Science within museum exhibits

For the final article in our series on outreach and teaching work outside academia, we spoke with Isabel Distefano, a molecular lab technician at the Pritzker DNA Lab at the Field Museum in Chicago. DiStefano’s work is research-centric, but requires a lot of teaching and demonstration, as the entire lab is also a museum exhibit.

What is your job like?

Distefano’s work in the lab consists of three parts.

First, she does research in genetics. The projects are run by the museum’s principal investigator, and her role varies from project to project, helping with data collection or taking a more lead role. The lab also has her two other staff members (Lab Manager and Research Associate), who often pursue their own research projects.

Second, she trains others. Laboratories are core facilities that provide genetics equipment and instruction to researchers. There are sequencers and PCR machines available for use by dozens of researchers inside and outside the museum. “This is our only genetics lab in the building, so anyone who wants to visit and research something, doing genetics work will come through us DiStefano plays a central role in training and equipping all these researchers to do what it takes. This may involve, for example, population genetics studies or sequencing of parasites, birds, or ancient specimens. Researchers recently sequenced a kingfisher genome that was collected before genome sequencing was possible.

Courtesy of Isabel DiStefano

In the summer, the lab accepts high school and undergraduate interns. 15 people this summer!

So far, all of this sounds somewhat like doing science in academia. But the real difference is that labs are exhibits. The benches are behind large glass windows, allowing museum visitors to peer inside and watch the team at work. (There is a rest area out of sight.) For one hour a day, lab staff put on headsets with microphones to “talk with scientists.” window.

DiStefano also works outside the lab, giving presentations to students and the general public about his research and scientific careers.

As is often the case with nonprofits, she also wears a different hat. She works part-time towards the museum’s goals of diversity, equity, access and inclusion. She recently presented her work at the American Museum Association conference.

DiStefano loves his workplace. “You get to interact with scientists and experts in so many different fields, or teachers and writers. The people who work in the field are so generous with their time and so passionate. or do crazy things,” she said.

road to work

DiStefano studied biology with a minor in public health at the University of New Jersey. She knew early on that she didn’t want to go into medicine but was interested in research, so she asked one of her professors if she could learn more about research in her lab. She loved it and started studying plant phylogeny there.

She wasn’t sure lab work was what she wanted to do full-time, but she soon got the chance to see what it was like. “I got lucky in fourth grade,” said DiStefano. She gained research experience for her undergraduate internship at The Field Museum, where she studied lichen phylogeny and got a feel for outreach and education.

“I loved being able to interact with the public, being visible, doing outreach,” she said.

After her experience at REU, she collaborated with the Field Museum Principal Investigator and TCNJ Principal Investigator to write her graduate thesis on the study of lichens.

DiStefano said she has loved museums since she visited them in New York City near New Jersey as a child. “When she was a child, she told her mother that she wanted to work at a natural history museum.

Around the time DiStefano graduated with his bachelor’s degree, a full-time position opened at the Pritzker Institute. Initially, she had no intention of applying. “I was sure they wanted someone with a master’s degree for the job,” she said. I told her that I really have the skills and the skills of an educator and encouraged her to apply.

“Find a mentor or champion and don’t doubt yourself,” DiStefano said.

Courtesy of Isabel DiStefano

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