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The City Journals

Jason Cryan to take over as executive director of NHMU

Feb 10, 2020 03:11PM ● By Jenniffer Wardell

Jason Cryan is a systematist, a branch of biology that deals with the classification and taxonomy of species. (Photo courtesy Jason Cryan)

By Jenniffer Wardell | [email protected]

It’s a big job, but he’s excited to get started. 

Jason Cryan, currently deputy director and chief of research at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, will start work as the executive director of the Natural History Museum of Utah this March. He’s taking over the role from Sarah George, who is taking a position with the University of Utah’s advancement team. 

“I’m super excited by the opportunity to join this family at the University of Utah,” Cryan said. “The museum is a part of the university. I entered the selection process kind of late, so I’m still kind of working through the shock. But I can’t tell you how honored I am. It’s thrilling.” 

Cryan, who completed his post-doctoral work at Brigham Young University, is a biodiversity scientist and systematist. Systematics is a branch of biology that deals with classification and taxonomy of species. His research focuses mostly on evolutionary investigations of plant-eating insects such as planthoppers and spittlebugs, using DNA sequencing to reconstruct their history. 

“I consider myself a biologist who studies life in the tropics,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed studying new species and figuring out how they evolved.” 

Though his career has taken him all over the world, he said that returning to Utah is a surprisingly good fit. 

“The interesting thing about moving to Utah is that the University of Utah has a very similar outlook,” he said. “One of the initiatives they have is biodiversity science, the study of ecosystems and the environment. It’s kind of like coming home into an academic setting.” 

Once he’s here, his first focus is going to be on becoming one of the family. Cryan said that he’s grateful the museum is functioning smoothly and successfully enough that he’ll have plenty of time to do that. 

“The museum itself is in really great shape,” he said. “Sarah George had a fantastic tenure, and they have a fantastic staff. I can spend a decent amount of time assimilating into the culture, and really getting to know the museum and staff.” 

Though that’s only the first thing on his agenda, it’s the one that will help him figure out everything that needs to be done next. 

“When there’s a transition of leadership, it’s important to spend a significant amount of time reaffirming relationships in the community and building new ones,” he said. “Then we can assess the needs of the museum and community and see if we can address those needs in a new way.” 

One of the biggest needs is to meet the constant challenge of bringing up-to-date science to the community. Though natural history is in their name, the museum is currently helming a variety of research projects in areas ranging from vertebrate zoology to archeobotany. One of the most pressing areas of research is paleoecology, which studies long-term ecosystem resources to fire, climate change, and other human impacts. 

“It’s important that we generate scientific content and disseminate it to the community in a way people can understand,” he said. “The museum needs to cater to all ages and learners, and encourage scientific literacy all around. We want to be a trusted front porch of science.” 

Not only does that science have to be trusted, it also has to be interesting enough to continue bringing in patrons day after day and year after year. 

“The challenge is finding new ways to bring science to the community, so people view us as a destination for science,” he said. “We have to keep people coming back.” 

This is especially important now, when the media, the public, and politicians are constantly questioning and challenging science and scientific research. 

“We are in an age where there’s been a significant decrease in trust in scientists and science,” he said. “We see these trends nationally where science has been attacked on several fronts. It’s essential that the museum be seen as shining beacon of trusted science in Utah.” 

This is particularly dangerous now, when climate change has caused a cascade of natural disasters and other issues that countries all over the world are struggling with. 

“We’re facing environmental challenges the likes of which we’ve never seen before,” he said. “The list goes on and on, and we should be seen as a resource in these challenging times.” 

Cryan said his own experience as a scientist will help him guide the museum’s efforts. He’s currently an adjunct assistant professor at both North Carolina State University and University at Albany (SUNY), and has collaborated in published papers even during his work with the museum. 

“I’m a big proponent of the idea that the leader of a science museum should be well-versed in science,” he said. “I understand research, the need for it, how it’s done, and the requirements for making it world class.”

In addition to the research, there are also practical challenges to running a museum.

“The director and senior management is responsible for keeping the ship running,” he said. “We have to meet the expectations of the community.” 

They also have to do all of that within the annual budget, which is at constant risk of being decreased. 

“We want to make sure the museum is financially responsible and financially sustainable,” he said. “That’s one area where George has left the museum in really good shape.” 

Cryan is looking to make sure the museum stays that way, no matter what challenges the wider world or the demands of science throw at it. 

“The museum has had a great 50 years,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be leading it for the next 50.”