Geek of the Week: Timshel Purdum

Geekadelphia has named the Academy’s Timshel Purdum its Geek of the Week. Here’s why. 

By Jill Sybesma Lim

Timshel Purdum is the Academy’s Assistant Vice President, Public Experience. She’s a nut for cephalopods (octopus and squids), sci-fi flicks, museums, reading, and travel.

Anyone who knows her knows that she is the epitome of enthusiasm for museums and learning.

Timshel has been at the Academy for 14 years. She actually began as a face painter, doing a favor for the staff. She climbed the ranks quickly from face painter to Manager of Outside In (which is her degree, not art), to Director of Education and Lifelong Learning, and now Vice President.

You call yourself a museum and science enthusiast. When did this start? Were you a geek as a child too? 

I’ve always been fascinated by nature. Some of my earliest and fondest memories are catching fish and crayfish in the local streams where I grew up in Virginia. I also spent many summers at our local science museum participating in their programs and camps.

The first pet I ever asked for was a corn snake (I got one when I was 12). I named her Juniper. I also remember being in 5th grade and everyone telling what they wanted to be when they grew up—and I said a herpetologist ballerina. That got a few looks!

Purdum is a cephalopod enthusiast. | Photo by: Erick Moeller
Purdum is a cephalopod enthusiast. Photo by Erick Moeller

What’s your favorite museum? Why? 

I’m assuming you mean other than my own. It’s hard to select as I always find something about any museum I love. I’m fond of natural history museums as well as aquariums (I volunteered at the National Aquarium in Baltimore while in graduate school) and will make sure I go to both in any city I visit if they have both.

I always get geeked out by being near the authentic. I still get shivers about being right next to the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. And I made a point of traveling to Chicago just to see Sue the T. rex right after she went on display—because how could you not? Outside of those, I adored the Musee d’ Orsay in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. My favorite part of the V&A was the room of plaster copies of famous works of art including Trajan’s column (in two parts) and Michelangelo’s David.

So, what is your favorite thing about your favorite museum – the Academy of Natural Sciences?

Hmm. That’s difficult to pick—I wouldn’t want to offend any of our collections managers! I love the Blaschka glass invertebrates in our Archives made by Leopold Blaschka (1822–1895) and his son, Rudolf (1857–1939). In the 19th century, Ward’s Natural Science Establishment of Rochester, New York, offered a full line of exquisite models of living invertebrates made by hand from glass.

But one of the first items I remember getting a chance to view in our entomology collections were some of the specimens of the world’s rarest and most endangered insect, the land lobster (Dryococelus australis) of Lord Howe’s Island off the coast of Australia. The insects were endemic to the island and thought to be extinct. These insects were rediscovered in 2001 on Ball’s Pyramid and are being reintroduced to Lord Howe’s Island!

Oh, and Darwin’s chair, also in our Archives, geeks me out a bit. I took a selfie with it when it was on display. And Joseph Leidy’s tapeworms in the Malacology collection are a perennial favorite of mine too!

Clearly your interests are varied. What’s your favorite area of science to teach or study? 

Anything biology/natural sciences related. One of the reasons I became a science educator and enjoy working at museums is because I have the opportunity to keep learning about all aspects of biology. My first time around through graduate school was tough because of the need to focus on one aspect of science. It wasn’t enough for me. Nature is endlessly fascinating and weird, and I want to have the opportunity to investigate it all—and to share my enthusiasm for it to the public.

…If I had to pick an all-abiding love, it would have to be cephalopods.

Purdum discovered a love of science as a child. Here's one of her favorite specimens: an octopus. | Photo by: Timshel Purdum/ANS
Purdum fell in love with science as a child. This is one of her favorite animals: an octopus. Photo by Timshel Purdum/ANS

Cephalopods, tell me more. When did this start? 

I’m not really sure how it started. It is definitely an obsession that developed as an adult. As a kid it was dinosaurs and sharks—with a brief stint in the world of mythological creatures (Dragons, unicorns, the usual). I think the aspect of cephalopods that fascinates me the most is the unique intelligence of some octopus and squid species. It is so very different than that of humans, both from a functioning standpoint as well as an evolutionary standpoint. It may be the closest thing we have to imagining what an intelligent life form on another planet might be like.

Trying to understand what intelligence means in another species is always difficult as we naturally measure—intentionally or not—all other organisms against ourselves. As invertebrates, cephalopod intelligence is evolutionarily quite different than ours which makes for fascinating research.

How far does your obsession go—tatoo?  Pet? Wardrobe full of collectibles? 

If I ever got a tattoo, I’d get an octopus. I do have a few shirts and cephalopod jewelry, and my comforter cover is totally octopusian (it should be a word). My office is chock full of octopus memorabilia gifts from coworkers and staff.

What else do you geek out over?

Dinosaurs. Star Wars. Human evolution. I voraciously read all new discoveries of fossil human species. I also collect children’s story books. Oh—and I used to actively collect photographs of dead animals found along my travels.

Timshel Purdum doing one of the things she loves.
Timshel Purdum doing one of the things she loves.

Okay. That should make this question interesting. What do you do for fun?

Reading. You can’t really be a geek and not like to read. I like to hike, camp, and wildlife watch. I will also admit to being a wee bit obsessed with sci-fi flicks and TV. I’m of the age where I remember my parents coming back from seeing Star Wars Episode IV in the theater, and getting hooked just by their descriptions. I like to try a lot of things. For example, I’ve tried glass blowing, I used to teach blacksmithing, and I’ve even made soap from lye and pig fat.

What are you reading or studying now?

I have a wide variety of interests. I just finished The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons) by Marie Brennan, and I’m currently reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander.

But for you learning doesn’t stop in museums or books; you’ve traveled the world. Where have you been? 

I adore travel and feel very lucky that I have had the opportunity to go to so many places. It’s a large world, and my list of places to visit is huge and unending! In Europe, I’ve been to London, Paris, and Dublin. In Asia, I’ve been to Thailand, Cambodia and Japan. I’ve spent time in Australia and New Zealand. I’ve visited the rain forests in Costa Rica, Belize and Guatemala, and Ecuador.

For one of my “big” birthdays, I went to the Galapagos (Darwin was here!). I’ve also visited a large part–but not enough—of the United States. Yosemite may be my favorite national park, but the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone are close seconds. I’ve hiked through an active volcano in Hawaii, and I’ve visited the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

What do you like to do when you travel? 

Since I love nature watching as well as culture (in another life I’d want to come back as an anthropologist), I try to do both. Depending on the location, I may spend time hiking, snorkeling, and looking for wildlife (I’m a birder too) or visiting famous cultural sites (and wildlife watching there too!). In Thailand, I got to participate in the New Year celebrations of Songkran, and it was fantastic!


This article was first posted by Geekadelphia.


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