Warblers, water, women (in science): A few of Academy CEO's favorite things

George W. Gephart Jr., President & CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, shown here at the museum, in Philadelphia. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

"Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens," are among movie actress Julie Andrews' favorite things in the "Sound of Music." But if Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University chief executive George W. Gephart Jr., were belting out that song, he'd be singing about Ivory-Billed woodpeckers, Carolina Parakeets, and Bachman's Warblers, all birds that are now extinct.

However, specimens of those birds, collected by John James Audubon, are part of the Academy's collections. "Our ornithology collection is one of the very best in the world," said Gephart, who was lured out of retirement seven years ago to lead the Academy. "When I saw drawer after drawer of specimens that John James Audubon collected of birds, which are extinct now: Ivory Billed Woodpecker, Carolina Parakeet, Bachman’s Warbler, three come to mind, and we’ve got many more and others that are threatened.  

"That to me was like looking at the crown jewels, because I’ve loved Audubon for decades, even here and there collected Audubon prints.  I love the history and the lure and the legend of this very flamboyant character who transformed ornithology and really natural science in this country. 

"And, here we’ve got the goods.  I saw that and was just bowled over," Gephart said. Now Gephart is about to head into retirement again -- a search for his successor is underway.

But, in our interview, he listed more of his favorite things. Being a former equity manager, Gephart likes to describe them as assets.

"What I love about this is everything in here tells a story," he said, walking around his office, pointing to a specimen in a jar. "For instance, this was collected by a cousin of Napoleon Bonaparte.  That’s sort of special. The red ribbon, [tied around the jar] indicates that it’s a type specimen, which means that anybody who studies that species must, today, relate her or his work back to this.

"We have over 80,000 type specimens: birds, insects, fish.

 

"We have a current big initiative with the William Penn Foundation on the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. When they did their strategic plan, four years ago, they reoriented themselves towards three big initiatives, and in truth, they had to make a very hard decision, because what it meant was some donors would not be a part of their new mission.  Others would be reinforced.  One of the three. 

So, the DRWI, as we call it:  Fifteen million souls rely on the water that comes out of the Delaware River and the Estuary and the watershed.  This is too important.  You need water to live.  We need to focus on it and its preservation.  It’s remediation, renewal, preservation, protection.  And we are one of the, what they call, we’re part of the coordinating committee. We’re a foundational player.  We are for water what the Open Space Institute is for land and National Fish and Wildlife Federation is for flora and fauna. 

"We work closely with them and coordinate an effort that includes 50 non-government organizations who are doing every aspect of this work in eight clusters in the water shed. 

"So, you talk about what the future holds: This is current and this is great work.  Our opportunity is to take our expertise and to move it into a different watershed.  That’s what we’re working on now.  And, where could it be?  Well, it could be the Housatonic [in Massachusetts].  It could be the Chesapeake Bay.  It could be the ACE Basin in South Carolina. 

 

"Then, we go to the education side.  We have a program here called Women in Natural Sciences.  It’s been around for 34 years now.  High school girls, it’s a four-year intensive program.  City high school girls, under-served communities, who have an interest in science.  This is evenings or afternoons, weekends.  The first year is like boot camp.  The first summer is boot camp.  It’s a great program.  My challenge to our colleagues is the success story’s so good, but we’re only serving 70 girls a year.  There’s a need for 700 girls a year, right?  We could easily expand this, but you don’t expand without a plan.  And so, right now we’re in – and this is all fully funded.  We have found funders to take us through an assessment of the plan to discover what the secret sauce is.  Do you know what I mean?  There will be elements where we’ll find they are not value-added, but others that are must-keeps. 

"People play heavily, because they’re mentors.  So, that’s step one.  We’ve almost done that.  Step two is to go into planning.  And, again, that’s funded.  That will be in the next few months.  But, here’s the wonderful part.  Expanding doesn’t necessarily mean physically expanding in the Academy of National Sciences.  Maybe we find that the expansion is to take our model and take it to St. Louis, take it to Richmond, take it to Baltimore, whatever.  Or, maybe our model suggests that we should partner up with a group in the city that has other physical sites where we together could deliver the program."

When we talked about women in science and particularly in studies of watersheds, Gephart brought up Ruth Patrick, a pioneer in the study of freshwater streams. She lived to be 105, dying in 2013,  and Gephart keeps a photo of her with a pith helmet and a microscope in his office.

When she turned 100, the museum held a party for her.  

Although frail, "Ruth was here at her hundredth birthday celebration," he said. "She got up in front of a packed house -- 400 or 500 people -- spoke for almost ten minutes, eloquently, and sat back down.  Remarkable person.  Transformed environmental science, truly did.  She and Rachael Carson, two women, broke the barrier.  Isn’t that something?  When she started, they wouldn’t employ her.  They said, `Well, women don’t work here.  You can be a volunteer.'  Then they realized, `Oh, my gosh, intellectually, she probably runs rings around a lot of us.' 

So, they employed her, but said, `Why aren’t you wearing a dress and why aren’t you wearing makeup.'  She said, `Well, because my work is out in the field.' Remarkable, groundbreaking person and the only award she didn’t win was the Nobel Prize, although she was certainly deserving. But [she won the] Presidential Medal of Freedom, her medal of science, 40 or more honorary degrees.  The work we’re going today, Delaware River Watershed Initiative, is her legacy. 

Gephart also talked about the relevance of the research the Academy conducts today. For example, the Academy looked into fracking, a controversial topic in Pennsylvania. 

"We want to focus on broader human impact and public engagement.  Now, what that means is we are not necessarily going to become the extreme of an advocacy organization -- Sierra Club would be a good example," Gephart said.  "Our job is to bring the best science forward to help people make informed decisions. 

"We’ve done a lot of work in Central Pennsylvania and our work is on ground water, not subterranean.  We’re not focused on the water table, but ground water runoff. 

"Interesting findings and these were done a few years ago, but we had a study going on well head density.  I’m not a scientist, so forgive me.  I don’t know whether they were talking hectares or acreage or whatever.  But, the idea is you have a controlled area with no wellhead.  You have modest drilling.  You have significant drilling. 

"Well, in fact, a couple of things that, logically you might expect, we found.  There is a difference between heavy density and the controlled group.  Okay then, that says something to people, including both sides of the equation, by the way, energy companies, as well as environmentalists.  Here’s the other thing that’s even more intriguing.  Modest density and control group, virtually, no difference.  So, the answer is density.  Where’s that tipping point beyond which you start to experience a higher than acceptable risk of contamination? That's the kind of work we do."

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