Gillian Thomas Awarded ‘Top Women-Led Not-for-Profits in Florida 2015’ by The CommonWealth Institute of South Florida

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On April 2, 2015, The Commonwealth Institute of South Florida (TCI) hosted its 10th annual luncheon event at the Hilton Miami Downtown, honoring women-led businesses and celebrating the achievements of the women who hold leadership positions. TCI sent their annual survey to over 4,000 women business leaders in Florida to better understand their unique characteristics and how they leverage that to advance professionally.

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science’s CEO and President Gillian Thomas was honored with the ‘Top Women-Led Not-for-Profits in Florida 2015’ award.

The event featured a panel of respected women who are leaders in the community, as well as their businesses, discussing the business climate for women in executive positions. The panel included Alexandra Villoch, president & publisher of the Miami Herald, Ginger Martin, president & CEO of the American National Bank, Kuky Salazar, Latin America, Europe, Middle East, and Asia president of Private Jet Services, and Gillian Thomas, president & CEO of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. Additionally, the discussion focused on challenges, accomplishments, industry trends, leadership, and how the women were able to achieve positive results in their roles.

Congratulations, Gillian Thomas!

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Out & About with Frost Science: Training Future South Florida Engineers

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This week, Frost Science was “out & about” at the Pinecrest Branch Library of the Miami-Dade Public Library System. Joining us for an afterschool programming session, area patrons participated in a “Build-a-Coaster” engineering lab. Throughout this educational adventure, guests learned how engineers make our lives better everyday—from architecture and transportation, on to human health and even balancing worldwide ecosystems.  Then, our mobile outreach team gave them a project to erect all on their own… a working roller coaster!

Each team was supplied with foam (to act as the tracks), masking tape (which symbolized building materials), and marbles (which became the roller coaster car).

Each team was supplied with foam (to act as the tracks), masking tape (which symbolized building materials), and marbles (which became the roller coaster car).

The sky’s the limit as young patrons work with their parents to build the tallest roller coaster possible!

The sky’s the limit as young patrons work with their parents to build the tallest roller coaster possible!

All designs take on different forms, based on the creativity of the student engineer behind them.

All designs take on different forms, based on the creativity of the student engineer behind them.

Using the library as their testing ground, designs went from the walls to the floor, on through the book cases and even through stools.

Using the library as their testing ground, designs went from the walls to the floor, on through the book cases and even through stools.

Frost Science personnel was there to mentor students and help their designs become a success.

Frost Science personnel was there to mentor students and help their designs become a success.

At the end of the program, young patrons present their engineering marvels to library guests, explaining how they constructed their roller coaster, and then testing each track with their marble “cars.”

At the end of the program, young patrons present their engineering marvels to library guests, explaining how they constructed their roller coaster, and then testing each track with their marble “cars.”

Next up, please join us at the Doral Branch Library on Wednesday, April 22 (Earth Day!) at 6pm as we “Power the Future” with our renewable energy snap circuit lab. There we’ll have a variety of “shocking” activities that will teach guests about electricity and clean energy.  See you there!

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Museum on the Rise VIP Reception

Muhammad, Clark, Moody, Vidal, Richardson,  Spence, Somers, & Ellis

On Friday, April 10, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science welcomed the Natural History Museum of Jamaica of the Institute of Jamaica for a VIP reception, under the patronage of the Consul General of Jamaica to Miami, and in support of a cultural exchange partnership between the two museums connecting students and scientists in Jamaica and the USA through environmental restoration projects. Guests enjoyed an evening of live music and Caribbean-inspired cuisine, including tostones with mango salsa, yucca fritters with passion fruit garnish, and fried lobster. After the cocktail hour, guests entered the theater, and were welcomed by Gillian Thomas, President and CEO of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. Following a joint presentation by the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science and the Natural History Museum of Jamaica, US and Jamaican students who had joined exchange trips to the partner country spoke about their experiences. The evening culminated with a beautiful tree offering by Anne Marie Bonner, the Executive Director of Institute of Jamaica, who gifted native Jamaican plants to Gillian Thomas, Franz Hall, the Consulate General of Jamaica, and Barron Channer, the National Board Member for The American Friends of Jamaica.

The evening reception honored the American Alliance of Museums’ grant-funded project, Citizen-Led Urban Environmental Restoration (#JaMUVE), between the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science and the Natural History Museum of Jamaica. The goal is to create communities of environmentally active citizens where youth in Miami and Kingston take action to restore urban habitats, while interacting with their international counterparts. The project utilizes multiple strategies to maximize engagement among participants. These include: interaction with scientists trained in science communication by Museum staff; engagement with partner youth and scientists in real time via social media; and meaningful, hands-on citizen science opportunities. At monthly environmental restoration events in each country, youth conduct activities such as removing and cataloging trash, planting trees, and monitoring changes in biodiversity.

This past March, select youth from Miami joined Miami project staff Chelle King and Florida International University scientist Danielle Ogurcak on an exchange trip to Jamaica to assist in their restoration efforts and learn from their Jamaican counterparts. On April 9, four high school students from Jamaica arrived in Miami to join Kingston project staff Dionne Newell and Jamaican scientist Keron Campbell in assisting with the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science restoration efforts in Virginia Key. The students visited Virginia Key on April 11 to volunteer at the Museum’s current coastal restoration site, contributing to a biodiversity survey (a BioBlitz), removing invasive plant species, monitoring environmental parameters, and removing trash from the delicate coastal ecosystem, including a loggerhead sea turtle nesting beach. 

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Brain Day 2015

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Our brain is an amazing thing. It is our control system and tells us when to eat, breath, sleep, and what mood to be in. But we never really think of these things while we’re doing them. At the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, we decided it was time to investigate this incredible organ. What better way to do that than a weekend full of discussions on the latest and greatest neuroscience, as well as hands-on activities to get your synapses firing? Our annual Brain Day celebration, presented by Baptist Health South Florida, was a three-day event which occurred on March 19 - March 21, 2015, during Brain Awareness Week, and engaged over 1,000 scientists and community visitors.

The Brain Day celebrations began with the Museum’s popular Science Up Close series, an evening of casual science conversations that connects leaders of a given field to the public by sharing fascinating advances in science through two-way discussions.  The evening began with an introduction by Dr. Sergio Gonzalez-Arias, Medical Director of Baptist Health Neuroscience Center and Chair of the Department of Neuroscience at FIU’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine. Then it was on to the main event, a tantalizing presentation on an innovative procedure known as awake craniotomy, or brain surgery while awake, by Dr. Vitaly Siomin, Medical Director of the Brain Tumor Program at Baptist Health Neuroscience Center. Between the goosebump inducing video showing an awake patient perfectly at ease during the surgery (apparently there are no pain receptors in your brain, so it doesn’t hurt to poke it) and other pictures and diagrams throughout his presentation, Dr. Siomin introduced the audience to the process of an awake craniotomy, while pointing out the benefits to both the patient and surgeon. Although, he did stress that it isn’t for everyone. The procedure begins with a detailed mapping of a patient’s brain to pinpoint their speech and motor functions, as well as the exact location of a brain tumor. It’s like having a personal blueprint into how your brain is structured. During the procedure, patients are able to report sensations in response to stimulation of specific brain areas, making it possible for the neurosurgeon to aggressively remove tumors from delicate areas, such as ones that control speech, comprehension, and movement. After the presentation, we were proud to have professors, researchers, and graduate students, who are experts in neuroscience from several leading science facilities, encouraging invigorating conversations with visitors. Throughout the evening there were live performances by the Frost School of Music and craft beers courtesy of Wynwood Brewing Company.

Featured guests included:

  • Rodney Bedgio, R.N., MSN, Baptist Health Neuroscience Center
  • Jennifer Britton, Ph.D., University of Miami, Department of Psychology, BRAIN Group
  • Berit Brogaard, Ph.D., University of Miami, Department of Philosophy
  • Sergio Gonzalez-Arias, M.D., Baptist Health Neuroscience Center and Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine, Department of Neuroscience
  • Matthias Haury, Ph.D., Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience
  • Angela Laird, Ph.D., Florida International University, Department of Physics, Neuroinformatics and Brain Connectivity Lab
  • Michael Mannino, Florida Atlantic University, Center for Complex Systems and Brain Sciences
  • Amy Starosciak, Ph.D., Baptist Health Neuroscience Center

The following evening, the Frost Science Young Patrons and enthusiastic learners enjoyed teasing their brains in The Brain Arcade. From Rubik’s cubes to #ThatDress, everyone boosted their brainpower and discovered the truth behind optical illusions. Partners led a variety of fun and engaging activities at The Brain Arcade, including the Stroop test, which challenges the brain to process words and colors at the same time, 3D glasses to try on along with an explanation of how they work, a world-class juggler and the chance to learn how juggling changes your brain, and facial recognition games. Guests then enjoyed a stimulating conversation on ‘The Brain and Addiction’, featuring South Miami Hospital Addiction Treatment & Recovery Center’s Medical Director, Dr. John Eustace, and Assistant Vice President, David Vittoria. Dr. Matthew Sutherland, Assistant Professor in Psychology from Florida International University, moderated the living room style conversation. They explained how addiction actually works in the brain and that although often thought of differently, the science shows that addiction is actually a brain disease. Their research over the years has shown that patients who suffer from addiction have an impaired reward/pleasure/relief mechanism in the brain. They discussed how various substances can impact the brain, but also expressed hope that with proper treatment, addiction is a disease that patients can manage and work to overcome. Throughout the night there were complimentary libations courtesy of Tito’s Vodka, Mandarine Napoléon, ZIOBAFFA, Lucky Buddha, and Perrier Sparkling Natural Mineral Water.

Partners for the evening included:

  • Baptist Health Neuroscience Center
  • FIU’s Neuroinformatics and Brain Connectivity Lab
  • UM’s Social and Cultural Neuroscience Laboratory
  • Imagery provided by the Human Brain Project and The Neuro Bureau Brain Art Competition 2014.

The festivities culminated with a family day incorporating partners from all corners of Miami, including Baptist Health Neuroscience Center, Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University, Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute at Baptist Health South Florida, Miami Springs Senior High Anchor Club, Pilot Club of Miami, St. Thomas University, Tobii Pro, and the University of Miami. The Museum was packed with visitors and partners all excited to chat about the brain and how we can keep that amazing organ safe and sound!

Brainiacs of all ages discovered how the brain works, learning what parts of the brain control certain functions through different mapping activities. For example, vision is processed through the occipital lobe which is located at the back of your head. We continued to cheer on brain protection with the Pilot Club of Miami who handed out free bicycle helmets as well as real football players who chatted with children about the signs and symptoms of concussions and brought nifty new helmets used to measure head impacts during sports. All throughout the museum, kids and adults alike sported ‘Brain Caps’- hats they made showing where the lobes and cortexes are laid out. Visitors could even get their hands involved and dissect a real sheep brain so they could have a better perspective of where different lobes are located in a brain. There was an incredible new eye-tracking technology showed off by Tobii Pro, which allowed gamers to play using only their eyes, so no gaming controllers were necessary. Also, many guests learned about the effect of alcohol on the brain using special goggles that skewed eyesight so when they attempted to walk the line they (often comically to those looking on) simply could not do it.  There was even the opportunity to learn about the warning signs of strokes and to get a free biometrics screening courtesy of Baptist Health South Florida. Even the youngsters joined in to the festivities by taking part in the BrainMinders Puppet Show where zoo animals taught them about the benefits of keeping their brain healthy and safe, including lessons on the importance of wearing a bike helmet.

It was an incredible weekend. We hope everyone had as much fun as we did. Thank you to all of our wonderful partners. Let us know what your favorite part was below.

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City National Bank Provides Critical Funding for Frost Science Enhanced Educational Access Program

Summer Camp at Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science

City National Bank continued its commitment to community and education, announcing that it will support a new program hosted by the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science in Miami that brings science education to underserved children.

The bank is supplementing the funding provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Family Engagement Initiative to bring more than 1,000 Head Start children, and their parents or caregivers participating in the Museum’s Early Childhood Hands-On Science program in Miami-Dade County, to the Museum.  The funding by City National Bank supports the Museum’s Enhanced Educational Access Program, which provides science education access to underserved children through hands-on experiences.

“What happens tomorrow depends on the education we provide our children today, and we believe in supporting innovative programs that help those who need it most,” said Jorge Gonzalez, President and CEO of City National Bank. “This initiative from the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science will provide our youngest learners and their parents an engaging learning experience that will lay the foundation for their future.”

Children from Homestead, Little Haiti/Wynwood and Opa Locka enrolled in Head Start programs that are serving as training sites under the Kellogg initiative will be part of this special program. The Head Start program was founded in 1965 to provide comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition and parent involvement to low-income children and their families. The Museum’s Enhanced Educational Access Program targets areas where the population is underserved, has a need for science education programs, and is geographically distant from the museum.

“Research has shown that the hands-on, in-person element of a curriculum has the greatest impact on a student’s education,” said Gillian Thomas, President and CEO of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science.  “We are so glad to partner with CNB to complement the training we deliver in the Head Start centers with a memorable visit to the Museum for the children, the teachers and their caregivers. We want everyone in Miami to be able to use the Museum’s resources. We aim long-term to achieve educational equity for science learning opportunities for children and families in Miami-Dade County.”

The program will serve children from 47 different Head Start classrooms.

“There are few things as rewarding as providing a positive educational experience at an early age,” added Gonzalez.  “We focus our community engagement dollars on educational opportunity, believing that this is the best investment we can make, providing the most sustainable positive impact in the communities we serve.”

City National Bank has developed a well-earned reputation for its commitment to the community. The bank supports such well-known organizations as United Way, Beaux Arts and the Lowe Art Museum, YMCA of Broward County, the FIU Foundation and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

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Innovation and Engineering Weekend

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Do you ever try to imagine what Miami will look like in 5, 10, or even 50 years? Miami is a vibrant city, the gateway to Latin America for business, and a must-see destination for travelers around the world. However, Miami also faces major challenges in it’s future, including a growing population with a shrinking amount of land. In February, the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science decided to tackle these challenges head on by engaging in a discussion with the community on how they want to build the city of the future, and showcasing some amazing inventions and ideas from local innovation leaders at our annual Innovation and Engineering Weekend, sponsored by Wells Fargo, Ryder Corporation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. In total, the four days of events engaged over 2,100 visitors and community members!

The event kicked off on Thursday, February 19, with the museum and CappSci announcing a five-year, $1 million CappSci Inventors program to develop innovative solutions in the health and environmental sectors. In 2015, two prizes will be offered: one for the best invention to restore coral reefs, and one for the best invention to help people reduce their exposure to carcinogens. We are so honored to be working with CappSci and know this is an incredible opportunity for leaders in these fields. Following the announcement, a panel moderated by Rebecca Fishman Lipsy, CEO of Radical Partners, discussed the role of competition in advancing science. The panelist included Dr. Andrew Baker, coral reef expert from University of Miami RSMAS, Dr. Maurice Ferre, Jr., Co-Founder of Mako Surgical, and Dr. Nicholas Lambrou, Medical Director and Gynecologic Oncologist at South Miami Hospital.

Thursday night, the museum held its second installment of its popular Science Up Close evening event series, featuring Dr. Roldolphe el-Khoury, Dean of UM School of Architecture. His talk, “Inhabiting the Internet of Things,” discussed how the city of the future will include homes and environments that are based in a network of communication, creating a responsive community habitat. We will no longer have stand-alone devices, but an ecosystem of invisible and subtle technology. Ten distinguished guest facilitators who are leaders in innovative thought, encouraged and continued conversations with guests well into the evening. There were live performances by the Frost School of Music and craft beers courtesy of Wynwood Brewing Company.

Innovative thinkers were up early the next morning, Friday, February 20, to attend a CreativeMornings/Miami session on climate change. The museum’s Chief Science Officer, Dr. Eldredge Bermingham, presented the on how climate change and innovation will collide here in Miami and impact the new Museum.

Later that morning, a select group of architecture magnet students from Miami Coral Park Senior High took part in a workshop led by Gehl Studio, an international architectural firm that specializes in reinventing the use of public spaces, and blew everyone away with their creative and insightful ideas to improve Miami. Their imaginations came up with a variety of thoughtful and realistic solutions for addressing challenges from changes in energy, the environment, transportation, and architecture and design in the city of the future.

Gehl Studio continued fostering Miami’s future when community stakeholders, including government officials, local entrepreneurs, leaders in the community Maker’s movement, architects, and scientists, participated in a similar workshop contributing many thought-provoking avenues to collaborate and create deeper change in our city. It was a truly invigorating session. We look forward to seeing its effects on our upcoming Innovation Center and in the relationships that came out of the session.

Later that evening, in celebration of Global PechaKucha Night, several enlightening speakers discussed their take on the four themes of the weekend including architecture and design, energy, the environment and transportation. Local young professionals and key tastemakers were invited by the Frost Science Young Patrons to enjoy an evening of fun in an intellectual atmosphere. The City of the Future PechaKucha Night 20×20 presenters included:

  • Camille Coley, JD, Assistant Vice President for Research and Associate Director of Florida Atlantic University’s Southeast National Marine Renewable Energy Center discussing the use of ocean currents as a means to produce energy.
  • David Rifkind, Associate Professor of Architecture at Florida International University discussing the idea (and real possibility) of net-zero houses.
  • Meg Daly, Founder and President of The Underline discussing the importance of turning Miami into a bike friendly city and the benefits of biking as a mode of transportation.
  • Stephen Davis, PhD, Director of Science & Policy for the Everglades Foundation discussing how sea level rise is impacting the Everglades, and in turn threatening our fresh water supply.
  • Trevor Powers, Vice President of Engineering & Facilities of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science discussing how the new Museum is incorporating all of these considerations in its design and construction.

Throughout the evening, guests enjoyed libations courtesy of Tito’s Vodka, Mandarine Napoléon, ZIOBAFFA, Lucky Buddha and Lemon City Tea, music by Dani Nicole, and gifts from Aesop, while making their very own pottery through a special Maker’s activity. The evening concluded by the “raku” kiln fire while the pottery was cured for guests to take home.

Then the grand finale: Innovation & Engineering family weekend on Saturday, February 21 and Sunday, February 22!

So many visitors could not stop talking about all that was offered. They got a chance to share their ideas and vision on the Gehl Studio ‘City of the Future’ wall. Afterwards, they took part in a plethora of activities, including witnessing the fashion of the future with designs from DesignLab Miami students, participating in technology of the future such as the 3D Immersive experience with augmented reality and Oculus Rift goggles administered by Dr. Winifred Newman and Zhaohui Jennifer Fu of FIU School of Architecture, and learning about engineering through Maker’s activities held by Best Buy and others in the museum’s Best Buy Teen Tech Center.

Many loved the robot obstacle courses/fighting ring brought by Starbot, a future partner of the museum, dedicated to teaching youth about engineering. BYO-Lab, Miami Industrial Arts, and StuffMaker 3D USA showed how 3D printers can be used to create molds to mass-produce building elements quickly. More Maker’s activities were conducted catering to early childhood, fashionistas, and designers.

There was plenty to do outside as well, where we concentrated on energy and the environment. Families learned about solar ovens and took home potted seeds to start a healthy urban garden of their own. Lots of university students also contributed to the fun by leading activities around water filtration, sustainable engineering, and impacts on the environment from natural and human-caused factors.

Guests also had the opportunity to view Miami Cityscapes, an art installation demonstrating how renowned local artists foresee the city of the future. The participating artists were: Jenny Brillhart, Pablo Cano, Felice Grodin, Maritza Molina, Emmett Moore, Leyden Casanova Rodriguez, Cesar Santos, Monica of TM Sisters, and Agustina Woodgate. Also on display over the weekend was an immersive light installation by Matthew Schreiber in the museum’s Planetarium.

We want to thank all of our wonderful partners and hope everyone had a spectacular time. Let us know what your favorite part was below!

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A Trip to Geneva: The Human Brain Project

As told by Jennifer Santer, Vice President of Content Development & Programs at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science:

Over the last few days, I had the chance to take part in a three-day workshop in Geneva, Switzerland, bringing together some of the leading scientists from the European Union’s Human Brain Project and an international team of science museum experts to come up with strategies for sharing the innovative technologies and emerging findings that are likely to emerge from this massive neuroscience research endeavor over the next decade.

It was a rare opportunity,to be gathered in a small working group on the shores of Lake Geneva, Mont Blanc visible in the distance, right across from the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, with some of the leading brain researchers in the world, listening to Henry Markram, co-leader of one of the main initiatives, paint his vision for how to achieve a unified understanding of the human brain.

Henry Markram invites the public on a voyage to discover the human brain.

Henry Markram invites the public on a voyage to discover the human brain.

Europe’s €1 billion Human Brain Project is one piece in a global undertaking to understand the human brain that includes complementary projects being carried out in Israel, Japan, Australia, and Canada, as well as the U.S.’s own multi-billion dollar BRAIN initiative. Together, researchers hope to piece together the data from neuroscience research and medical projects around the world, using the latest computing and imaging technologies to build and test computer models that can help us understand how the brain works. With insights gathered over the coming years, scientists hope to be able to find cures for the brain-related illnesses that afflict growing numbers of people, from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, to autism and depression, unlocking the secrets of memory, identity and consciousness along the way. They are also hoping to learn from the brain to build the supercomputers of tomorrow.

Science museums worldwide will have a critical role to play in sharing this emerging research with the general public, from helping people understand the medical and ethical implications of new findings to inspiring the next generation of neuroscientists. Here at Frost Science we’re exploring ways to include content about the brain in our new galleries, from understanding how our brains influence our health and happiness, to how the brain serves as the source for creativity and innovation. The goal of the workshop was for the HBP team to give the museum community an overview of their research and how they’re organized, and for the museum advisors to help the researchers understand the different ways in which we try to communicate research to our visitors.

The workshop included some of the Human Brain Project’s top experts in brain simulation, high performance computing and neurorobotics, as well as museum advisors from Bloomfield Science Museum in Jerusalem; Copernicus Science Centre in Warsaw; the Exploratorium in San Francisco; MUSE in Trento, Italy; Science Centre NEMO in Amsterdam; Science Centre Singapore; the International Centre for Life in the UK; and Universcience in Paris. Over the course of the three days we got to see some of the amazing research efforts that are already underway, from preliminary simulations of neuron activity in a rat brain, to experiments involving treating Parkinson’s patients with electrical implants.

Partial simulation of a rat brain.

Partial simulation of a rat brain.

These amazing three days ended up with a reception held at the Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, right across the street from the United Nations, a fitting testament to the spirit of international cooperation exemplified by the Human Brain Project’s effort to better understand what makes us who we are.

The United Nations

The United Nations

The Geneva Convention, on display at Red Cross Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.

The Geneva Convention, on display at Red Cross Red Crescent Museum, Geneva.

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A Frost Science Visit with District 8

District 8 Team

On Monday, March 2, Frost Science hosted District 8 Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava and her staff at our new museum construction site. Guided by President & CEO Gillian Thomas, the District 8 team toured the ever-evolving facility, learning more about our museum’s mission, and ultimately, how we can further unite to serve and engage the constituents of Miami-Dade County.

To learn more about what’s going on in District 8, click here.  Stay tuned for how Frost Science will be “Out & About” in your community!

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Congratulations, Mitchell “Mitch” Less!

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Mitchell “Mitch” Less

Congratulations to longtime museum supporter and the treasurer of the Frost Science Board of Trustees, Mitchell “Mitch” Less. He was recently inducted into the 2015 Business Hall of Fame by the University of Central Florida College of Business Administration. Less, class of ’86, is a Partner in Grant Thornton LLP and was inducted on Thursday, February 26 at the 16th Annual Business Alumni Hall of Fame Banquet.

Congrats again, Mitch!

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New 2015 Business Hall of Fame Inductee: Mitchell “Mitch” Less, ’86, Partner, Grant Thornton LLP

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Curious Vault 012: Xiphactinus, Extinct Monster Fish

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Eighty million years ago, a school of scaly Gillicus darted through the prehistoric seas that surged above modern day Kansas. Most likely searching for their next meal, Gillicus were predators, but not the top of the primitive marine food chain. There were far bigger fish found in the semi-tropical waters that during the Cretaceous period split North America right up the middle, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle—predators such as the Xiphactinus, (zy-FAK-tin-us) a species that would have swooped in to swallow a four-foot long Gillicus whole.

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To begin to understand the Xiphactinus, it helps to know it was a fish (and fish seems like such an inadequate term for a creature that could be up to 17-feet long) that swam and battled it out with primeval sharks and mosasaurs. There is no simpler statement to inspire awe. It was effectively an enormous sea going piranha with a protrusive fangs and massive frame. Eighty million years ago the Xiphactinus cruised stealthily throughout the Western Interior Seaway, an apex predator in an unforgiving ancient sea. Imagine the fish moving, gliding, with its beastly bulldog over bite of two-inch teeth gnarled from years of prowling the teeming primordial seas. Whizzing by goes a four-foot Gillicus. The perfect meal: or so it seemed.

A Xiphactinus sits on permanent display at Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, its belly filled with the remnants of its last lunch. The Gillicus is perhaps most famous for being the fatal final meal of the Xiphactinus, and there are a few rare specimen of Xiphactinius with remnants, or in some cases, wholly preserved fossil Gillicus inside them, a-fish-within-a-fish. It would seem the Xiphactinus had a taste for Gillicus, but an often-fatal taste, as proved by the fossil record, its tail was too harsh for its stomach and internal organs.

In 1925, eons after that ill-fated feast, the Museum’s Xiphactinus was first collected. It’s emancipator from the rock was George Sternberg, a Dust Bowl fisherman, (as crazy as that sounds) and son of the great fossil finder Charles Hazelius Sternberg, who did much of his early work during a period sometimes referred to as the Bone Wars. Turn of the century Americans were quite fascinated by bones of primeval creatures; it was big business and perfect ink for the newspapermen of the day.

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Fossil Beds Where Xiphactinus Was Discovered
Cook Canyon, Gove County, Kansas
Monument Rocks in the background

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June 1925 Xiphactinus in field
The fossil was collected in three slabs. The curved tail was moved into the correct position.

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Ready to pour plaster
University Archives
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS

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June 9, 1925 George Sternberg pouring plaster on skull
University Archives
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS

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Sternberg Undermining Plaster Slab
University Archives
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS

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Local Ranchers helping turn over the slab
University Archives
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS

The Xiphactinus took a long and crazy trip to end up in the Curious Vault. Laboring in the hot Kansas sun, George Sternberg poured plaster around the bone material, safely jacketing it so it could be moved. Almost immediately, it was bought by good old Uncle Sam who then shipped it east for exhibition at Philadelphia’s Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926, a huge world’s fair in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The next photographic trace we have of the framed1,200 pound fish documents it hanging in the legendary “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” certainly one of the best named exhibit halls ever, in what is today the National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian. Here, surrounded by the epic reconstructed bones of dinosaurs, it surely inspired entire generations of angling inclined visitors.

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Sold To U.S. National Museum March 1926
Charles W. Gilmore
U.S. National Museum (Smithsonian) in laboratory. V 11650
Purchased with National Sesquicentennial Exposition Fund to celebrate 150th anniversary signing Declaration of Independence.
University Archives
Fort Hays State University
Hays, KS

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Philadelphia, PA display, National Sesquicentennial Exposition

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Installing Diplodocus with Xiphactinus in Background in Hall of Extinct Monsters
Smithsonian Historical Photo

In 1965 the fish was transferred to the Miami Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1973, Carol Richards, a museum guild member who was married to then NOAA Director Bill Richards arranged for it to be gifted to the Museum, where it has sat, fondly loved by visitors but not quite fully understood, for the last 40 years.

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Left to Right: Jennifer Schull NOAA Science Planning and Coordination, Dr. Bill Richards , NOAA Director (retired), Chuck Bonner, Paleo-Conservator, Kevin Arrow Art & Collection Manager

Much of this information came to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science by the way of Charles Bonner and Barbara Shelton, who are two well-known and colorful Kansas dino-fish-wranglers and the cheery proprietors of Keystone Gallery in Scott City, Kansas. Chuck and Barbara form the team, under the direction of Dr. Matt Friedman of Oxford University, who are facilitating the 2015 restoration of the Xiphactinus. For a month they carefully scraped away extra plaster and paint, what must have been a “quick and dirty” preparation, most probably a rush to make the deadline for exhibition in Philadelphia.

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Strangely enough, Chuck and Barbara live only a few miles from the place Sternberg unearthed the Xiphactinus nearly 90 years ago, and where the fish itself died nearly 80 million years ago. The chalky Kansas terrain is remarkably well suited for fossilization.

After driving down from Kansas, Chuck and Barbara set up their workspace within the Museum galleries where curious visitors could see their progress. Scratching into the plaster encasement, Chuck (wearing a t-shirt with a mosasaur on it)excitedly worked the head of the beast, convinced that the jawbone could be better defined. Due to its shape, there was some disorder, but Chuck confirmed his suspicions about the jaw and each day a little more was revealed. He learned that near all the teeth were plaster replicas, but this is not unusual; erosion both exposes the fossil in the Kansas chalk but it also forces loose teeth away from the skull, scattering them to different parts of the fossil bed.

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Chuck further worked the head while Barbara diligently focused on the ribs and the Gillicus specimen within the stomach. By reading his field notes we know Sternberg thought the Xiphactinus’ ruinous meal to be four feet, yet Barbara was able to confirm it was spread closer to six-feet throughout the body cavity of the Xiphactinus. Her process also revealed some fragile bone from the plaster that was previously unseen. Delicate rib bones suffer a similar fate to the teeth; Chuck and Barbara brought plenty of miscellaneous bone-bits from the same kind of fish to patch together the skeleton. They scraped and smoothed the specimen bringing a magnificent luster to the fish previously unseen.

There are only about a half dozen Xiphactinus specimens that are known to have a fish inside of them, making this fish-within-a-fish specimen particularly rare. It is nearly complete, as many don’t endure the ravages of time, disrupted by the elements or haphazard bone collectors. The lengthy and impressive provenance—particularly the link to the Sternberg family, as well as the Smithsonian—strengthens its rarity and importance. The newly cleaned and rehabilitated Xiphactinus will make yet another move soon, and will have a prominent place in the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science facility on Biscayne Bay where it will be a poignant symbol of change over time and the endurance of life on Earth.

The Gillicus will be there too, immortalized through partial digestion, with perhaps the last laugh, ultimately responsible for a fascinating eighty million year journey.

Special thanks to Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton for the historical photographs. All other photos by Mark Diamond.

The Curious Vault is an online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of the Miami Science Museum, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager. For more information, email karrow@miamisci.org.

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