multimedia products from the cruise. I work alongside the scientists helping with whatever is needed from labeling vials to processing samples to filtering water in order to understand more about their work. I find I get really excited when I learn something new, such as about galatheids (a type of crab) or cerathids (an organism that looks like an anemone but has a completely different structure). My excitement helps other people get excited and interested.
When I am not at sea, I oversee the programs that the Museum offers to students, teachers, and the general public. I help lead annual teacher treks to Belize, Central America, and around North Carolina. I am involved with the national movement to get kids to spend more free time outside and also help find and write grants that allow us to offer terrific programs.
What is the most fascinating thing you have ever seen or done?
I am lucky to have seen lots of absolutely fascinating things. I find bioluminescence mesmerizing, whether it is on the beach, or viewed from the submersible. One year I was on night watch and went up to the ship’s bow for a few minutes. I was watching the bioluminescent spray come off the bow and realized that there were dolphins riding in the bow wave in the dark. I could see their silhouettes outlined by the glow, and as they would dart away from the ship, they looked like shooting stars heading out into the sea.
What are the personal rewards of your work?
The personal reward of my work is giving people “new eyes” for seeing the world. Whether it is showing them what lives in the deep waters off the coast of North Carolina, or taking teachers out at night in Belize to find breeding Red-eyed Tree Frogs or letting a child touch a toad for the first time, I love the sense that they will never see that place the same way again.
How does your work benefit the public?
If you don’t appreciate something, then you don’t have strong motivation to save it. My work benefits the public by helping them gain an appreciation and understanding of the natural world which will help them make informed decisions about sustainable use of our global resources.
What else could someone with your background do?
If they had my background, someone could do many different things. Besides working in a museum, you could teach at a school. Or you could be at another informal setting such as an aquarium; zoo; or national, state, or local park.
What sparked your initial interest in ocean sciences?
My initial interest in ocean sciences is difficult to pinpoint. I have been fascinated with the ocean as long as I can remember and have pictures of me as a toddler at the coast. We vacationed from Florida to Maine, usually camping, near the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. I remember exploring tide pools in Maine and finding starfish on a sandbar in Florida. Every summer we spent time at the beach in North Carolina, I would be fascinated by the coquina’s burrowing into the sand as the ocean washed in, the bioluminescence glowing in my footprints at night, and the variety of shells and debris that would wash up on the beach.
Who influenced you or encouraged you the most?
My parents were my strongest supporters for my interest in science. My dad is a nuclear physicist and my mom was a science teacher. Between the two of them we could discuss most any facet of science, from biology to the refraction of light. I had excellent science teachers and professors who used hands-on, field-based learning. At Salem College, I took advantage of the unique opportunities such as a January Term spent in the field in Kenya and doing an independent study in biochemistry at a medical university.
Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently in your education or career journey?
Looking back, I don’t think I would have changed anything about my educational or career journey. I think I am well suited to my position because it requires a variety of skills and a wide range of knowledge. I think the best thing I did was take advantage of opportunities as they came about, such as my first opportunity to join a research cruise in 2001. Little did I know that it would lead to repeated work at sea, a new exhibit at our Museum, and a chance to work alongside some passionate scientists.
What obstacles did you encounter along the way?
I can’t think of any obstacles that I experienced along the way, but that might be because I did not know that what I wanted to do was work in education at a museum. I think I tend to view situations as opportunities rather than obstacles. If something I had planned doesn’t work out, then something else equally as good or perhaps even better will. I’ve learned from every experience.
What are your hobbies?
My hobbies include anything that will get me outside, particularly near or on the water, such as kayaking, canoeing, hiking, and biking. I enjoy playing with my Golden Retriever and volunteer with the rescue organization that connected us, as well as with my college. I love to read and would love to take a drawing class so that I can improve the journals I keep while I am on trips.