President and CEO of Science World Scott Sampson on digging up dinosaurs, bridging the STEM gap and rethinking sustainability
Born and raised in Vancouver, and with a PhD in zoology from the University of Toronto, Scott Sampson has spent most of his career abroad, working as a paleontologist. At the Natural History Museum of Utah and the University of Utah, he studied Late Cretaceous-era dinosaurs, conducting fieldwork around the world and helping discover more than a dozen new species. As VP of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Sampson focused on connecting children with nature, the subject of his third book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature. Last July he returned to his hometown to take the helm of Science World.
What do dinosaurs teach us about science?
They help us understand the way the world was long ago. They help us understand this group of animals that was one of the most successful in Earth’s history. They were around for 160 million-odd years before the big extinction took out all of them except for birds. All birds are living dinosaurs—dinosaurs are not extinct. They help us understand how extinctions happen, and we may just be heading toward another extinction right now. You have to go back to the fossil record to understand how ecology and evolution operate in a greenhouse world.
How did you go from studying dinosaurs to heading up Science World?
I was a tenured faculty member at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I had what many argued to be the ultimate dream job for a dinosaur paleontologist, where I had access to graduate students; I was the chief curator at a natural history museum on the campus, so I had access to all the resources there; I had one of the best dinosaur boneyards a five-hour drive away. And I walked away from all of it.
I didn’t even have a position to walk away to, but I felt that in all good conscience I couldn’t continue to graduate students who were studying animals that had been dead for 75 million years when we are facing all of these pressing crises today.
Those crises sit at the intersection of people and nature—that’s what the sustainability crisis really is. I started consulting and writing books and public speaking. Ultimately I decided, “I think I want to step into a CEO role so that I can help lead an organization to really make a difference.”
What sort of difference do you want to make?
I came here being flexible about what making a difference would mean. I was very excited to be able to return to my hometown to help lead an organization with such a strong history and brand despite the fact that it only goes back to the late ’80s, and to think about how this could fit into the matrix of this city and this province to do something that potentially no science centre has ever done before. What I’m saying to the folks here is, “Let’s think big and bold. What do we want a science centre to be in the 21st century?” Maybe it isn’t the old model where people come and do hands-on activities and learn some stuff about the physical sciences. Now’s the moment where we’re looking for big ideas and large collaborations, and so if there’s folks out there that are interested in collaborating with us, they should reach out. I’d love to have a conversation.
What sort of collaborations do you have in mind?
Many people don’t know that we have a strong presence around the province—that of the 800,000 or so visitors that we get every year, almost 100,000 of them are not here at this building in Vancouver. We’re out there doing programs all over B.C., and we would like to scale that effort to be one of the hubs of science learning for the whole province.
No institution can do these kinds of things on its own. We see ourselves working with government, working with higher education, working with other non-profits, working with the business sector to form these deep collaborations that will allow us to scale our efforts to do things that are transformative. If we’re successful, Vancouver as a city and B.C. as a province will become national and international models for how to scale these kinds of efforts in education, which will have huge spinoffs for the economy.
The biggest problem we have is the skills gap. Some people call it a STEM gap, STEM being science, technology, engineering and math. We have all of this high tech that’s growing in British Columbia, but we’re not feeding these companies with B.C. graduates. So we see Science World as playing an important role through these deep collaborations to get kids interested in STEM careers and to keep them interested in STEM careers to find their own individual pathways so that they can be personally fulfilled and they can fulfill a really urgent economic imperative to keep the B.C. economy growing and strong.
What appealed to you about Science World?
It is different than many other science centres in that it’s got a focus that goes beyond just bringing in kids to have science experiences. There’s a focus in this institution around sustainability, about thinking about the future, and that was very attractive to me. For me, growing up in Vancouver and leaving at a pretty young age right around the time of Expo—to come back is exciting because I’ve watched my native town be transformed in the intervening years.
It’s an interesting moment where British Columbia, and Vancouver in particular, are helping us to rethink what sustainability looks like. Vancouver is one of the leading cities in the world when we talk about green technologies and sustainability. I’ll be surprised if Science World doesn’t have some big component of its future tied with helping people understand what a thriving, sustainable city looks like.
As “Dr. Scott,” Scott Sampson hosts the PBS kids’ show Dinosaur Train, produced by the Jim Henson Company