Peter Austen Closes Term as ANS Chair

It all started about 20 years ago during a long lunch break. Peter Austen was new to Philadelphia, having moved to the area to wed Mary Stengel, president and CEO at Tierney. He was taking a midday stroll through Logan Square when he stepped into the Academy of Natural Sciences for a look around.

Four to five hours later, Austen left the museum wanting to know more about the Academy’s roots, visitors and everything he wasn’t seeing — especially the millions of specimens and stories behind the scenes. Since most of his colleagues and friends hadn’t visited the Academy since childhood, he set out on his own (and over the years with one or more of his five children and their friends in tow) to find out what makes the Academy an enduring Philadelphia institution.

Peter Austen headshot

“We don’t always get the opportunity in life to apply our energy and efforts to something we are passionate about and believe in,” Austen said upon election. “Fortunately, I am doing just that.”

Two decades later, Austen, a senior executive with global insurance broker Willis Towers Watson, found his answer while serving on the Academy’s Board of Trustees, and, subsequently, as its Chair. As the child of educators and an active supporter of various causes within the city of Philadelphia, he has been inspired by high-quality educational programs for students, including those who might not otherwise have access to science enrichment. He has been most motivated to support the Academy’s work upon seeing students fall in love with science during field trips, school visits and programs like Women In Natural Sciences, the Academy’s after-school and summer science enrichment program for young women in our city’s public schools.

A deep believer in the Academy’s community commitment, Austen supports the institution through philanthropy, advocacy and engagement with our Board of Trustees. During his time on the Board and prior to becoming Chair, he saw the formation of a productive partnership with Drexel University, efforts to create a sustainable operating model for the institution and deep engagement with the philanthropic community in Philadelphia and beyond. In summer 2016, after six years of service on the Academy’s Board, including on the Governance and Marketing and Public Experience committees, Austen became Chair.

“We don’t always get the opportunity in life to apply our energy and efforts to something we are passionate about and believe in,” Austen said upon election. “Fortunately, I am doing just that.”

As the Academy’s leader, Austen brought together the strengths and visions of Academy staff and Trustees to drive science research and education forward. During his time as chair, Academy scientists conducted research throughout the world, traveling to destinations as far away as Brazil, Colombia and Antarctica and as close to home as the Delaware River watershed. The Academy’s WINS program marked its 35th anniversary, celebrating its success in creating a pipeline of women in STEM fields. Shortly thereafter, WINS was thrilled to receive the prestigious Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Program – the highest United States accolade for STEM mentoring – in recognition of its outstanding work.

In 2017, Austen led the Academy’s Board and staff through the launch of a new brand identity and upgrades to key exhibit spaces, including Dinosaur Hall and the dioramas. At the close of George Gephart, Jr.’s tenure, he oversaw the launch of the Academy’s position statements, helping the institution to articulate and champion the established scientific consensus on critical issues that have driven our work for two centuries.

Austen provided strategic oversight in the six-month gap between the retirement of Gephart and the hiring of Scott Cooper, PhD, in 2017. Austen led the recruitment of Cooper, an experienced museum professional, historic preservation scholar and former vice president of collections, knowledge and engagement at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria, Canada. Together with Cooper and the team, Austen was instrumental in the creation of a new strategic plan that will guide the Academy into the future.

On July 1, David E. Griffith, executive director and head coach at Episcopal Community Services, will take the reins from Austen, beginning a term as chair. We look forward to many more years working with Austen through his ongoing service on the Board, especially as our new strategic initiatives begin to take shape.

On behalf of Griffith, Scott Cooper, the Board of Trustees and our staff and volunteers, the Academy thanks Peter Austen for his tremendous contribution.

By Mary Alice Hartsock

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