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Meet the Alf Museum’s trailblazing new curator

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

If you felt the ground rumble lately it might have been the tectonic shift occurring at The Webb School’s renowned Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology.

The shift started a year ago when Don Lofgren, longtime director of the Alf, announced his retirement and the subsequent promotion of curator Andy Farke to the director role. That move left the very important Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology position open.

Lofgren stayed on in an emeritus role until July 1, setting the stage for the final groundswell, the announcement of Mairin Balisi as the new museum curator, the promotion of Gabriel-Phillip Santos to director of visitor engagement and education, and the appointment of Bailey Jorgensen as collections manger.

Balisi’s installation is rather historic as she becomes the first Filipina, and possibly the first southeast Asian, paleontology curator in the United States.

“Dr. Balisi has established herself as a nationally known expert on fossil mammals, with a particular focus on carnivorans (dogs, cats, and relatives),” according to the museum’s website.

“What doesn’t make her a good candidate?” Farke replied when asked why the museum selected Balisi. “Partly [it’s] an enthusiasm for working with young people that is critical for a place like this. Just as important, if not more, Mairin brings a great scientific mind, answering questions that matter to our collection in terms of fossil mammals and the ecosystems of western North America.”

Balisi grew up in the Philippine capital Manila. Her initial exposure to paleontology occurred much the way it has for generations of children: in the pages of National Geographic magazine. She admits to being one of those kids who become “fascinated with dinosaurs and extinct creatures,” but never thought about growing up to be a paleontologist. “It was just not on the radar of things that people did,” she said.

When she was 15, her family emigrated to the United States and settled in Irvine. She was fortunate to receive a full scholarship to attend the University of California, Berkeley, from where she graduated in 2008 with two bachelor’s degrees, one in integrative biology and the second in comparative literature. It was at Berkeley that she began to see the possibility of becoming a paleontologist, in part because of the school’s collection of artifacts, but mostly due to the mentorship of the faculty.

“As a kid I grew up with National Geographic. My grandpa, who was already living in the U.S. at the time, would send whole boxes of National Geographic magazines. So, I had a little collection when I was 10 years old. But the paleontology was locked up in the pages when I was a kid. It was when I went to college and started working with people, and the fossils they worked with, that those pages for me became unlocked.” Balisi said.

She then traveled to University of Michigan for a master’s degree, which she earned in 2011. She considered staying in Michigan for her doctorate work, but slipped on a patch of ice while leaving an important interview and took that as a sign it was time to return to a warmer climate. Seven years later, she earned a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from University of California, Los Angeles.

Balisi recently completed a term as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow, dividing her time between the La Brea Tar Pits and the University of California, Merced.

Because the museum is on a high school campus, she will be teaching classes, including honors paleontology and advanced studies in paleontology. That work will include field trips with students several times a year to fossil collection sites throughout the western United States. The Webb students conduct original museum research, which often results in presentations at major conferences or getting published in scientific periodicals.

“The students are adding to our world scientific knowledge,” Balisi said.

During the selection process, Farke took particular interest in Balisi’s study of how previous waves of extinction can help us to understand the changes occurring in our environment today.

“I think of paleontology as the study of the past generally [and] the deep past, whether it’s a thousand years ago or a million,” Balisi said. “And that past is what led to us here today. That is not to say we are the end of it all, there is a future that may or may not include us. But I do think the past holds clues to the present. So, there at things that happened in that past that are happening in the present day. For example, there has been environmental change in the past and we have record of that in paleontology, so we can study that and be able to say this spike in temperature or some other factor led to this reaction in the animals. So, how can we translate those findings into what we are experiencing today with human induced climate change?”

Life is not all work for Balisi, who said her three main avocations are baking, bicycling and hiking.

“During the pandemic it was a bummer because I would bake things and then not be able to bring it to anybody. So, I am excited to be working here now [and] I will totally be bringing baked goods,” she said.

She recently relocated to Eagle Rock and bought her first car just for the commute to Claremont. Previously she was “car-free in L.A.,” riding her bicycle everywhere she needed to go for 10 years.

She’s philosophical about her status as the first Filipina curator, saying there is a responsibility to being a trailblazer.

“The response from all sorts of people has just been amazing,” she said. “There are people who would like to become a researcher or a curator and are asking, ‘How did you deal with being the lonely only?’

“People are asking interesting questions and I definitely do not have the answers to all of them because different people’s life experiences are unique.”

The Alf Museum recently announced two additional initiatives to expand its reach into the local community.

On July 8, it joined the Museums for All program, which provides free admission to low-income families.

To participate, families need only show their food assistance program electronic benefits (EBT) card. At the Alf Museum, they will receive free admission for up to four people during the museum’s regular hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday.

“A key part of our mission at the Alf Museum is to bring the wonders of paleontology — which is really the story of life on Earth — to as many members of our community as possible,” Farke said.

On June 27, the museum began a seven-week internship program providing an introduction to paleontology to four community college students and a mentorship opportunity to two area university students.

For more information, go to alfmuseum.org.

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