Museums’ faculty director eyes new connections

John Logsdon in the UI Museum of Natural History

John Logsdon, new faculty director of UI Pentacrest Museums, stands near "Rusty" the sloth in the UI Museum of Natural History. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

Evolutionary biologist John Logsdon has made a fresh contribution to the body of evidence supporting the old adage “Be careful what you ask for. You may get it.”

As a member of an internal review committee charged with reviewing the University’s Pentacrest Museums—Old Capitol Museum and the Museum of Natural History—Logsdon made a pitch for a faculty director. Now he is that director, having been appointed to a three-year term by Vice President for Research Jordan Cohen.

“I’ve always been a fan of natural history museums,” says Logsdon, an associate professor of biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “And I’ve always been interested in the natural history museum here but hadn’t really figured out how it fit in.”

As a member of the review committee, Logsdon learned that the Museum of Natural History is one of the oldest of its kind west of the Mississippi River but also that there has been occasional talk of closing it. Internal and external reviewers were both “very frank” about the challenges, but they were also upbeat about the potential, he recalls.

“I’m a glass half full guy, so I spoke out strongly to suggest that there needs to be a faculty-level scientist who has a significant role in the museums, and that became one of the internal review committee’s recommendations. When I got a call from Jordan Cohen saying ‘I’d like you to come over and chat with us,’ I was surprised because I was advocating for someone with museum experience, which I have none.”

Getting to know John Logsdon

John Logsdon is an associate professor of biology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. An evolutionary biologist, his research focuses on the molecular genetic aspects of evolution, especially the evolution of eukaryotes (organisms whose cells have a separate nucleus) and their genomes. His laboratory work combines experimental molecular biology and computer-based bioinformatics.

For the nonscience audience, he cheerfully translates: “My research is on the evolution of genes, particularly those involved in the most important process in all life: sex!”

Logsdon, who grew up in Polk City, Iowa, earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from Iowa State University and a doctorate in genetics from Indiana University. He completed postdoctoral research at Dalhousie University and was an assistant professor at Emory University from 1999 to 2003 before coming to the UI.

What one word best describes Logsdon?

Actually, Logsdon uses at least 24 words to describe himself on his blog. The words are mixture of the professional (biologist, teacher), the personal (dad, husband) and the whimsical (eukaryote, primate).

What would people who know Logsdon be surprised to learn about him?

“I actually like watching TV, especially Law and Order and edgy dramas on HBO. My favorite was Six Feet Under. I usually work on Sundays, but I came home early to watch that.”

What would people who know Logsdon not be surprised to learn about him?

He has well-developed sense of humor and playfulness. A photo of the members of his laboratory includes a full-sized cardboard cutout of Charles Darwin.

Still, Logsdon accepted the appointment, figuring he could at least help improve the museums financially and intellectually, with a view to preparing the Museum of Natural History for a director with experience in modern, museum-based science.

His confidence in the future is supported in part by the general public’s perceptions of the museums. “They are truly front doors to the University, and there’s a real love for them,” he says. “The numbers of school kids and others who go through them is astounding.”

Moreover, he notes that Old Capitol Museum has a strong and ongoing tradition of collaboration with faculty members and students in creating exhibits and programs. “Old Capitol Museum is a solid piece of the community and does very well,” he says.

The Museum of Natural History has a proven track record of providing education programming to schoolchildren and to UI undergraduate students, but faculty engagement has been noticeably lacking, Logsdon says.

“In order to engage the rank and file faculty on campus, the museum has to have an academic mission,” he asserts, adding that the best natural history museums boast attractive exhibits that are undergirded by modern research.

The time is ripe for creating those connections.

“We have lot of people doing research that is entirely appropriate for a natural history museum,” he declares. “For example, Chris Brochu works on the evolution of crocodilians. Why not have an exhibit emphasizing his and his students’ work? That’s an interesting thing!”

Just as important, funding agencies are increasingly emphasizing outreach. “NSF grant proposals now have an explicit category called ‘broader impacts,’ so one thing faculty are constantly trying to figure out is a way to develop that section of their grant,” Logsdon notes. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you can interface that research with what’s in the museums, that would be mutually beneficial.”

Even as he focuses on short-term goals, Logsdon is dreaming long-term, too.

He aims to create a “cohesive intellectual community” around but not limited to the Departments of Anthropology, Geoscience, and Biology, one that could potentially lead to joint appointments between academic departments but with strong connections to the museums.

He also is eager to develop a digital inventory of the museum collections, most of which remains in storage with some that may deserve to be publicly exhibited.

“It will take some time to figure out everything that we have and what its value is—not so much in dollars but in terms of intellectual capital and historical documentation,” he says. “We’ve got some amazing things like the Laysan Island Cyclorama and Bird Hall, which is fantastic. These are the kinds of things that make you say, ‘Geez, there’s all of these resources!’ Which gets back to why we want to engage faculty to figure out how to get this into modern research.”

In his wildest dream, Logsdon would combine that research with an IMAX theater.

“Natural history museums have made their marks because they’re more than just collections of dead things,” he says. “We have to figure out how to make our research and our exhibits so accessible and interesting that we can keep people coming back again.”

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