Even in Ashland, Ore., nearly 3,000 miles from the political fires in Washington, D.C., Gabriela Chavarria could feel the heat.
“We didn’t have the scientific freedom (to do our jobs),” Chavarria said, referring to the numerous restrictions President Donald Trump’s White House has placed on the U.S. scientific community in the last year. “And here, we don’t do a lot of political advocacy, but I can at least support real science on a daily basis.”
“Here” is the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where Chavarria began working on Jan. 8 as chief curator and vice president of research and collections. The Harvard-trained Ph.D. decided to leave her job as a senior adviser at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency’s National Forensics Lab after nearly a decade of government service.
The pipeline typically runs in the opposite direction, with top-tier Denver talent flowing east toward national gigs — such as when Kirk Johnson, who formerly held Chavarria’s job in Denver, skipped town in 2012 to become director of D.C.’s National Museum of Natural History.
The federal government’s loss is Denver’s gain.
Chavarria is renowned for her research and leadership, which was honed under E.O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning naturalist and author. She has devoted herself to the conservation of native pollinators — particularly bumblebees — and her most recent work as a wood anatomist battled the illegal trafficking of tropical hardwoods, museum officials said.
That follows decades of travel to every U.S. state and research in more than 30 countries, from the Galápagos Islands and Machu Picchu to Tierra Del Fuego, on South America’s southern tip.
Now Chavarria’s bringing her passion for learning Denver, which has repeatedly shown multi-million-dollar support for its largest nature and science institution in recent years, with one of the largest membership groups among natural history museums in the country (with around 62,000 households).
“I also spent time in Colorado over a five-year span… that required me to lead a group of talented scientists and policy makers to help recover the black-footed ferret,” Chavarria wrote to museum president George Sparks while applying for her job last year. “Every meeting ended with a visit to the Museum and the Zoo.”
We talked to the 52-year-old Mexico native about her relative culture shock in moving to Denver, why our city’s science museum is unique and more.
Q: I imagine you could have gotten a job almost anywhere. Why did you choose Denver?
A: It’s one of the few museums that has continued to invest in research and collection development. Most natural history museums around the world are disappearing. They’re closing down their collections and a lot of the curators are leaving their jobs. But here, we still have that niche because the community really believes in science. Plus, I love the “chief curator” part of my title. I get to oversee all the scientific and research collections we have, including zoology, anthropology and the earth sciences.
Q: Why are natural history museums shutting down?
A: It’s very hard to show the economical value of having these collections. One example is Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens (in London). That institution has been in existence for a couple of hundred years, but they just don’t have the community interest and so they’ve diminished. It’s the same with the university museums in Mexico, which the public never gets to see. It’s hard to justify or care about collections people can’t access. But here in Denver, people get to experience the behind-the-scenes flavor and understand what we do. Nobody has built a facility like Denver (a $70 million 126,000-square foot new wing, which opened in 2014) in the last 10 years. Not even the large ones in Washington, D.C., or Chicago’s Field Museum.
Q: What do you bring to this job that no one else could?
A: Through the years I’ve been able to mentor a lot of my scientific colleagues. And that’s important, because when I first graduated I had no clue about human relationships, or communicating policies and procedures, building budgets, managing people, (or) writing grants. Now I’ve worked in the nonprofit world with some of the largest NGOs (non-governmental entities), with private foundations and with the federal government. So there’s a big breadth of management styles, as well as Democratic and Republican administrations. Through all that I’ve learned how to read people, and how to bring out the best in them. A lot of our directors and curators are very young, so mentoring is big.
Q: Are you seeing more women in scientific leadership roles these days?
A: I’ve seen more women because some of us have given a lot of time to mentoring. I had great mentors, even growing up in my family in Mexico. My grandmother, who was not into science, still pushed my curiosity. And my own mother. And along the way you always find in the different stages of your life both great men and women that were always willing to give the time — if you had the right questions and were interested in learning. I want to make sure that whenever I retire, whoever fills my shoes knows what they’re doing.
Q: What’s a career highlight up to this point?
A: I never thought my passion for bees was going to go beyond a passion. That people were actually going to be interested in learning about the world of bees, or bee diversity. And just last month, our collections people put together a display on bee diversity and started to talk to the public about it, with tangible specimens. I’m always surprised by it, because you sometimes you don’t think what you’re studying will be catchy or attractive to others.
Q: Certainly, bees have been one of the canaries in the coal mine with climate change and pesticide use.
A: I remember when I said to my parents, “I’m going to do a Ph.D. on bumblebees…” I don’t even want to tell you their faces. My father was like, “What?! Can’t you just do home economics or something?”
Q: You’ve been to every U.S. state and more than two dozen countries. Is there anywhere you haven’t been that you’d like to visit?
A: Actually, no. All these years of heavy travel, especially in the government, was way too much. I learned in Oregon over the last three years that if you stay local, you learn a lot from local people and get engaged with local issues, and that’s what I want to do here. I’m coming from a town of 20,000 people to here, so I want to get to know the community and get reacquainted with a big city. I’m from Mexico City, but I haven’t lived here in a long time, even though I visit my parents there every year. Here I walk to work because the traffic is crazy!