Field Museum redefines the face of science with new exhibition

The second installment of the exhibition highlights the story of “punk rock paleontologist” Jingmai O’Connor, the museum’s dinosaur curator.

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Jingmai O’Connor, the Field Museum’s associate curator of fossil reptiles, checks out the museum’s second installment of “The Changing Face of Science” exhibition, which is dedicated to her life and career.

Alex Wroblewski/For the Sun-Times

They’re snobbish, nerdy know-it-alls in lab coats who don’t know how to have fun.

That’s the perception of scientists that the Field Museum seeks to shift with “The Changing Face of Science,” an exhibition that highlights the stories of women and people of color who work at the Field Museum as scientists studying various subjects.

The second installment of the exhibition, set to open to the public Friday, highlights the story and career path of “punk rock paleontologist” Jingmai O’Connor, the Field Museum’s associate curator of fossil reptiles — known more commonly as the museum’s dinosaur curator.

First opened last summer, the exhibition aims to change perceptions of who scientists are and what they do while inspiring young people to get interested in science careers, said Lauren Boegen, exhibitions project manager at the museum.

“Traditionally, people think of scientists as white guys in lab coats or even as just people in lab coats, and that’s not the case,” Boegen said.

O’Connor’s is the second of six installments that make up the larger “The Changing Face of Science” exhibition, supported by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

The first opened last summer and highlighted the life of Lynika Strozier, a late Field Museum biologist and Chicagoan who researched early plant DNA. Strozier died in 2020 due to COVID-19 complications.

O’Connor said she did not meet Strozier before her passing but considers her a “powerful success story” in the scientific community and an inspiration to women and people of color in the field.

Guests take a sneak peek of the Field Museum’s second installment of “The Changing Face of Science” exhibition featuring Jingmai O’Connor, the museum’s curator of fossil reptiles (second from left), in Chicago on Tuesday, August 1, 2023. The Changing Face of Science is a series that highlights women and scientists of color who are breaking barriers in their field to challenge the typical idea of who can be a scientist.

Guests take a sneak peek of the Field Museum’s new “The Changing Face of Science” exhibition featuring Jingmai O’Connor, the museum’s curator of fossil reptiles. The exhibition series highlights women and scientists of color who are breaking barriers in their field to challenge the typical idea of who can be a scientist.

Alex Wroblewski/For the Sun-Times

Before coming to work at the Field Museum in 2020, O’Connor worked at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, China, for a decade studying ancient birds.

The second oldest of four children, O’Connor was raised in Pasadena, California, and came to love science because of her mother, who studied geology as a doctoral student at the University of Southern California when O’Connor was 10.

About 11 years after her mother, O’Connor also got her Ph.D. in geological sciences from the same university.

“If you told me as a grad student that 15 years from now, I’m going to be curator at the Field Museum and have an exhibit about me, I’d be like, ‘Get out of here,’” O’Connor said.

O’Connor got the title of “punk rock paleontologist” from a journalist who coined the phrase after interviewing her and learning she named an ancient bird fossil she discovered in China after Greg Graffin, the lead singer of the L.A. punk band Bad Religion.

O’Connor — who has 12 piercings and a full tattoo sleeve on her left arm — said the title has stuck ever since.

The exhibition features various pictures from O’Connor’s childhood and career, some of her favorite mementos and a model of her office fashioned with books, microscopes and colorful dinosaur plushies.

O’Connor said she hopes to mentor and uplift young women in the male-dominated field of science.

“Society teaches females to constantly be judging each other and constantly size each other up and tear each other down,” O’Connor said. “If we are going to break free from the chains of society that constrained us into certain roles, then we have to recognize how we’re doing that.”

O’Connor said she’s excited to be the focus of the exhibition and hopes people see the installment and understand that anyone can be a scientist.

Access to the exhibition is included with basic admission to the Field Museum and the installment focused on O’Connor opening Friday will run until June 2024.

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