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Naturalist Center exceeds 200,000 visitors!

April 1, 2015

Since the Nature Research Center opened in April, 2012, the Naturalist Center has welcomed over 200,000 visitors! Yesterday, a teacher told me that this room is her favorite spot in the entire Museum. She was so inspired by our collection, that she and her students have created their own tiny collection of nature objects and they call it their “museum”.  I love hearing stories like these so please share how visiting the Naturalist Center or the Museum in general has inspired you!

We recently created a smaller version of the Naturalist Center for a new branch of the Museum in Whiteville, NC.  Below are a few photos from the grand opening.

Naturalist Center at new branch in Whiteville, NC

Naturalist Center at new branch in Whiteville, NC. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

Visitors exploring the hands-on specimens in Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch.

Visitors exploring the hands-on specimens in Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

Using the Microeye scope in the Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch.

Using the Microeye scope in the Naturalist Center, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

We couldn’t run the Naturalist Center without many hard-working volunteers and interns–thanks to all of them past and present!

Interns Rachel Wilkinson, Courtney Johnson and volunteer, Allora Burke.

Interns Rachel Wilkinson, Courtney Johnson and volunteer, Allora Burke.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln.

Volunteer Alice Garner helping visitor with Microeye scope, Whiteville Branch.

Volunteer Alice Garner helping visitor with Microeye scope, Whiteville Branch. Photo by Cindy Lincoln

And the Winner is….

March 30, 2015

On Saturday, March 28th, I had the great fun of being a judge at the NC Science and Engineering Fair held at Meredith College in Raleigh.  Every year, the Museum selects one elementary school student to receive the Young Naturalist Award.  This award recognizes outstanding work in using the process of science to study the natural world and enhance people’s appreciation and knowledge of our environment.  This year’s winner is Alex Haiss for his poster “How Does Elevation Affect Micro-Metazoa”.  Alex is a student at Swain West Elementary School in Bryson City, NC.

2015 NC Science and Engineering Fair Elementary Award Winners

2015 NC Science and Engineering Fair Elementary Award Winners

Alex said his inspiration for the project came on a school field trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where he learned about the micro-organisms living on foliose lichen.  For his poster, Alex asked the question: “would increases in elevation affect the numbers of micro-metazoan such as tardigrades, nematodes and rotifers?”.  The results of his project did show a decrease in micro-metazoan at higher elevations along Wesser Bald Trail near the border between Macon and Swain Counties.  Alex suggests that this decrease may be due to harsher climate and more pronounced effects of acid rain at higher elevations.

Winning poster by Alex Haiss on display in the Naturalist Center.

Winning poster by Alex Haiss on display in the Naturalist Center.

The winning poster will be on display in the Naturalist Center until May.  Alex has never been to the Museum, but hopes to fit it in when he’s in Raleigh for a soccer tournament.

Congratulations to Alex and all the winners at this year’s NC Science and Engineering Festival!

iLabs: Video and Interview of the Micro World iLab!!

February 20, 2015

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall of’s “Go Ask Mom” feature, visited our Micro World Investigate Lab yesterday and interviewed Christy and I about our lab.  If you want to ready the article and catch the video, check out:

Destination: Nature Research Center’s Micro World Investigate Lab's Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab’s Go Ask Mom visits the Micro World Investigate Lab

iLabs: We DID it!!! 100,000 Visitors in the Micro World iLab!!!!!

February 16, 2015

Who would believe it but on a usually quiet Monday morning we received over 60 visitors in the morning and among them, these two lucky students!  They are our 100000th and 100001st visitors to our lab.  We opened April 12, 2012, and in less than 3 years we hit 100,000!  Here’s to our next 100000!!!!  Deb & Christy

Micro World Investigate Lab's 100000th visitors

Micro World Investigate lab’s 100000th visitors!!!!

iLabs: Micro World iLab & the Idea Germ Explosion – Is it TODAY?

February 14, 2015

The Explosion of an Idea Germ — Is It Today????

It will start quietly enough, with little fanfare in the wintery days of the early New Year. It will start, as it has from the very first day, quietly and unobtrusively.  But then the day will suddenly ramp up, the visitors will arrive and the moment will be there – that moment envisioned years ago in the mind of a visionary leader – when the 100,000th visitor steps into the Micro World Investigate Lab.  And it will be a moment to pause and celebrate: where it started, what it took, and what it has blossomed, or exploded into.

The Micro World Investigate Lab, along with the Visual World and Natural World Investigate Labs, and the entire Nature Research Center, began as the germ of an idea in the mind of Dr. Betsy Bennett years ago. Its germination proceeded as the building went up and staff experimented with various ways to make these rooms a one-of-a-kind, wow-you-from-the-moment-you-walk-in, celebration of hands-on science. Now, less than 3 years after opening, the Micro World Investigate Lab is readying to welcome its 100,000th visitor.

Exactly what is this “explosion” in the room?

The Micro World opened with two table activities – micropipetting, which was always meant to be a temporary activity for opening night, and DNA extraction.  The counters held a fish tank, a terrarium, some protozoan cultures and some fungi experiments.  A brand new research microscope sat off to one side. And the room had just two people to run it – Christy Flint and Deb Bailey.

There were a few classes – Microscopic Life, Cell Cycle, Photosynthesis, Transpiration – and a mind map: a crazy color-coded drawing with criss-crossing lines, high-lighted circles, and scribbled notes, of all the dreams for the room.

Today, we have a full room bursting with over 12 different table activities, covering topics such as ELISA/Immunology, DNA extraction, PCR, DNA code reading, transcription, translation, sequencing, and  protein synthesis, Chytrid fungus, Fish Medicine, Cell counting & water quality.

Counters now also hold an interactive bioluminescent plankton activity, class research projects, cultures of pond invertebrates, plankton and duckweed, and a brand new research level cell bioreactor that will be used in classes and as a working exhibit for the public to use.

Younger scientists can learn about plant moisture needs with “Fred and Ethel,” and there’s puzzles and the “Find the Tardigrade” activity.

The walls are lined with models of blood cells, human and animal organs and body systems. Room shades depict microscopic life, and two 55-inch TVs broadcast microscopic images of a wide range of specimens. In addition, the EVOS research microscope is always available for use by visitors to view live protozoans.

Grants by Biogen Idec Foundation and IMLS have funded extra staff, research equipment, expanded classes, and programs with researchers inside and outside the Museum.  Topics include, various human body systems, homeostasis, DNA electrophoresis, PCR, DNA sequencing and bioinformatics, Proteomics, soil and human microbiology, Drug Development, epidemiology, and a brand new series of chemistry classes.  All classes are available to schools, homeschool students, and the public, and any classes available to the public schools are curriculum-correlated. Grades served are 5th through early college.

The grant has also allowed the lab to bring in almost 1000 students last year from under-served counties, by providing funds for transportation to schools that could not afford to come otherwise.  This year Biogen Idec Foundation grant funds are allowing us to increase our reach by also expanding into the after-school outreach programs with local groups such as the YMCA and the Boys’ Club, among others, and soon, distance-learning programs.

Thursday night programs, such as the Science of Bread-Making, Yogurt-making science and the Chemistry of Twinkies have become popular, and the lab also does a once-a-month board game night for all ages.  There are also 2-hour lab public lab classes on Saturday mornings, such as Spy Chemistry of the American Revolution.

So in view of all of the change, what does all of this mean to us, the people at the door greeting each of those visitors?  We are as EXCITED AS EVER!!  And while maybe the “fanfare of the moment” won’t include fireworks (though with our chemistry classes, we can probably conjure up a lab-safe version of something extraordinary!) or balloons or marching bands, maybe the moment will just be a quiet reflection of joy in each of our hearts, a reflection on where we started and what we’ve come to. It will be the acknowledgement that the idea germ has in fact germinated, sprouted, and is growing daily into an amazing thriving plant. And it will be a reflection that our success is like that of every department here at the Museum : quiet (though in the case of Bugfest, maybe not so quiet)  success in advancing their mission to excite people with their joy of science, something this Museum has been doing for over 100 years.

Every day that visitors walk into the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, whether the NEC, the NRC, the Investigate Labs or the Windows on the World, they are walking into a place ALIVE and EVOLVING as it enthusiastically brings science into their hearts and into their hands.

We hope to see all of you soon, as we look forward to greeting the next 100,000 people.  There will be just as much if not more enthusiasm because each day is a new opportunity to reach out, and a new topic to showcase to you all.

Mistaken Identities

December 17, 2014

This post contributed by former intern, Julia Olszewski-Jubelirer.

Plants and animals are pretty easy to distinguish, right? Not every time. Here are the four animals (or animal parts) that are commonly mistaken for plants in the Naturalist Center.


In the Naturalist Center, we have several specimens of coral, including this Red Coral:

Red Coral specimen

Red Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

and this Star Coral:

Star Coral specimen

Star Coral specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that corals are plants, or even rocks, but corals are actually animals, just like you and me. Each piece of coral is made up of many small animals called polyps that live together as a colony. Corals are important for providing structure to reefs, and are in the phylum Cnidaria. This means that they are closely related to other Cnidarians, like the Portuguese Man-of-War, which can also be found in the Naturalist Center.


Many people do not even realize that sponges are alive, but sponges, like the coral, are animals. Sponges belong to the phylum Porifera and pump water through their bodies in order to catch particles of food in the water. This is known as filter feeding. In the Naturalist Center, we have one specimen of sponge:

Sponge specimen

Sponge specimen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Even though sponges might look superficially like plants, they are more closely related to animals than they are to plants. This means that the sponges are evolutionarily closer to our Pufferfish and Sea Biscuit specimens than sponges are to plants.   All of these specimens — Sponges, Pufferfish and Sea Biscuits —are part of the animal kingdom.


Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Sea biscuit

Sea Biscuit.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skate egg cases

Most people who visit the Naturalist Center think skate egg cases (also known as mermaid’s purses or devil’s pocketbooks) are seed pods.

Skate egg cases

Skate egg cases.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

However, these are actually the egg cases of skates, which are cartilaginous fish similar to stingrays. Check out this video of skates emerging from their egg cases.

In the Naturalist Center, we also have jaws of another cartilaginous fish, the Tiger Shark:

Tiger shark jaw

Tiger Shark jaw.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Skates and Tiger Sharks are both in the same class, Chondrichthyes. This means they are both more closely related to each other than either is to bony fish.


The Naturalist Center has a large baleen specimen to look at:

Whale baleen

Whale baleen.
Photo by Julia Olszewski.

Many people think that baleen is a type of bark or even plastic, but baleen is actually part of the mouth of certain types of whales. As baleen whales swim, they open their mouths, letting the water rush through the baleen. The baleen traps particles such as krill, which the whale then eats. This is a form of filter feeding, which is the same method that the sponge described above uses to eat.

These and thousands of other specimens on display daily in the Naturalist Center located on the second floor of the Nature Research Center.

Wonderful World of Worms

October 9, 2014

This blog post comes from Julia Olszewski, a fall intern in the Naturalist Center.  Julia is a Biology graduate student in the lab of William Kier at UNC Chapel Hill.


Sandworms (Nereis virens)
Photo by Julia Olszewski

The Kier lab in the Biology Department at UNC Chapel Hill is interested in a type of muscle found in sandworms, earthworms, leeches, and many other invertebrates. Earlier work on earthworm and leeches suggested that these animals have special arrangements of muscle proteins that allow their muscles to produce forces when very contracted and very stretched out. This is important for these animals because, as you know if you’ve ever played with an earthworm, they are capable of large changes in body length.  I did some preliminary work on the sandworms, trying to figure out if their muscles have the same abilities. By working on this, I started to become more interested in the theoretical models that try to connect the protein arrangements to the muscle’s abilities to produce forces at various lengths. Currently, I am working on my own model.

Sandworms in tank

Live Sandworms in Tank
Photo by Julia Olszewski

Sandworms (Nereis virens) are in the same group of animals as earthworms and leeches, but sandworms live in the ocean, buried under the sand. They have many legs that also have gills on them that allow them to breathe. They are common off the East Coast, especially up north. I bought my sandworms from a fishing bait supplier in Maine.

Earthworm Races and Sandworms on Display at this year's BugFest

Earthworm races and sandworms on display at this year’s BugFest.
Photo by Cindy Lincoln

For her intern project, Julia left the world of worms temporarily and created an activity about the recent discovery of a new mammal–the Olinguito!  Dr. Roland Kays, co-discoverer of the Olinguito is Director of the Biodiversity Lab at the Musuem.

Olinguito Activity

Olinguito Activity in the Naturalist Center
Photo by Julia Olszewski



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