An Interview with the Host, HMSC’s Exhibit Developer, Writer and Podcaster, Jennifer Berglund

Brenda Tindal

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of the Harvard Museums to explore the connections between us, our big beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Brenda Tindal. I am the executive director of the Harvard Museums of Science & Culture, and I am standing in for your usual host Jennifer Berglund.

 

Brenda Tindal

Today I'm speaking with Jennifer Berglund, exhibit and content developer as the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and creator and host of HMSC Connects! Podcast Series. Today we'll be discussing her career at HMSC including the genesis of the podcast series, as well as insight into her fascinating journey as a documentarian, biology enthusiast, National Geographic Explorer, and purveyor of science communication. Here she is. Jennie Berglund, welcome to the show!

 

Jennifer Berglund

Thank you so much for having me, Brenda.

 

Brenda Tindal

I'd love to begin by asking you a few questions, in particular about your work at the Harvard Museum of Science and Culture. If I'm not mistaken, he's been with the museums for nine years. Can you talk a bit more about the evolution of your journey with HMSC?

 

Jennifer Berglund

It's been really interesting, I think, because I've been at HMSC basically since the beginning of HMSC. HMSC combined the four different public museums a little less than a year before I started there. So it's been really interesting to see the evolution of that. But actually, my first working experience with HMSC was with Jan Sacco and Sylvie Laborde when they had just opened the New England Forest gallery. And as a freelancer, I and my husband, actually, who was not my husband, then but we created a soundscape for that gallery. And so we had different birds and different animals, we have you know, a beaver tail slap and all that stuff in different parts of the gallery, depending on the habitat. So that was my first working experience with the museums. And that was so super fun. And then I learned that there was a position opening up in the exhibits department. And the Museum of Natural History has actually long been my favorite museum since I was in college. Actually, since way before that, because my brother who's 12 years older than me, he went to Harvard. And so I remember as a kid coming up to visit him and checking out what was then, I think it was still called the Museum of Comparative Zoology. I don't think it was the Museum of Natural History yet. And I remember seeing the glass flowers and just being completely amazed, and seeing the taxidermy exhibits. And so when I came up to college, of course, it became my favorite museum. And I'd visit all the time and go to events and lectures. And when I heard about the job opening up, I was like, oh, man, this is a dream job. So I applied and by some miracle, I got the job. And that's kind of how it began. It sort of began with a love affair with the Natural History Museum. But then, because I just started when HMSC formed, I got to work with these other museums, too. I got to learn more about working with anthropology, archaeology museums, you know, different kinds of collections. And that was just fascinating. I've always loved to travel and working in the museum's I feel like a world traveler just staying in one place because the collections are from all over the world from so many different cultures, and so many different habitats. It's just an amazing, amazing environment to work in. Back to your original question about what what was it like to be part of the evolution of the museums? It was it was very interesting, because from the perspective of someone working in that environment, just watching the museum's come together. You know, basically, all four of these museums had been separate entities, and HMSC brought them all together into one. So the first few years of working for HMSC, it was just kind of figuring out well, what does it look like these different entities that have been their own things for so long? What does it look like combining them into one? And then in the later years, as we sort of figured that out, it's been more about well, you know, what can we create together between the museums. And so it's been really wonderful in the last few years, and looking forward, seeing how we can do more cross disciplinary, interdisciplinary exhibitions. Think about how we use the different collections together, how we think about natural history with archeology and anthropology, and scientific instruments, and deep history, and bring them all together. I think that's that's a really, really exciting thing to be a part of now.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. You know, it's interesting, because I love that you are thinking about sort of the scope of the interdisciplinarity within HMSC. But if I'm not mistaken, you're a trained biologist. Or certainly your work has been situated within biology. Can you talk a little bit about your journey as a, what I think you've described, as a recovering scientist.

 

Jennifer Berglund

Yeah. Yeah, that makes it sound a little bit worse than my actual feelings about it. Because I loved being a biologist. So when I was in college, all my four years of college I worked in a lab studying ants with a guy named James Traniello. A wonderful guy at Boston University. He actually studied under E.O. Wilson, who recently passed away at Harvard, and has long been my science hero. But yeah, anyway, I worked in that lab for four years, published under that lab studying leafcutter ants, and the behavioral ecology of leafcutter ants and the division of labor in these massive colonies. Basically, leafcutter ants are the things you've seen in nature documentaries, that you'll see long trails of them carrying little slices of leaves, coming down from trees, and then carrying them underground. But they're really fascinating because they have this extreme division of labor where you have workers that go up into the trees and cut the leaves. And then you have workers that transport the leaves down to the nest. And then you have workers within the nest that will bring the leaves to these enormous underground fungus gardens that they cultivate. So they're actually gardeners. And what they do is they chew up the leaves, and they feed the fungus. And then the fungus actually provides infrastructure for their nests, it's where they rear their young, and they also feed off of it. So because they're farmers, they're harvesters, foragers, because they have all of these duties associated with their young. And you know, because they have these massive colonies, they have protectors, they have soldiers that are constantly guarding the lines of the foragers. And guarding the nest. You have this really interesting division of labor, where different individuals have different tasks within the colony. And by the way, these are massive underground colonies, these fungus gardens can be the size of houses, they're just massive. So they're really, really interesting. We were asking questions, well, why is there this division of labor? What dictates this division of labor? Is it their size? Are they sort of predestined to do a particular task? Or is it something that evolves through the progression of their lives? So what sort of determines all of that? So we're looking at behavior, but we were also looking at the neurological component of that, too. So we were dissecting ant brains and putting the brains under a microscope and measuring different morphologies, or shapes, of the different organs within the brains to see if different areas within the brains could be associated with particular tasks, and whatnot. So that was my life as a scientist. But during my undergrad and doing this work, I kind of started realizing that while I was really interested in science, I was interested in more than just one organism, one small area. I was also interested in geology, in oceanography, in physics. And I was interested in all of these different things; in medicine. So I just thought there has to be something else that I can do and kind of beyond just bench science, where I can explore different areas, but still be engaged with science. And I had this very fortunate experience. I did a semester abroad in Ecuador, and ended up living at this research station called the Tiputini Biodiversity Station in Ecuador. And I was there with a group of students for a month. And while I was there, I happened to overlap with this group of journalists from NPR, who were coming to the rainforests to do a story on what are called treehoppers. Treehoppers are fascinating. Anybody listening should look them up. Basically, they're these tiny little insects that are pretty much everywhere. They're all over North America, but in the rainforest, they're tiny, but if you look at them, they're like just these bizarre, colorful shapes. They look like Dr. Seuss characters. They have these like growths coming out of their backs. But the most fascinating aspect of them is they use the stems of leaves like external vocal cords. So what they'll do is they'll sort of tap the stems have leaves that they're sitting on to communicate with each other. And if you put a little microphone up to the stems of the leaves, and you record the sounds they're making, they sound like whales. So they'll do anything from like the high pitch chirping of a whale or a dolphin to these like long bellowing humpback sounds, and they are communicating specific things. Sometimes it's the young, the nymphs, that are communicating to the adults that, oh, a predator is coming. Sometimes it's, they're communicating with each other to say, oh, you know, here, this, this stem is really juicy, I'm getting a lot of nutritious liquid from it. It was just a fascinating story. And I happened to have a little bit of free time, I was doing some experiments out there, but I had a little bit of free time. So I was able to tail these journalists and help them carry equipment for a few days. And I learned all about this field called science journalism. And I realized, oh, this is a way to be involved in science, and not necessarily have to do bench science or study one particular organism. I think this is what I want to do. And then after that, I learned there are science journalism programs around the country. And rather than going into get a PhD, which was my plan, I decided I wanted to go to school for science journalism. And so I ultimately ended up in the science and medical journalism program at Boston University again.

 

Brenda Tindal

You know, it's interesting, and hearing you talk about the leafcutter ants and the treehoppers, it's very clear that you have an adept understanding of how to communicate science in a way that's really, really accessible. And I imagine students, in particular, have been on the receiving end of your knowledge, your ability to communicate in an accessible way. I wonder, can you talk a little bit more about why science communication, in particular, is important?

 

Jennifer Berglund

Thank you for saying that. That's very nice. I'll start talking about why it's important to me. And I think it started out for me as a very sort of selfish endeavor, just just wanting to learn everything I could about the things I was interested in. But as time went on, my thinking on it started evolving a little bit. And I sort of started to realize after a while that science communication is extremely important. And, you know, what I do is very much public service, I think, because the language of science is not accessible to most people. So it really is like communicating in a different language. If you read the scientific literature, from journals, even as somebody who's pretty well versed in many different areas of science, I have to read things like five or six times to be like, okay, that's what that means. You know, it's it's not very accessible language. So it really does need a translator. And that's important, because it's important for the world to understand what's going on in the realms of science. I think we've had some unfortunate lessons in the learning and teaching of climate science, which has been a very difficult topic to understand, there's a lot of misunderstanding, there's a lot of misinformation out there about it. And because it's so complicated, and for such a long time, scientists have been kind of in their own world communicating with each other. But I think it's changed a lot. But I think earlier on not making as much of an effort to engage with the public about the importance of the issue, it's really made it so that we're really behind and reacting to it. So I think that's a very stark, important example of why it's extremely important to communicate science to the public, because in the end, we rely on the non scientists to take meaningful action, the politicians, the community activists, you know, these are the people in addition to the scientists who are really going to make a difference in the world and respond to important issues.

 

Brenda Tindal

I do wonder if you can draw some connections, too. Do you think that science communication informs this notion of citizen science? And how that shows up in the world that we live in currently, as we navigate multiple episodes in our day to day lives that require us to be conversant with science?

 

Jennifer Berglund

Well, this is just my feeling on this. And I don't know if this is correct. And I'm sure somebody would have a wonderful counter to this. But I kind of think of citizen science is sort of more of an aspect of science education, and a little bit different from science communication. Yes, you can say that there are aspects of science communication in citizen science. But citizen science is more about the participation of the general public in the doing of science, it's sort of less about the translating of science that has been done into a format or a language that is comprehensible, understandable to the public. Now, I think it serves a really, really important role in our society equally as important. Differently, but equally as important as science communication, and that it engages the public in the doing of science, excites the public and the doing of science. It contributes to the body of work of science. It contributes to scientific research. But I think they're kind of two different things. but very important things in similar ways.

 

Brenda Tindal

Obviously, the work that you've done at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture over the last nine years has allowed you to, in some ways make the work of our museums quite assessable. And it has contributed a great deal to the visitor experience. During the pandemic, we had to sort of re-envision what it meant to serve our audiences. And critical to that has been this podcast. Can you talk a little bit about the genesis of HMSC Connects! Podcasts, this platform that we're currently activating? Tell me a bit about the evolution of that.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I have to give credit where credit is due, it's sort of originated with my friend, Peter Girguis. He's a professor in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and a deep sea scientist, deep sea biologist, and among many other things, and also a very good friend. He's featured on one of our early episodes. But he and I've collaborated quite a bit over the years. And we're always sort of coming up with various schemes and how to work together. And he suggested that maybe we think about starting a podcast on some of the deep sea science work that we've been talking about. And I was like, Oh, I think that's a great idea. And one of the benefits of working at Harvard is you have the ability to take classes through the Harvard Extension School. And so I noticed that there was a podcasting class. So I signed up for the podcasting class, and kind of midway through the class, I realized, oh, maybe this would be a good thing to do for the museums. Because early on and working for the museums, one of the things that I became a little frustrated by is that in the exhibit space, as a writer working for exhibits, you can really only tell stories in little short chunks of text. You know, there are different ways of telling stories and the exhibits, you know, sometimes you can elaborate it in different ways, visually, but really to tell a story with a lot of content, you really only have 150, maybe max 200 word chunks to work with. And that's just not a lot. And when I would go behind the scenes, and work with the collections managers, and all the wonderful curators, and scholars and scientists, they would just have these amazing stories about the collections, about specific objects, about collections as a whole, about the expeditions from which many of these specimens and objects were acquired. They themselves would have these incredible stories about how they got to where they were, how they became interested in the topics they're interested in. And so I was just always sort of in awe of them and frustrated by the fact that I could never tell those stories, because those were the stories that really, really excited me. So that was kind of always in the back of my mind. And then I took this podcasting class, and I was like, you know, the museum really needs a podcast. That's that's the way that we can tell these stories. So I brought it up with my boss, Jan Sacco who has since retired, sadly, and pitched the idea to her and she was like, that's a great idea, we should do this. And right as I was finishing the class, the pandemic happened. Everything went virtual. And I was doing some assignments for that class and doing some assignments kind of relevant to the museum. And Jan and I realized that that was the moment to launch the podcast. It was something that was kind of already happening, but then it just so happened that we had this pandemic and we needed digital content. So it was the perfect opportunity to launch the podcast. So it was really kind of serendipitous in a way that it happened like that. But maybe we could say it was meant to be.

 

Brenda Tindal

Well, interesting enough, this is actually the 48th podcast in the series. What have you learned from erecting, you know, this amazing platform for scholars and thinkers and leaders and so many others to be in communion with you and with our listeners, please share what have you learned from this experience so far?

 

Jennifer Berglund

Oh, I mean, I've learned so much. I mean, just in terms of content, I've really gotten to know a lot of the people I work with. Worked with them for years, and I've learned all of these aspects of their history that I never knew before. So that's been really fun. Just on a personal level, just getting to know my colleagues better. But also, I think, really just learning to sit back and let people talk and just give them the space to do that. Really wonderful things happen when you let someone take over in their element. I think it's always good to have specific questions, but I think maybe when I first started the podcast, I kind of felt like I needed to be so super regimented and organized and planning out these podcasts. But the longer I went on, I just sort of realized that, no, people will sort of dictate that content as they go along. And it's better to just let them do their thing because that's where they flourish and thrive. And also, I think the podcast format really lends itself to that. I've done a little bit of radio journalism in the past, and you're very time limited doing radio. You know, you have like, little clips of time, because it's broadcasts on air. And so you do have to be kind of very regimented, going through that. But the podcast kind of gives you a little more air, you have a little more flexibility, if somebody's a little long winded on something, you can just let them go and let it flow naturally, in ways that you can't really do that on air. So that's been kind of fun to have the freedom of the podcast format, I think.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. And then there's this organic contour to the conversation as it evolves. One of the things that I've learned from listening to the podcast is, sort of, the human spirit that guides scientific inquiry, that guides cultural entrepreneurship and museum practitioners to do their best work. Maybe I shouldn't ask this question, but I'm gonna ask, are there particular episodes that you've recorded that have inspired you most? Ones that have really made you think after the podcast in ways that perhaps you had not intended?

 

Jennifer Berglund

Oh, sure. I mean, there's so many episodes that I loved. But I think probably my favorite one was with Dr. Albert Jose Jones, who's one of the founders of Diving With a Purpose, which is an organization of mostly black scuba divers, who are doing some archaeological work, really the first archaeological work, on slave ships. The work is just, I don't even know how to articulate how moving the work is. I encourage all of our listeners to listen back to that episode, and to look into Diving With a Purpose. It's just an incredibly inspiring, amazing organization. But Dr. Jones is just an amazing, inspiring person. He was one of the first scuba divers, and he's probably dived as much as people like Sylvia Earle, and is kind of just now getting the attention he deserves. He's one of the founders of the Association of Black Scuba Divers. It was founded a long time ago because black scuba divers were looking for community and they weren't finding it in the scuba diving community as it was, which is mostly dominated by, well, really, white males. And so, finding community allowed the black community to adopt this hobby in ways that they hadn't been able to before. And Dr. Jones, who was formerly, he was in the Korean War, which is where he learned to scuba dive, and was just fascinated by animals and subsequently became a marine biologist. It sort of allowed him to share his knowledge and the wonder of the underwater world that he loved with a community that was previously unable to experience it easily. And so he really did a tremendous amount for that community. And he also started, the Underwater Adventure Seekers, the first all black diving club based in Washington, DC. He's just done an amazing, incredible amount of work, and just a super inspiring character. And I feel very honored and fortunate to have gotten to interview him and have him share his wonderful story.

 

Brenda Tindal

Absolutely. Thank you so much for sharing that history about Diving With a Purpose. You know, it's it's interesting, because it's a great example of how putting science in conversation with history and thinking about sort of the shipwrecks project and the ways in which that work is making some important interventions, and how we all think about the transatlantic slave trade, in particular. And so thank you for sharing details about his arc as a marine biologist, and as a diving enthusiast. I also wondered, perhaps you could talk a little bit about your work with National Geographic. Tell us a little bit about the incredible work that you've done under the auspices of National Geographic and your work as a diver.

 

Jennifer Berglund

I'm kind of a later in life diver. I feel like most people if they haven't started by college, will in college, get their scuba certification and then get into diving but it happened for me a little bit later. And so I don't know why I just decided I needed my scuba license. So I got my scuba license, and then I started doing a lot of diving, started doing a lot of diving in the New England area. And then as a documentarian, I started doing more underwater cinematography, and so It kind of blossomed from there. So in addition to my museum work, I'm a filmmaker and a writer specializing in science, but you know, kind of doing other things too. And through my enthusiasm for diving and also through my relationships with various marine biologists and various people that I've done stories on and worked with in the past, oftentimes, stories lead to more stories, you know. So I've ended up kind of developing this, what we call in journalism, developing this this kind of beat in ocean science, which of course, my dear friend, Pete Girguis at Harvard has brought me into the deep sea world. So that's kind of where my storytelling work in the ocean began. But my work with National Geographic began from a, I got a grant through them to make a film and create these three dimensional images of microscopic phytoplankton in collaboration with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution who had just gotten this this big grant to study the ocean twilight zone, which is a layer of the ocean. It's about 200 to 1000 meters below the surface of the ocean. And it receives all but the dimmest sunlight. So like, if you and I could dive down there without being crushed by the pressure of the ocean above us, then we would probably not see anything, because our eyes are not sensitive enough to see that degree of sunlight. They're only like a few photons and make it down to that level. But the creatures that live there can see a lot of predators will hunt by silhouette. So they'll hunt from below, and they'll look up and they'll be able to see the silhouettes of different animals or of different prey. And that's how they feed. So the twilight zone is this kind of mysterious layer of the ocean that actually happens to contain the greatest concentration of life on Earth. And because it's very hard to see down there, because the animals are relatively fast moving, because there are crushing pressures down there, it's really, really difficult to study. So it contains the greatest concentration of life on Earth, and we know nearly nothing about it. The other interesting aspect of the twilight zone is this layer of life lives in the twilight zone during the day, but every single night, as the sun sets, they migrate to the surface of the ocean to feed on phytoplankton. It's the largest migration on earth that happens every single day and every single night. It's a little more complicated than that. But they tend to be little creatures, like little gelatinous creatures, you know, and little shrimp and you know, things like that, they all come to the surface to feed on phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is photosynthetic. So it takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and uses sunlight to make its own food. And so, basically, that phytoplankton is the reason that the ocean is the world's greatest carbon sink, because all that phytoplankton is essentially taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. And then what the twilight zone animals do when they come up at night, and they feed on that phytoplankton, they transport most of that carbon to the deep ocean. And when the carbon sinks down to the deep ocean in the form of poop, then that's where it stays, and it can stay there for hundreds of thousands of years. So that's literally why our ocean is the world's greatest carbon sink. And it's a large part of the reason why our planets habitable is because of these animals, taking the carbon dioxide down, taking it out of the atmosphere, essentially. So it's not heating up our atmosphere. But we know that happens, we know there are a bunch of critters that live in the twilight zone, the largest concentration of life on Earth, we know nearly nothing about their behavior except that there's this migration at night and then as the sun rises, they sink back down in the day. And we know so little about it, which plays this massively important role to life on Earth. So it's kind of important that we understand, especially in this era, where we're facing climate change, and an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So basically, I got this grant to follow around this group of scientists at Woods Hole, who are building machines, to study this part of the ocean, and specifically the creatures that live in it and play this massively important role to life on Earth. So I applied for a storytelling grant through National Geographic and got it and once you get a grant for National Geographic, you're considered a National Geographic Explorer, which is a really amazing title to have because you basically become a part of this network of explorers doing amazing things all around the world. And you're invited to events at National Geographic where you discuss storytelling and exploration and scientific research. And you meet people on sort of the cutting edge of those fields who are not only interested in the science, or specifically the storytelling, but they're interested in bringing all of them together and thinking about the combination in innovative ways. So I felt so fortunate to be involved as an explorer and to just meet the incredible people I have, and to just dream up projects and many different forms of storytelling and telling the stories of science and innovative ways to engage the public.

 

Brenda Tindal

You are a science Renaissance woman at National Geographic Explorer, Harvard Museum of Science and Culture exhibit developer and writer, a diver, filmmaker, journalist, photographer, videographer, I've learned so much about you in the few minutes that we spent together.

 

Jennifer Berglund

And this is what's so nice about the podcast right is you get to meet people and learn about them in ways that you know, you wouldn't have the opportunity to otherwise.

 

Brenda Tindal

So, what's giving you oxygen right now, inspiring you, I mean, you've done so much. Your body of work is immense. What's giving you oxygen, what are you excited about as we look ahead?

 

Jennifer Berglund

Well, I am a bit of a dreamer. I don't think I do what I do if I wasn't a dreamer. And I get excited by the stories that are out there waiting to be told, where I can give it oxygen, that gives me oxygen. This is why the museums are a really great place for me to be, and Harvard, is because there's so many stories that are just waiting to be told. I think one thing that I didn't talk about before, but I think is a really important aspect of my work, or the work of the museums at Harvard, is that we are really, as you have described it so well, we are the front porch for Harvard. We are the way for the public to connect with the rest of the academic community at Harvard. And that's extremely important in a place like Harvard, which is a very intimidating place to a lot of people, you know, I'll bring friends or you know, new people to Harvard and kind of show him around and they immediately get a little bit stiff, because it's kind of an intimidating place to be, it has this reputation and just this aura to it. It's very ivory tower. And I don't want to speak out of turn here. But I think that it's really important for the university to find ways to reach out to the public, and to make that science, that scholarship, accessible to the public. And to me, it's incredibly exciting to be in that position on the front porch, where you can convey that knowledge. I think that's what really gives me oxygen is just the ability to share Harvard with the world.

 

Brenda Tindal

That is amazing. You know, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture is so fortunate for you to be a purveyor of the stories that we tell in our museums on the front porch, for the public, and for the academic communities that we serve. Ladies and gentlemen, Jennifer Berglund, thank you so very much for your time today and for enriching our conversation with your perspective. We so seldom get to hear from you in terms of your story. So today we salute you on the incredible work that you've done with the podcast, and the incredible work that is ahead through your exhibit work here at the museum's but also through the podcast. What a joy it is to watch you be the steward of this important work.

 

Jennifer Berglund

So nice. Thank you so much Brenda, it's just been my honor.

 

Brenda Tindal

Today's HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Emma Knudsen and produced by Jennifer Berglund and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to HMSC and to Jennifer Berglund for her wisdom and expertise. And thank you to our captive audience for listening. If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pod Bean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!