Archived Events

Phylogenomic Approaches to Deciphering the Tree of Life: Grapes as a Case Study

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Noon to 1:00 PM EDT
Castle Library

Jun Wen
Research Scientist and Curator
Department of Botany
National Museum of Natural History

WEN DSC_0016 Peru_1 small.jpg

Phylogenomics comprises an interdisciplinary field of comparative biology that uses genomic data to construct phylogenetic or evolutionary relationships among organisms. With the advent and rapid development of next-generation sequencing (NGS), phylogenomics has emerged as an economical, effective and essential tool in the last few years and is now being widely employed by many evolutionary biologists. This talk discusses the application of phylogenomic data in deciphering the deep and shallow evolutionary relationships with the grape plant family as a case study. I will especially highlight the placement of the grape family in the flowering plant tree of life, resolving the deep evolutionary radiation within the plant family with hundreds of nuclear genes, and the discovery of new species in the economically important grape plant genus using phylogenomics.

The Genomics of Diversification: Insights from the Wings of Butterflies

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Castle Library
Noon - 1:00pm EST

W. Owen McMillan
Staff Scientist & Academic Dean
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute


The cost of deciphering the molecular blue print of organisms is no longer rate limiting in modern biology. New genomes are being sequenced at unprecedented rates and it is possible to layer polymorphism and gene expression data onto existing genomes to permit very fine assessment of individual genomic variation. Moving forward, the challenge is to harness this information to improve our knowledge of how the spectacular diversity of form and function on our planet arises. In a number of respects, the wing patterns of butterflies provide wonderful opportunities for establishing an integrative view of morphological diversification. I will highlight some recent work in neotropical Heliconius butterflies, which is getting directly at the mechanisms of phenotypic change. This work leverages the stunning natural diversity within the group and emerging genomic technologies to understand how morphological variation is created through development and modified by natural selection within the context of an extraordinary adaptive radiation.

Hunting Marine Parasites with Genomics

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Castle Library
Noon - 1:00pm EST

Katrina Pagenkopp Lohan
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Katrina Pagenkopp Lohan






Though individually small and often inconspicuous, marine parasites can have profound and subtle impacts on individuals, populations, and entire ecosystems. It is the combination of these attributes that makes studying marine parasite ecology so challenging and rewarding. As disease outbreaks and mass mortality events continue to increase in the world’s oceans, we must be prepared to use all the research tools we have to understand the ecology of these parasites and the diseases they cause. Genomics is quickly emerging as an essential tool in this process. Advances in genomics technology have revolutionized our understanding of marine parasites, allowing researchers to explore the astounding breadth of diversity, the natural and anthropogenic dispersal mechanisms and corresponding biogeographic patterns, and to examine the functional mechanisms that control parasitism and disease.

A Brief History of Conservation Genomics

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Castle Library
Noon - 1:00pm EST

Warren Johnson
Research Scientist
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Warren Johnson

Genomics, the comprehensive study of an organism’s genome and genetic heritage, unifies and empowers all biological sciences. The integration of genomic science, methods, tools, applications, and findings is having immeasurable impacts on biodiversity research in general and conservation sciences in particular.  Smithsonian initiatives have been linked with conservation efforts from the beginning.  These examples form a natural context through which to trace the history of genetics and genomics and to demonstrate the power of these tools to inform us. Importantly, conservation genomics promises to provide crucial insights on some of our most-pressing environmental and biological needs and unique tools, akin to better microscopes and telescopes, to probe the past, document the present, and influence the future.

Not TOO Much Life: The Global Genome Initiative

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Castle Library

Noon - 1:00pmEST

Jon Coddington
Director, Global Genome Initiative
Senior Scientist and Curator of Arachnids & Myriapods
National Museum of Natural History

The Human Genome Project has already revolutionized medicine. Many of us, and certainly our children, will make personal health decisions using genetic/genomic information. Biodiversity science is likely to experience the same revolution. From basic research on organisms to simple taxonomic identification of specimens through to real-time environmental monitoring at ecosystem scales, genomic technology and data will change how we do our science. The Smithsonian is leveraging this opportunity in multiple ways—in its research institutes, core facilities, and especially as it affects strategic planning for living and museum collections. The Global Genome Initiative has just completed its first year of operations. It will be exciting to review its accomplishments to date as well as to share and discuss its plans for the future.

A Study of Preservation and Disfigurement of Daguerreotype Photographs and 19th Century Nanotechnology

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Castle Library
Noon - 1:00 pm EST

Edward P. Vicenzi
Research Scientist
Museum Conservation Institute

Vicenzi_DagSoc_Balt2012.jpgThe daguerreotype photographic process represents the first practical form of photography and was presented to the artistic and scientific communities in France in 1839. Unbeknownst to practitioners, daguerreotypy relies upon nanotechnology, and it spread rapidly and was widely used for roughly two decades.  Albert Southworth and Josiah Hawes were arguably the most accomplished mid-19th century photographers in the United States. A retrospective of their work was presented in a 2005-06 public exhibition entitled “Young America.” Hazing on the surface of a few of the daguerreotypes was noted while on public display and called into question the stability of daguerreotypes, once thought to be among the most enduring type of photograph. The cause of the hazing disfigurement is reexamined through the use of microscopy and microanalysis of Southworth and Hawes plates, in addition to experimental photos made in the studio of contemporary daguerreotype photographer/scholar Mike Robinson of Century Darkroom (Toronto, Canada).


Managing Cultural Heritage in a Climate Change(d) Future

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

10:00am - noon EST

Please join us for the webcast of a special session of Managing Cultural Heritage in a Climate Change(d) Future with keynote addresses by Ewan Hyslop, Historic Environment Scotland, and Adam Markham, Union of Concerned Scientists. The Smithsonian Institution and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) are convening a UK-US Heritage Science Workshop in celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the AHRC, the UK Research Council that funds research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities. The session of presentations and panel aims to identify the key challenges of sustainable heritage management in changing times. More importantly, it will explore how the arts and humanities and the sciences can learn from each other and collaborate to define new areas of research and new solutions.

Striving to Comprehend Coastal Ocean Acidification: A Role for Innovation?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Castle Library
Noon - 1:00pm EDT

Whitman Miller
Research Scientist/Principal Investigator
Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

The world’s oceans are experiencing fundamental shifts in their chemistry caused by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) liberated from the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. Approximately 25-30% of all anthropogenic CO2 makes its way into Earth’s oceans and waterways, and in the process causes a reduction in the water’s pH, a phenomenon called “acidification”. The concentration of CO2 in open ocean surface waters closely tracks the atmosphere, so the two have risen rapidly and in unison during the last 200 years. However, the closer one comes to shore, the more complicated the drivers of CO2 become and the more variable CO2 and pH are. Because of these and other complexities, the number of observations required to characterize coastal acidification dynamics is sobering. We are looking to innovative technologies, methods, and practices to understand and address this emerging environmental challenge.

Measured Perfection:
Hiram Powers' Greek Slave

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Castle Library
Noon–1:00pm EDT

Karen Lemmey
Curator of Sculpture
Smithsonian American Art Museum

Karen Lemmey, Curator of Sculpture at Smithsonian American Art Museum, will discuss Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave, an exhibition that explores the inner workings of the studio of Hiram Powers (1805–1873), an American sculptor who rose to international fame after moving to Florence, Italy in 1837.  The display draws from an extensive collection of Powers’ sculptures and tools the Smithsonian acquired directly from his Florentine studio in 1968. A key object in the exhibition is the life-size plaster of Powers’ Greek Slave, the most highly acclaimed sculpture of the nineteenth century, so famous that Powers applied for a U.S. patent on the composition.

Powers was among the most innovative sculptors of the nineteenth century, eagerly adapting long-standing sculpture traditions to new technologies of his age. He employed various methods to replicate his sculptures, from the pointing machine—a clever, patented mechanical device used to translate plaster models into multiple marble replicas, to the highly controversial practice of body casting.  This illustrated presentation offers a virtual tour of the exhibition Measured Perfection and considers parallels between nineteenth-century replication methods and modern-day 3D scanning and printing technologies.

Measured Perfection: Hiram Powers’ Greek Slave is organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum in collaboration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

BioGenomics Lightning Talks: Round 2

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

11:00am – 12:30pm

Presented by award recipients of the Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics-Global Genome Initiative (SIBG-GGI) Award Program

The SIBG-GGI awards seek to promote scholarly activities that advance the vision of Smithsonian Biodiversity Genomics: an open community dedicated to collaborative multidisciplinary discovery, exploration, and application of genomic information to increase and diffuse knowledge, understanding, and sustainability of global biodiversity.

Forty-seven proposals were submitted from 41 PIs representing 6 Smithsonian or affiliated research units for a total request of $1.9M. After a thorough peer-review process, 17 awards totaling approximately $360,000 have been made. These projects include research that will advance collecting, sequencing, and analyzing the earth’s biodiversity using genomic technologies.

To learn more about these programs visit:

BioGenomics Lightning Talks: Round 1

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

11:00am – 12:30pm


Presented by award recipients of the Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics-Global Genome Initiative (SIBG-GGI) Award Program

The SIBG-GGI awards seek to promote scholarly activities that advance the vision of Smithsonian Biodiversity Genomics: an open community dedicated to collaborative multidisciplinary discovery, exploration, and application of genomic information to increase and diffuse knowledge, understanding, and sustainability of global biodiversity.

On May 6 half of the awardees will present on their research with the remaining half presenting on June 17 for the second and final round of lightning talks.

Forty-seven proposals were submitted from 41 PIs representing 6 Smithsonian or affiliated research units for a total request of $1.9M. After a thorough peer-review process, 17 awards totaling approximately $360,000 have been made. These projects include research that will advance collecting, sequencing, and analyzing the earth’s biodiversity using genomic technologies.

To learn more about these programs visit:

Innovation Family Festival

Saturday, May 2, 2015

11:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Kogod Courtyard


Celebrate creativity, invention, and thinking outside the box—or container! Explore how containers are put to work, from shipping art and precious gems, to eco-friendly plant beds, to space suits. Make new containers from old ones in the cardboard playground or watch containers being made in a 3-D printer.

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Free and open to the public

Looking at Birds through a Different Lens: Notes on an Interdisciplinary Exhibition

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Noon–1:00pm EDT

Joanna Marsh
The James Dicke Curator of Contemporary Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum

October 2014 to February 2015, the American Art Museum presented The Singing and the Silence: Birds in Contemporary Art, an exhibition exploring the complex interplay between human and avian life. Sparked by the confluence of two major environmental anniversaries in 2014–the centennial of the passenger pigeon’s extinction and the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, the exhibition examined our evolving relationship with the natural world, from conquest of the land to conservation of it, through the work of twelve contemporary artists. A vivid selection of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures introduced visitors to contemporary avian imagery and examined the significance birds play in history, nature and culture. Inspired by the Smithsonian’s long-standing commitment to avian studies and its current emphasis on interdisciplinary programing, the exhibition grappled with issues of biodiversity loss and species conservation while simultaneously reveling in the visual pleasure of birds and the art they inspire.

Religion in Early America

Friday, March 20, 2015

9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m.
National Museum of American History
Warner Bros. Theater, first floor

Free and open to the public; also available via live webcast

Thomas Jefferson's Bible
Queenof sheba
Canvas work (needlepoint), "The Queen of Sheba Admiring the Wisdom of Solomon," 1744. Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will convene a one-day symposium on “Religion in Early America.”  Led by Stephen Prothero, renowned Professor of Religion at Boston University, the symposium will explore three major themes that characterize the role of religion in the formation and early development of the United States.  The first theme is the diversity of religious traditions in the American colonies, and how they needed to be considered as the nation came into being.  The second is the principle of religious freedom that was incorporated into the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution and that has been an enduring principle of the nation.  The third is the growth of many forms of religion in the new United States and how they shaped American society during the first half of the 19th century.

Other scholars participating in the symposium are:

A major goal of the symposium is to inform the planning of an exhibition on “Religion in Early America” that is scheduled to open on the second floor of the museum in 2016, along with companion exhibitions on “Democracy in America,” and “Many Voices, One Nation.”  The latter focuses on American immigration, migration, and diversity. The new religion exhibition, which has the same themes as the symposium, will put on display a stellar sample of objects, including The Bay Psalm Book, The Washington Inaugural Bible, The Jefferson Bible, a Shaker spinning wheel, Native American wampum, George Whitfield’s portable pulpit,  George Mason’s baptismal font, a first edition Book of Mormon, a piece of Charles Finney’s Camp Meeting tent, John Carroll’s Tabernacle, a Torah Scroll from the first New York Synagogue, a child’s Noah’s Ark set, and many more.

For further information email Jaya Kaveeshwar at

Toward the End of the Ice Age: Preserving Living Cells, Tissues and Organs at Ambient Temperature

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Pierre Comizzoli
Director, Grand Challenges Consortia for the Sciences
Reproductive Physicologist, National Zoological Park/Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Effective storage of living biological samples is critical for successful health care, agro-industry, and research. Nowhere are activities booming more than in biobanking for clinical, regenerative and reproductive purposes, including in the rapidly growing biomarker field where DNA sequences, RNAs, peptides and antibodies are being used for disease surveillance, forensics, medical diagnoses and treatments. These collective efforts rely on cryopreservation – suspending biophysical and biochemical reactions through low temperatures followed (when needed) by specimen warming. Biomaterials have to be stored at subzero temperatures in electrical (-80°C) freezers or liquid nitrogen (-196°C) containers. Given the costs and limitations related to freezing temperatures, it seems prudent to consider new ways to safely, simply and economically preserve living biomaterials.

Innovation Handi-Hour

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Luce Foundation Center

Handihour logo

Cutting-edge artists Christy Oates and Joshua DeMonte bring their laser cutting and 3D-printing skills to DC’s favorite crafting happy hour! Special one-time discounted admission gets you all you can craft, two drink tickets, live music, and snacks. 

Admission is $10 at the door (underwritten by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office), includes two drink tickets, light snacks, and all you can craft. Ages 21 and older.  Additional food and drinks will be available for purchase at the event.

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Click here for more information on Handi-hour and related instruction

Habits and Habitats of Inventors

Thursday, January 22, 2015
Arthur Molella

Arthur Molella
Director, Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation
National Museum of American History

In keeping with the Smithsonian’s original mission to increase human knowledge, efforts have been made in recent years to revive and encourage innovation around the Institution. This effort raises a general question: What does it take to create a fertile environment for innovation? The Lemelson Center’s upcoming exhibition, Places of Invention, represents the culmination of many years of research and documentation on conditions conducive to successful invention and innovation in the U.S. and globally. Through  examples from past and present, “Habits and Habitats of Inventors” presents some of our general findings about the ecosystem of invention. We hope these findings will also provide useful context for the Smithsonian’s attempts to revitalize itself as a leading place of innovation.

Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics

Friday, December 12, 2014

Smithsonian Institute for Biogenomics

In association with the publication of a Special Issue of Science on Avian Genomics, the Smithsonian Consortia are celebrating the launch of the new Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics (BioGenomics). Genomics, the comprehensive study of an organism’s genome, unifies and empowers all of the biological sciences. The integration of genomic science, methods, tools, applications, and findings has already had an immeasurable impact on all corners of scientific research in biodiversity and will lead to new discoveries that will benefit current and future human societies.

With the launch of BioGenomics the Smithsonian Institution will provide the high-profile, multi-disciplinary scholarship, leadership, collaborative spirit, and logistical support necessary to enhance our understanding of the natural world through genomics. The excellence, vision, and global reach of the Smithsonian is represented by the collections and field-based initiatives of our museums and research centers, including the National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, and the Museum Conservation Institute. Combining and coordinating our efforts in genomics will enable the Smithsonian, through synergistic opportunities, economies of scale, and partnerships to advance our knowledge and application of biodiversity genomics across all taxa in a multitude of both terrestrial and marine environments.

The program includes presentations on Avian Genomics by Dr. Erich Jarvis (Professor at Duke University), the Global Genome Initiative (GGI) by Dr. Jonathan Coddington (Director of GGI, National Museum of Natural History), and the Smithsonian Institute for Biodiversity Genomics by Dr. W. John Kress (Interim Under Secretary for Science).

For additional information, please visit

From the Eocene to the Anthropocene: An Engineer’s View of Climate Change

Wednesday, November 19, 2014
G. Wayne Clough

G. Wayne Clough
Secretary, Smithsonian Institution

As Earth’s climate changes, the accompanying challenges are more complex, prompting the Smithsonian to recently unveil its first Institution-wide statement on climate change. Of the nearly 500 Smithsonian scientists who work around the world, many are delving into the ways that changing climate affects us all, whether looking to the Eocene era 56 million years ago or investigating the modern era known as the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans.

Join Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough for a discussion of climate change through his perspective as a trained geotechnical engineer and see how the Smithsonian examines it through multiple lenses: convening thought leaders with the Grand Challenges Consortia’s symposium, Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security; measuring real-time coastal change with global marine and terrestrial monitoring stations; analyzing the past 6 million years of climate change that spurred major adaptations in our ancestors; and much more.

Tropical Forests: Exploitation and Protection

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

S. Joseph Wright

S. Joseph Wright
Senior Scientist
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

Today, the Tropics support 11 million square kilometers of forests and nearly five billion people. Given the opportunity, people everywhere replace forest with agriculture and exploit remaining forests. The Tropics today juxtapose vast forests and vast numbers of people equipped with 21st-century technology for the first time in history. The outcome is an unprecedented pace of change in tropical forests today. The demographics of most tropical countries are also changing rapidly with important implications for tropical forests. Tropical people and their governments have also taken proactive and underappreciated measures to protect their forests. Tropical forests are important to us all because they control global hydrological and carbon cycles and harbor more than half of Earth’s biodiversity. For these reasons, developed nations that make modest contributions to conservation at home should be asked to help the poorest tropical nations protect their forests.

Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Smithsonian Institution’s Grand Challenges Consortia invite you to consider how humans are transforming the climate and environments of the Earth at an accelerating rate through agriculture, urbanization, transportation, the use of fossil fuels, and many other activities. Our global imprint, and the certainty that more than seven billion people will profoundly change the environment and biota of the planet for many generations to come, have led many scientists to recognize a new period of geological time called the Anthropocene, or Age of Humans. Restoring Anthropocene environments to pre-industrial conditions may be impossible, but the future need not be apocalyptic if we act soon. To make a livable Anthropocene, we must use our scientific knowledge to forecast environmental change and develop more resilient societies and cultural institutions that can adapt to the changes we can no longer avoid. This symposium features the views of leaders in the fields of climate, health, economics, and security who will consider the problems we face and offer possible solutions.

Speakers included James J. Hack, Director of the National Center for Computational Science, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, that provides high performance computing resources for tackling scientific grand challenges; Rachel Kyte, Group Vice President and Special Envoy for Climate Change at The World Bank; George Luber, Epidemiologist and Associate Director for Climate Change at the Centers for Disease Control; and Admiral Thad Allen, former 23rd Commandant of the USCG and coordinator of the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Following each talk, a panel of Smithsonian scholars and thinkers discussed the issues raised by the presentation. A summation of the day’s discussion was provided by Thomas L. Friedman, award winning author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

Download Event Program
The full symposium is available here as a YouTube playlist.

Culture in Crisis: Mitigating the Impact of Manmade and Natural Disasters on Heritage

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Corine Wegener

Corine Wegener
Cultural Heritage Preservation Officer
Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture

The notion that humanitarian disaster relief should include cultural heritage is fairly new. Too often we lose irreplaceable heritage because of poor planning, inadequate resources, lack of training, or even intentional destruction. Global climate change has increased the number and severity of extreme weather events as rising sea levels and droughts devastate the landscape. Cultural heritage has always been at risk of looting or collateral damage during armed conflict, but we have seen a recent spike in deliberate targeting of heritage during ethnic and sectarian violence. As caretakers of heritage, what can we do to help ensure the survival of irreplaceable heritage for the communities we serve as well as for future generations? Cori Wegener will describe the most recent initiatives undertaken by the Smithsonian and its partners in places like New York, Mali, Syria, Egypt, and even in our own backyard.

Ocean 2.0: Global Marine Ecology in the Anthropocene

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Emmett Duffy

Emmett Duffy
Director, Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network
Office of the Under Secretary for Science

When I was born the ocean was still a mysterious and often frightening wilderness. Few people had yet breathed underwater, sailors traveled hundreds of miles without seeing a sign of humanity, and many scoffed at the idea that the sea could be depleted of fish. Those days are gone. In a short 50 years the human population has doubled to 7 billion, our appetites have grown even faster, and advances in every field of science have uncovered a picture of the ocean's depths formerly unimaginable. That picture is both exhilarating and sobering. It’s now clear that humans are the principal force of nature in the seas as on land, and that the future will require active management of nature on a planetary scale. Effective management in turn urgently requires a new paradigm of science that integrates globally, across disciplines, and that takes a rigorous approach to human behavior and ecology.

Grand Challenges Share Fair 2014

Monday, May 12, 2014

At the 2014 Grand Challenges Share Fair, the Directors of the Smithsonian Consortia presented the impact and outcomes of the Grand Challenges Awards seed funding program and the future of the Consortia. One of the most exciting outcomes has been the identification and development of fifteen signature programs across the four Grand Challenges: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe, Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet, Understanding the American Experience, and Valuing World Cultures.

Download Event Program

Plasticene in Progress: What Innovation in Plastic Can Tell Us About the Anthropocene

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Odile Madden

Odile Madden
Research Scientist
Museum Conservation Institute

The capacity of humans for technology is central to the Anthropocene. We manipulate the earth’s resources to create “useful” things on a massive scale, thereby causing changes globally. Toward the end of the Industrial Revolution, coincident with many other indicators of the Anthropocene, there began a material revolution whereby naturally occurring polymers, like rubber and cotton, were recognized as having interesting properties and great commercial potential. So began an iterative innovation process of seeking uses for these substances, discovering their shortcomings, and working to overcome those weaknesses through experimentation. By the mid 20th century the Plastic Age was well underway; synthetic polymers were increasingly common, transforming our lives in profound, mundane, and amusing ways. Though pervasive and terrifically useful, plastic is still a young, astonishingly diverse, and evolving material. Critical to the innovation process is recognition of its successes and also the tradeoffs, many of which only become apparent with time—material failure, resource competition and depletion, waste management, and risks to human health and the environment, for example. The evolution of plastic shows that these are complex issues and that tension over unexpected consequences also can motivate change and identify targets for innovation.

Museums, Biodiversity and the Anthropocene

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Dr. Kris Helgen

Kris Helgen
Research Zoologist and Curator-in-Charge of Mammals
National Museum of Natural History

Studies characterizing biological variation and diversity, which are enormously valuable to science and society, have been the main use for natural history museum collections for centuries.

Even with rapidly changing technologies such as genomic techniques, traditional systematics and biogeography remain the principal collections-based disciplinary emphases for biological research programs in natural history museums.

Studies relevant to modern environmental change—and health and disease, among others—also represent important uses for museum collections, but these receive less attention within natural history institutions, collections, or curator-led research programs.

Very large economic and other impacts of rapidly changing environments, climates, and disease landscapes in the Anthropocene highlight a need for organized efforts to expand natural history research programs to incorporate additional uses of collections to complement studies of systematic biology.

Indeed, critical documentation of Anthropocene impacts, and the future of natural history museums, including public impressions of their relevance, may depend on it.

The Words That Come Before All Else: Empathic Tradition Applied in the Anthropocene

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Tim Johnson

Tim Johnson
Associate Director for Museum Programs
National Museum of the American Indian

The Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, or “The Words That Come Before All Else,” is an ancient cultural supplication that serves to remind and instruct its adherents of their relationship to other life forms and the natural laws that govern the forces and energies of existence. It is a value system based upon ecological knowledge and intrinsically contains principles and morals intended to guide human behavior.

The Thanksgiving Address is an expression of empathic tradition—an indigenous cultural convention that nurtures emotional and intellectual connections and understandings within human beings in order to diminish distinctions between the self and the other.

All things are connected. We know that all life forms, including humans, share matter that is present elsewhere within our world and within the universe. However, beyond the recognition of our shared physical makeup, the elements out of which we are made and which enable us to live (oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, etc.), resonates within empathic tradition the responsibility to sensibly engage and communicate the reality of our existence and to diffuse knowledge for the benefit of future generations.

How we inform and shape societal culture and apply ourselves individually and collectively based upon the prevailing evidence will determine our future. Culture plays every bit as important a role as science in addressing the challenges of life in the Anthropocene.

Forest-Climate Interactions in an Era of Global Change

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Dr. Kristina J. Anderson-Teixeira

Dr. Kristina J. Anderson-Teixeira
Ecologist, Leader of CTFS-SIGEO Ecosystems & Climate Initiative
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute

Forests play an important role in regulating Earth’s climate. As humans increasingly dominate the Earth, forests globally are being impacted by climate change, altered biogeochemistry, deforestation, biodiversity loss and other anthropogenic perturbations (broadly, “global change”). In turn, alterations to forest ecosystems may result in significant climate feedbacks, influencing future climate.

Smithsonian research is helping to understand how global change is impacting forest-climate interactions. The Smithsonian-led Forest Global Earth Observatory (ForestGEO) is an international network of long-term research plots of utility for understanding forest responses to global change and consequent feedbacks to the climate system.

Research at these sites is detecting changes in forest dynamics and elucidating mechanisms through which global change impacts forests. Further research on the climate regulation services of ecosystems highlights the value of forests for protecting Earth’s climate. Accounting for forest-climate interactions in societal decision-making is key to protecting the interconnected futures of Earth’s forests and climate.

Smithsonian's Current and Emerging Role in Global Climate Science: Thoughts from the 2013 IPCC Report

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dr. Christine France

Dr. Christine France
Research Physical Scientist
Museum Conservation Institute

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has just released its Fifth Assessment Report providing the current state of scientific knowledge relevant to climate change. This IPCC report includes new information about the physical basis for climate change and potential anthropogenic influences contributing to that change.

While the majority of findings are quite robust, the IPCC has identified weaknesses in critical areas of understanding. As the Smithsonian moves into a new era of awareness and focus on global change, our role in the international effort to understand climate change warrants consideration. While we already have several programs focused on global and climate change, which areas can make the most impact on this important topic?

The talk focuses on the areas of weakness, as identified by the IPCC, in which the Smithsonian is already poised to emerge as a much-needed leader. The framework and analytical capabilities within the Smithsonian were also discussed, and a dialogue was opened about our future in international global climate change research.

Dynamics of Urban Forest Cover in the Age of Humans

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Dr. Andrew Johnston

Dr. Andrew Johnston
National Air & Space Museum

Urban forests are increasingly of interest as urbanized populations grow and urban areas expand. The majority of humans globally now live in urban settlements and the urban population is growing faster than the total population. Urban ecosystems have become a focus of research, and better understanding of how tree cover is a variable land cover component of the urban environment will enhance knowledge of these ecosystems.

Utilization of archival satellite remote sensing data provides an opportunity to understand historic changes in urban vegetation cover. New research has made reliable measurements of urban tree cover variability over decadal periods in large urban centers including the District of Columbia, and investigated linkages with spatial patterns of urban land use. These observations are providing new perspectives for the management of urban resources and in efforts to understand how human settlements play a role in ecosystem processes.

What will it mean to be human? Imagining our lives in the Anthropocene

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Dr. Rick Potts

Dr. Rick Potts
Director of the Human Origins Program
National Museum of Natural History

The course of human evolution has forged in our species a fundamental resilience founded on modifying the surroundings. This aspect of human nature evolved intimately in the dynamic natural world, making Homo sapiens a global species proficient in reshaping nature by altering landscapes, resources, water, atmosphere—and ourselves—in unprecedented ways.

The greatest challenge of the anthropogenic Earth is to redefine responsibilities and frameworks to live by. Each area across the sciences, history, arts and culture can have an indispensable role in framing the central principles of life in the Anthropocene. The ongoing discovery of human origins provides an example.

This talk begins to explore principles that may turn the distresses over unintended consequences into pragmatic, intended and deeply meaningful future consequences. An evolving ethic of resilience aligned with present realities and with new moral responsibilities needs to replace an ethic based on preservation and imprecise standards of sustainability.

Scots in the American West

Thursday, August 8, 2013


The Consortium for Understanding the American Experience and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West hosted a symposium to discuss the Scottish diaspora and Scots in the American West.

In the late 1600s, Glasgow was the European center for the Virginia tobacco trade, and Scots Presbyterian dissenters in search of religious freedom established their own colonies in South Carolina and New Jersey. In the 1700s, population growth, agricultural modernization and political upheaval in Scotland were the driving forces behind more than 50,000 Scots crossing the Atlantic.

As the new American Republic looked westward, many of the earliest pioneers settling the Ohio and Tennessee valleys were of Scots or Scots-Irish descent. In the 1800s, as the United States expanded into the Trans-Mississippi American West, Scottish immigrants and their descendants shaped all phases of this movement.

The symposium examined the Scottish immigrant experience in the Trans-Mississippi West in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and the substantial contributions made by Scots and Scots-Americans. What compelled Scots to leave their homeland and settle in America? How did their Scottish culture and past shape their experiences in the American West? Finally, what was the particular lure of the American West for Scots of that period? The symposium offered insight into the immigrant experience, the multifaceted forces shaping western expansion, and how it shaped American culture and society today.

Thanks to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, the Alliance for Scottish Roots Music, the National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA, and Ms. Naoma Tate for their support of the event.

Download Event Program
The full symposium is available here as a YouTube playlist.

After the Ice: Polar Ice as a New Arena for Humanistic Research and Conflicting Interests

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Dr. Igor Krupnik

Dr. Igor Krupnik
Curator of the Arctic and Northern Ethnology and Head of Ethnology Division
Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History

Sea ice—frozen saltwater—is a key component of the polar environment and the planetary system. Historically, sea ice is a domain of physical and natural scientists, oceanographers, climate modelers, and also of navigators and engineers. This lecture offers a different perspective on Arctic ice as an increasingly pressing focus for social and humanistic research, and as a focus of public interest.

In the areas where polar residents regularly use the ice for transportation, hunting or communal activities, they also create a particular cultural “scape” made of specific indigenous terminologies, age-old place names, stories, trails, navigation marks and other signs of human presence. Today, cultural “ice-scapes” of polar people are threatened by the global warming and by the progressive language and knowledge loss.

As the Arctic may soon become ice-free in summer, new competition is certain to emerge for the diminishing remnants of the polar ice among indigenous residents, wildlife managers, environmentalists, industries, and other players who have conflicting visions of ice and its primary use.

TEMPO: A Smithsonian/NASA mission to monitor North American air pollution from space

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dr. Kelly Chance

Dr. Kelly Chance
Associate Director for Atomic and Molecular Physics and Senior Physicist
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) has been selected by NASA as the first Earth Venture Instrument. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory will build an instrument to measure atmospheric pollution for greater North America from space.

On an hourly basis TEMPO will measure atmospheric pollution from Mexico City to the Canadian tar/oil sands, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. TEMPO will provide measurements that include the key elements of air pollution chemistry—such as ozone, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide—in the lowest part of the atmosphere. Measurements will be from geostationary (GEO) orbit to capture the inherent high variability in the daily cycle of emissions and chemistry.

Measuring across both time and space will improve emission inventories, monitor population exposure and enable effective emission-control strategies.

The Coastal Anthropocene

Monday, May 20, 2013

Dr. Patrick Megonigal

Dr. Patrick Megonigal
Deputy Director, Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

Humans have always settled near estuaries and coastal seas, and are highly concentrated near the coast to this day. Human activity has fundamentally changed the biology, geology and hydrology of the coasts through the decline of some species and the introduction of other species, redistribution of sediments, nutrient enrichment and land reclamation. The scale of these impacts has grown to include planet-wide changes such as sea level rise.

It is wise to recognize that the present options for managing coastal systems are constrained by past practices, just as future options depend on the decisions we make today.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Panel of speakers

The Smithsonian Consortia hosted a symposium to address the tremendous scope of transformations now occurring on the Earth, with profound effects on plants, animals, and natural habitats. Geologists have proposed the term Anthropocene, or “Age of Man,” for this new period of planetary history. The symposium focused on the arrival and impact of this new era through the lenses of science, history, art, culture, philosophy and economics, and promoted discussion, debate and deliberation on these issues of change.

Speakers included Charles C. Mann, journalist and author of 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created; Sabine O’Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences at the University of the District of Columbia; Richard Alley, Professor of Geosciences at Pennsylvania State University; and photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan. To foster wide-ranging discussion of the issues, presentations were followed by responses from an interdisciplinary panel of scholars. The Honorable Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation, former Congressman and Senator from Colorado, provided a summation of the day’s discussion.

Download Event Program
The full symposium is available here as a YouTube playlist.

Grand Challenges Share Fair 2012

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Download Event Program
All videos are available here as a YouTube playlist.

Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet

Thursday, March 1, 2012


The Club of Rome and the Smithsonian Consortium for Understanding and Sustaining a Biodiverse Planet hosted a one-day symposium to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the launching of Limits to Growth, the first report the Club of Rome published in 1972. This book was one of the earliest scholarly works to recognize that the world was fast approaching its sustainable limits, and forty years later, the planet continues to face many of the same economic, social and environmental challenges.

The morning session focused on the lessons of Limits to Growth. The afternoon session addressed the difficult challenges of preserving biodiversity, adjusting to a changing climate, and solving the societal issues now facing the planet. The symposium ended with a thought-provoking panel discussion among the speakers on future steps for building a sustainable planet.

Thanks to the Club of Rome, the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, and Pedro and Carol Cuatrecasas for their generous support of the event.

Download Event Program

Download talks:
Dennis Meadows [ppt]
Jorgen Randers [pdf]
Doug Erwin [pdf]
Richard Alley [pdf]
Neva Goodwin [pdf]

The full symposium is available here as a YouTube playlist.