This is an archived article. For the latest news, go to the Advance Homepage.
For more archives, go to the Advance Archive/Search Page

Natural History Museum names new director
October 19, 1998

Ellen J. Censky, a herpetologist, has been appointed as the new director of the Museum of Natural History.

Censky, formerly of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, where she was chair of the life sciences division, will also hold an appointment as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She joined UConn October 16.

"Dr. Censky's commitment to natural history education in a museum setting, her sensitivity to the challenges facing university museums, and her experience in highly responsible positions at the Carnegie Museum should assure a bright future for the Museum of Natural History," said Chancellor Mark Emmert in announcing the appointment.

"A university museum has the unique resource of a faculty of experts, along with a dual purpose of serving the university and connecting to the public."

Ellen Censky
Museum of Natural History

"Dr. Censky is keenly aware of the vital role that the museum plays in providing educational experiences for students at UConn and interpreting natural history for a broader public. As she puts it, 'The museum, as ambassador for the University, has a duty to interpret and present the research of the University staff and students in such a way as to make it understandable and relevant to the community, and thereby indispensable,'" Emmert said.

Censky grew up in a small town in Wisconsin in a large family, including six brothers she credits for her lack of fear of snakes and lizards. She earned her Ph.D. in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh in 1994 and her B.S. in zoology from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, in 1979.

Censky began her career working on collections. While working for the Milwaukee Public Museum she mounted more than 10,000 specimens of carabid beetles. Censky, who has researched lizards in the Caribbean since 1986, has field and research experience in Costa Rica, Paraguay, British West Indies, the Dominican Republic, and the United States. She is active on boards of professional societies for herpetologists and icthyologists and is the author of 28 scientific papers.

Censky's research a
big hit with media

"Hapless Iguanas Float Away and Make Biological History" read the headline on page one of The New York Times on October 8.

This story and dozens of others worldwide resulted from an article in the October 8 issue of Nature by Ellen Censky, the new director of the Museum of Natural History.

Censky's research showed for the first time that over-water transport of some terrestrial species - in this case, iguanas floating on rafts of 30-foot debris as far as 150 miles as the result of a hurricane - could result in viable populations in new locations in the Caribbean.

"All sorts of mechanisms have been suggested to explain how various terrestrial species have become dispersed around the Caribbean, including land bridges and transport over water," according to Nature.

But Censky had evidence that at least 15 green iguanas were seen rafting onto the eastern beaches of the island of Anguilla on a mat of logs and uprooted trees, shortly after a hurricane in 1995. Within a month of the invasion, Censky established a survey on the island to document the survival of this new species.

"The only previous evidence that animals might have rafted together was a 30-year-old paper documenting three toads found floating on a log in a middle of a lake. 'It wasn't even over-the-sea rafting,'" the Times quotes Censky as saying.

"'It's a spectacular observation. Some of the things nature can do are pretty incredible,'" said James H. Brown, an ecologist and biogeographer at the University of New Mexico, who is also quoted in The New York Times.

During her first week here, reporters interviewed Censky for Newsweek, ABC News, Discovery News, National Public Radio, The London Daily News, Canadian Public Television and Radio, AAAS Radio, The Hartford Courant, Science News, Book and Author, The New York Times, and many others, including media outlets in Switzerland and Brazil.

"Dr. Censky's paper on lizards rafting over water some 150 miles from Guadeloupe to Anguilla during hurricanes, published October 8 in the prestigious journal Nature, is generating interest around the world," said Kent Holsinger, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and chair of the museum.

"The excitement in the scientific community surrounding her discoveries about these dramatic movements and their potential to explain the distribution of some terrestrial species in the Caribbean is evidence of the high regard in which she is held among her peers." The Nature article resulted in dozens of interview with media worldwide, and a page one story in The New York Times.

Censky has served as a consultant to the Ministry for Education and the Environment in Anguilla and the United Nations Development Program on Environmental Education. On the island, she is known as "the lizard lady."

Censky said museums play a critical role in science education. "A recent survey conducted by the National Science Foundation found that most (about 75 percent) of the scientific knowledge that is retained by students was learned in an informal setting such as museums and zoos," she said.

"A university museum has the unique resource of a faculty of experts, along with a dual purpose of serving the university and connecting to the public. Stand-alone museums usually don't have this opportunity," she said. "A university museum has the potential to put a public face on the university and become that bridge to the community that interprets all the hard work that goes on there. A natural history museum is also different from a science center because it has collections and is research-orient ed," Censky said.

Austin said the museum is a significant resource. "Like all great public universities, the University of Connecticut endeavors to be a center of teaching and learning for all people of the state. We welcome visitors of all ages and educational backgrounds to our many campuses, and work in countless ways to make knowledge accessible, interesting and exciting," said President Philip E. Austin.

"Every year hundreds of school groups and thousands of individuals visit and enjoy the programs of the Museum of Natural History in Storrs. They leave better informed about the physical world and, I hope, eager to know more. The museum is also an important resource for our own students and faculty, and gives an added dimension to material covered in the classroom and laboratory," Austin said.

"I am delighted that our new director will guide our efforts to make the museum an even stronger center of formal and informal education," he added. "It represents one of the most important ways through which we link Connecticut's people to their flagship university.

Carol Davidge