Miranda Lowe in a lab coat looking at a fossil

Miranda Lowe, Principal Curator, Crustacea, with one of the specimens she cares for

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The women watching over London's natural history collections

There are hundreds of experts who care for and study the Museum's collection of 80 million objects.

Here, some of the Museum's women curators, conservators and others share their career paths and advice for budding Museum professionals.

Lu Allington-Jones, Senior Conservator

I was never interested in (or particularly good at) pure science at school, but loved the offshoots of geology and archaeology. I took Geology at uni but soon realised that my dream to be a volcanologist would not be realised, because my chemistry skills were just not strong enough. 

Nor did I want to spend six months a year on an oil rig. However, there are many other jobs in science and I thought that museums would be my best chance to work with geological material, especially fossils. 

I love the variety in museums: one day I could be undertaking research on how to clean a particular mineral and the next dismantling a mastodon or installing an exhibition showcase.

Getting to work with so many amazing specimens and knowledgeable people who are enthusiastic about their subject specialism is also a huge plus. 

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Andrea Hart, Library Special Collections Manager

I love my role as I have responsibility for some of the most historically important items relating to the science and history of natural history. Having worked at the Museum for over 20 years, to this day I remain in total awe of them and the importance they hold in helping to inspire future generations about the natural world.

The collections range from printed books to artworks and manuscripts, many of which relate to the specimen collections also held at the Museum. My responsibilities vary enormously from their care, management, development and preservation through to enabling their research, promotion and access to them, be that physically or digitally.

I first started work in the Library as an Information Assistant shortly after graduating with a BSc Hons in Environmental Sciences. After taking a year out to gain a master's degree (which included a swim in the North Sea with basking sharks for my dissertation) I gradually worked my way up to my current role. 

A notable highlight for me was the publication of my first book in 2014, which focussed on the women artists in our collections. Researching their outputs, motivations but also the hardships they and others had to endure for science was incredibly fascinating and it was with much pride that I was able to elevate their accomplishments through the book and the accompanying exhibition in the Images of Nature gallery.

While many worked in obscurity or their efforts were not fully recognised, their contributions to STEM, just like so many of my female colleagues at the Museum today, hold much importance to our continued understanding of the world.

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Dr Erica McAlister, Senior Curator of Diptera

Whilst studying for my PhD on wetland invertebrates I needed the help of experts. I was advised to seek this help at the Museum and in doing so I saw the collections for the first time. From the first moment, I was hooked - I started volunteering, I was given some contract work, this became a longer contract till eventually I was offered a full-time position in the Diptera section.

I am now lucky to work with one of the world's greatest collections, on the world's best species. I know that the specimens that I am curating and researching are helping in all aspects of science including disease outbreaks, food security, climate change and global biodiversity.

I get to work alongside some of the best natural historians, taxonomists and curators in our sector, and I also get to work with researchers from other institutes as well as travel across the globe in the name of science. The value of women in STEM is an obvious one to me as many of these collaborators are female - not in post for any other reason than being experts in their fields.

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Dr Christina Fisher, Identification and Advisory Officer

I have studied various things, including, philosophy, psychology, human evolution, and palaeontology and I have a PhD in neurobiology. I could never figure out which subject I liked best!

When my twins were young, we gravitated to the Museum, and we especially enjoyed the Investigate Centre. It contains real specimens which the children can explore using microscopes and other equipment. Eventually, I ended up working as a Science Educator in Investigate for 14 years and learned about many aspects of natural history and palaeontology.

Four years ago, I came to the Angela Marmont Centre to help out with the Earth Science enquires and I’m very lucky to still be here. Now I work on the commercial enquires in the Centre.

We do crop-pest identifications for developing countries, CITES-identifications for auction houses and foreign body identifications for products which contain things they shouldn’t, such as, insects or bits of bone.  We utilise the vast expertise we have here at the Museum to identify these things. No two days are the same and I never know what will come through the door. How cool is that!

Robin Hansen, Curator, Minerals and Gemstones

I love science. The inspiration for my career path came from my parents - my dad was a science teacher and my mum worked in science education, having also studied geology and gemmology. I grew up with a love of minerals and rocks and knew I would do science of some kind at university. My mum said, 'Just try one unit of geology, you might really like it', and I was hooked. Now I have the honour of looking after one of the greatest mineralogical collections in the world.

Following my university degree in geology, I worked in iron ore exploration for three years, planning drilling programs and supervising a team of drillers in remote Western Australia. I then moved to England where I worked for a company selling gorgeous mineral specimens to collectors and museums.

I was based both in England and California and I travelled to different mineral exhibitions around the world. This job was an incredible opportunity to learn about minerals and where they come from. To continue my learning I decided to study gemmology to learn more about cut gemstones, and the minerals and gem materials used to create them.

The first time I visited the Museum as an adult I remember walking into the Minerals gallery and thinking, 'Wow, how do I get a job here? Even if it is just dusting the minerals'. I spent the rest of that day and the following looking at every single specimen on display. 15 years later, the opportunity arose to apply for my dream job and I was thrilled to be offered the role as Mineral and Gemstone Curator.

Beulah Garner, Senior Curator of Coleoptera

My two passions are entomology and museums. As a child I wanted to be a curator of Egyptian archaeology but I really didn't know how and thought I wasn't clever enough. So I was always digging about in the dirt. I observed early on in life how important insects were to the food chain and so my academic career has had a thread of entomology running through it.

For many years I worked in applied entomology within agriculture before making the leap into taxonomy and museum collections. 

I thought I knew quite a lot about beetles but when I finally became curator here (after three years and five interviews) I soon realised I knew very little and was about to embark upon a career of life-long learning.

Beetles are very diverse, with upwards of 400,000 known species. I will not know all of them in my lifetime, especially as that figure grows every year as our scientific exploration continues.

I think of myself as a custodian of knowledge, and it's my responsibility to keep that knowledge safe, grow it for future generations and disseminate it to a wide audience. My favourite part of my job is organising the collection taxonomically, and all of the discoveries along the way. I love coming across a Darwin specimen or seeing a specimen that's new to science.

Historically women in STEM have been underrepresented. I want to see a workplace where this diversity imbalance is addressed. It is only by promoting women in science, by telling our stories, that we can encourage young girls to consider a career in science where they may have thought it impossible. 

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Miranda Lowe, Principal Curator, Crustacea

As a child I loved wildlife, animals, nature and photography so family trips to museums spurred my interest to pursue a career in science.

Graduating from a background in molecular research I started out my career at the Museum as an Curatorial Assistant. Now, more than 25 years later as a Principal Curator I still enjoy the investigative approach of marine biology, natural history and the challenges that collections management bring in caring for a plethora of historically important marine invertebrate specimens.

I’m enthusiastic about advocating for the use and scientific application of Museum collections, looking at the impacts in society in turn helping people understand why I do what I do. Communicating my science is vital to inspire young minds especially girls essential to become the scientists, taxonomists and curators of the future.

It is extremely important to have representation of women and diversity at all levels in STEM as this provides a well-balanced, informed set of opinions and views within an organisation. Thus providing a sector for many to feel comfortable in, supporting opportunities to be creative and encouraging more innovative thoughts resulting in a more resilient and productive workforce within STEM. 

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Chelsea McKibbin, Conservator

I am a Natural History Conservator, responsible for the safeguarding of the collection through preventive and practical means. This includes providing conservation advice and support for project-based issues and completing remedial conservation treatment of specimens for exhibition and research. I really love conservation as it has a great balance between science and practical work, and I feel as though I am contributing to a worthy cause – the preservation of natural history specimens.

Not following the traditional path of education has provided me with different opportunities and experiences that I may have missed if I went to university.  Education is very important, but it doesn’t always have to come in the form of a degree.  Upon reflection, this has been a driving force behind my work ethic and is one of my greatest assets. 

It is incredibly important to have a diverse group of people in the work place. Encouraging forward thinking and progression comes in the form of differing opinions, experiences and education, just to name a few. Embrace your background, use it to your advantage.

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Dr Natasha Almeida, Meteorites Curator

I've known since I was about ten that I was going to study geology. Volcanoes and space have always fascinated me, and I'm lucky that my mother fostered an environment that told me nothing was out of my reach. My brother studied theoretical physics, and together we always had enthusiasm for exploring and understanding the Universe, so it seemed a natural fit to work at the Museum. 

I completed my PhD here and have previously worked in the galleries, and volunteered in three different departments! Now I am a curator, which means it's my job to look after the meteorite collection. That includes sending out loans to researchers around the world, classifying new specimens, assisting with exhibitions, and working on my own research. It's an incredibly varied role and I love that no two days are the same. It's important to me that my work protecting the specimens will benefit science for years to come. 

Of course, there are problems with the science industry - nepotism, lack of job security, lack of diversity, to name but a few - but how can we make it better if we don't engage? Through my career, I've walked around an impact crater and helped plan a mission to the Moon. Plus every day I get to hold rocks from space. It never gets old! My experience tells me this all you need is passion. Everything else can be learned. 

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Andreia Salvador, Curator, Marine Mollusca

As a student of marine biology with a passion for shell collecting, working at the Museum was a dream come true. I wasn’t too sure what a curator did, but I knew that I wanted to work with these legendary collections, so in 2004 I packed my bags and moved from Portugal to volunteer at this institution. Slowly I built up experience and after years working in different sections I became the Curator of Marine Molluscs in 2011.

I’m responsible for a collection of an estimated three million marine gastropods. It is my job to curate and organise that collection, and to provide access to the global research community. I also answer enquiries, send images or specimens on loan, and deal with any issues related to the curation, preservation and history of this incredible resource.

There aren’t many opportunities to work in a museum, so when a job is available it should be offered to the best candidate regardless of gender. We, curators, are the guardians of the collection, and we are passionate about what we do. We have female and male curators working behind the scenes and that is the best message that we can passed to girls and boys: you are rewarded for being the best, and not selected because of your gender.

Dr Jo Cooper, Senior Curator of Avian Anatomical Collections

I am responsible for nearly 40,000 bird skeletons and pickled birds. I started my first fossil collection (complete with labels) aged about four, and only a few years later I was collecting and cleaning bird skulls.  Clearly, I discovered my niche early on, long before I even knew that such jobs even existed.  

I reached the Museum via research, working on Pleistocene birds from Gibraltar for my PhD, following that with a stint at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, before joining the Bird Group at Tring as a curator in 2001.  

Interestingly, I was following in some distinguished footsteps, as renowned palaeontologist Dorothea Bate also researched Pleistocene birds from Gibraltar and also came to Tring during her career. 

I now work part-time, balancing work life with family life with two young children. What inspires me most about my work, whether doing research, curating historic collections, preparing new specimens or answering enquiries is the ever-present opportunity for discovery. Sometimes, it's just something new to me, but sometimes it’s new to science and natural history. The moment when you realise that… well, that’s why I keep coming back for more.