Dr. Catherine Early, Ornithologist at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Meet Dr. Catherine Early, Barbara Brown Chair of Ornithology

What does bold science mean to you?

Bold science is exploratory. It’s science where we don’t always know the answer we’re going to get or the direct financial or economic benefit that we might receive from a discovery.

For example, biomedical science is really important to human health, but it doesn’t mean it’s the only science that impacts human health. We need to get a deeper understanding of how things work. This is often called basic science -- because we don’t know what we’re going to get out of it -- and it can become the building blocks for these more applied sciences that change our lives in drastic ways.

Another definition is science that is being done through an equity lens. It’s science that requires us to think critically about past discoveries and have hard conversations that need to happen, but aren’t easy, and it takes a lot of effort to talk about. It isn’t popular, or everyone’s favorite thing to talk about racism or eugenics in past science, but we need to do it because the science of the past influences where we are now. The science of the future is going to involve everyone and be open to everyone. Until we acknowledge inequities in science, we will have a limited perspective of the world around us.

If you were a bird, what bird would you be?

I’m tempted to say my favorite bird--the kiwi. They are really unique birds that have a great sense of smell and touch in their beaks and very poor sense of sight. Which is unique, because most birds are very sight-driven. They seem like very cozy birds. Their feathers look more like fur than feathers, they’re totally flightless, and they spend some time nestled down in little burrows. The cozy and quiet lifestyle is what appeals to me (sans the fact that they are super endangered).

What is your advice for people interested in getting into science/ornithology?

I was interested in animals growing up and I volunteered at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, where I basically scooped poop, but the best part was interacting with animals. I learned a lot about the natural world and got to teach people about it, too. Getting involved in museums and volunteering is a great way to learn.

Before I became an ornithologist, I really wanted to be a veterinarian. In undergrad, I realized I didn’t really want to do it, and happened to take a class on dinosaurs taught by two paleontologists. It was a blast. One of the professors was teaching more dinosaur classes, and I just kept taking them! It snowballed and I ended up working in his lab. Between then and now a lot of things happened, but the short version is that I ended up as a curator! I was lucky to be privileged enough to have access to the dinosaur classes, but taking advantage of any open opportunities and finding a good mentor really helped me. Being curious is really important. And academia doesn’t need to be your end goal as a scientist--just following your passion is more than enough.

What kind of work do you do as the new Barbara Brown Chair of Ornithology?

I have a lot of on-going projects that are being published that I plan to continue to work on. My research program is focused on looking at the relationship between form and function in bird skulls. The big question: why is a bird's brain shaped the way it is? What can we tell about behavior and function in extinct birds just from the shape of their brains? I have a few other on-going projects with similar questions and refining the methods we use to analyze bird brains.

The new thing I’m excited to work on is getting the biology collection fully cataloged and digitized. We have all of these specimens and amazing staff who help manage the collection, but I want to have a systematic review of the collection in a database to better organize the information so it can be utilized by researchers in a new way. Right now, it’s hard for researchers to know what we have at the Science Museum. There is no magical directory of every museum in the world and their specimens. Unless the catalog is digital, no one can search it and know about all of our amazing specimens. 

One way we’re already working on this is through the MN Biodiversity Atlas grant through the Bell Museum. We’re contributing images of our specimens to that online database. The process is giving us good practice for digitizing our specimens so we can get information out there to researchers and the public.

Why do you think museums are crucial for science learning, equity, and education?

From my side of the museums--the collections part--they are essential for science because they document life throughout time. From a human perspective, our collection goes back 100 years and more, obviously the paleo specimens go back millions of years, but with biology specimens, we can see what a bird might have looked like 100 years ago and compare them to what they look like now. 

Museum collections are important to preserve past biodiversity that we don’t have anymore, like the now-extinct passenger pigeon. Collections help us pose and answer questions about how human activities impact animals (and how we can mitigate those effects). Because specimens are collected by museums in a systematic and documented way--including information on when, where, and by whom they were collected--the information lets us reconstruct an image of what biodiversity was like in the past.

Collections cannot be replaced and are essential for science. Collections and their information are essential. 

In terms of equity, I think museum collections have a lot of reckoning to do. For example; many white anthropologists collected artifacts or human remains from non-white cultures, not necessarily with informed consent. Many museums still have these items in their collections. It’s traumatic for Indigenous people and people from Native American tribes to see their ancestors on display in a collection. Another aspect is that in America, you are almost guaranteed to be living on and collecting on stolen land. During what is now known as the Bone Wars, early white American paleontologists rushed to acquire fossils, many of which were taken from Native lands without permission. 

We all have a lot of reckoning to do with specimens and artifacts, which are very important, but we need to realize and recognize where they come from and the bad history that has gone into collecting them. 

Digitizing collections is hugely important because anyone with an internet connection can now access them. They can develop and answer their own questions about change through time. Digitizing is a big part of equity.