Brian Johnson: Collections intern

Ask Brian Johnson which native animal he’s most excited about and he’ll name several; California newts, bald and golden eagles, rattlesnakes, trout, and salmon all make the long list. Learn a little more about Brian’s experience in natural history — from a childhood spent among elephants to college quarters spent identifying birds in the field — and it’s easy to see why he’s passionate about so many creatures. Today, he adds to that experience as our collections intern. 

Where others travel across oceans to spend time with exotic animals, Brian was born into a life rich with wildlife. Raised by a father who trained elephants, it wasn’t unusual to find a young Brian napping on a hay bale beside the large mammals’ enclosure or peering up at sharks inside an aquarium long after paying guests had left.

“I grew up hanging out with elephants, tigers, and pretty much any animal you can think of,” he said. 

Those experiences nurtured a lifelong interest in natural history, which most recently led him through earning his BA in Environmental Studies at UC Santa Cruz. There, at the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History, he volunteered to prepare study skins and teach other students the craft of taxidermy, among a mix of internships and classwork, including the start of his work in the Museum’s Collections Department

With a camera and taxidermy tools by his side, Brian has done great work in short order.  Now applying to graduate programs all over (and some outside) the country, he’s leaving us with a newly digitized and inventoried bird collection, as well as a guide on the current practices in the care and maintenance of taxidermy specimens. 

“Being in a collections room for a museum is pretty special,” he said. “Not many people get to hang around specimens that are over 100 years old, interact with them and do detective work to figure out where they came from, and I think that’s really cool.” 

Alongside natural history, one of Brian’s greatest passions is skateboarding. He began skating when he was a young teen and, to this day, still teaches skateboarding summer camps that see over 1,000 kids each year.

“I don’t think my parents realized how much I was into it until I built a big ramp in our backyard and ran off every summer to teach kids how to skate.”

For others who are interested in volunteering and interning, Brian has one message: “Get involved and stay involved.” Whether leading hikes or tending to artifacts, museums can always use an extra hand, he said.

Mary Verutti: Visitor Services Representative

Meet Mary, the Museum’s longest-standing staff member. For well over a decade, Mary has greeted visitors at our front desk, shared her extensive knowledge of the Santa Cruz area and welcomed guests at the Surfing Museum at Lighthouse Point. A longtime resident of Santa Cruz, she first moved to the area in 1979.

She’s seen the city grow and change long before that, however, as her grandparents began visiting a summer home on Santa Cruz’s east side when she was born. They held up the tradition long enough for she and her siblings to forge deep connections to the area — all five of them have lived here at one point in their lives, she says, and Mary can’t imagine calling anywhere else home.  

Today, as one of our Visitor Services Representatives, she’s likely one of the first faces you’ll see when you walk through our doors. She’s somewhat of a history buff, especially when it comes to Santa Cruz, and loves to share historical details gleaned from Museum events and exhibits. Ask Mary how the Seabright area has changed, and she’ll tell you that, to her, Seabright State Beach is still Castle Beach.

When she isn’t at the Museum, you can find Mary at different concert venues around town, from Kuumbwa to the Catalyst. She even travels every year to New Orleans — one of her favorite places next to Santa Cruz — for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. This year marks her 25th trip!

At home on the West Side, Mary enjoys seeing native wildlife while she walks Bethany Curve to West Cliff, where she savors the sweeping ocean views; stormy seas are her favorite.

“I’m proud to say that I work here,” she said, “and proud of the Museum for how far it’s come.”

Megan Gnekow: Artist, Naturalist and Volunteer

Meet Megan Gnekow: artist, naturalist and volunteer. If you haven’t met Megan at one of our past events, where she has introduced many of our guests to the world of scientific illustration through in-person demonstrations, then you’ve likely seen her work in The Art of Nature. Her pieces feature flora and fauna found throughout California, and often depict the ecological relationships that tie them together.

From great blue herons and the cattails they wade through while hunting stickleback fish, to California condors and the mammals they return to the carbon cycle through scavenging, Megan’s work showcases natural beauty while upholding scientific accuracy. She holds a BS in Art: Painting, Drawing and Printmaking from Portland State University in Oregon, a Graduate Certificate in Scientific Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and has been a featured artist at our Museum for a decade.

Megan grew up in a family filled with artists. She descends from seven generations who lived and worked in Santa Cruz, some who even lived on Wilder Ranch — her favorite park in the County — before the Wilder family.

She often uses taxidermy specimens to capture details that otherwise escape camera lenses and binoculars. When illustrating physical differences between condors and the other birds they’re often seen alongside, for example, she once called on the Museum when in need of a golden eagle’s large, taloned foot.

“I can find photos of heads on the internet. That’s easy,” she said, recalling the project for the National Park Service. “But feet — good, clear photographs that show exactly what a golden eagle foot looks like — those aren’t so easy to come by.” After a quick call, she was soon sitting on our floor in front of a golden eagle specimen with a sketchbook in hand.

She prefers to glean details and find inspiration from living creatures, however, and often does so through volunteering in wildlife-monitoring programs. From monitoring bats and birds to surveying butterflies and moths, she volunteers throughout Northern California, often in Pinnacles National Park.

“It’s magical,” she said, describing her recent residency in the Plumas National Forest, where she studied the leopard lilies, Sierra Nevada blue butterflies, mountain garter snakes and other organisms united by their connection to the wet meadows of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountain ranges.

Scientific illustration offers a creative path to connect with nature, she said, allowing anyone to engage through thoughtful observation. Everyone can draw, she adds, with just simple practice.

“It’s a totally different way of interacting with the world,” she said. “You learn by watching a creature, looking at a plant and noticing things you wouldn’t otherwise see when just walking by.”

If you’d like to see Megan’s artwork at the Museum, come see the 30th showing of The Art of Nature, currently running until June 2. Enjoy works from 30 scientific scientific illustrators, featuring organisms from almost all branches of life depicted in a wide variety of media.

Sally Iverson: Visitor Services Representative

Meet Sally Iverson, one of our two Visitor Services Representatives and our own transplant from the Midwest. After coming to Santa Cruz in 2016, Sally soon joined the Museum’s cohort of volunteers in hopes of better learning the area.

Diving right into First Fridays and later assisting with our many workshops, she developed a love for traditional Ohlone basketry. Having grown up in Rochester, Minnesota, Sally’s fondness for the outdoors sparked right in her own backyard, in the company of her family’s ponies, sheep, cows, cats and wild creatures that occasionally roamed through.

Today, she enjoys introducing Museum guests to the marine creatures in our intertidal touch pool, assisting staff in putting on special events and sharing information about Santa Cruz’s unique natural history. She holds a BFA in Art/Filmmaking from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Soon after graduating, she and a few friends renovated an old antique store in Milwaukee and opened a coffee shop in its place, named “Brewed Awakenings.” She fondly remembers baking treats for customers and booking artists to hang art and play music in the cafe, and boasts that she still makes a “killer biscotti.”

While she misses the Midwest’s white winters, today, she and her partner enjoy walking along West Cliff Drive and the UCSC campus, where deer, coyotes, bobcats and birds roam while they walk the trails with their Welch Corgi Jack Russell Terrier mix, Georgie. Sally also enjoys taking whale-watching trips in Monterey Bay whenever she has the time. “I’ve been trying to embrace the coast while I’m here,” she says, “and soak up all its natural history!”

Isabelle West: Collections Assistant

Isabelle West is a collector at heart. She “finds joy in every little item,” especially those that carry perspective and narrative, from pine cones found at the Donner Party site to 19th century souvenir bottles of crude oil once carried by our founder, Laura Hecox.

Starting as a volunteer docent in 2016, Isabelle has helped elevate the Museum in a number of ways, from leading school tours to keeping our back of house well organized. Today, as Collections Assistant, she tends to and inventories the many specimens and artifacts of our collections.

Her interest in human and natural history began early on, and grew when classes in folklore and mythology captured her curiosity in community college. She pursued that interest through courses in anthropology, eventually bringing her to the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she recently earned a B.A. in anthropology with a focus in Native American studies.

One of her most recent projects entails cataloguing and reorganizing items from Laura Hecox’s collection. In one of her personal highlight moments at the Museum, Isabelle carried out her first accession: a first edition book by feminist author Caroline H. Dall, with a section on Caroline’s visit with Laura, gifted to the Museum by Frank Perry.

Bringing artifacts to light and keeping their details organized and accessible is a way of making the museum experience more inclusive, she says. “Giving people access to information they wouldn’t have otherwise had,” she says, “that can provide perspective that you may not normally receive from family or school. And I think that’s exciting!”

In her spare time, Isabelle maintains her own extensive collection of curious items found at antique faires and garage sales. She enjoys immersing herself in the world of local, do-it-yourself style concerts — even studying Santa Cruz shows by carrying out ethnographic reports — and decorating cakes.

Rebecca Hernandez: Board Member

Meet Rebecca Hernandez: artist, scholar, educator, and newest member of our Board of Directors. Rebecca has served as Director of the UCSC American Indian Resource Center since 2014, and brings a wealth of experience in having guided and worked with museums and universities throughout her career. We’re delighted to have her join our team!

A nascent admirer of the natural world, Rebecca was not always a fan of trekking around the outdoors. She grew up in Los Angeles, an asthmatic child hesitantly playing in a schoolyard set beside a traffic-clogged freeway. “I associated being outdoors with being uncomfortable, nervous and worried,” she says.

But, after succumbing to the charms of California landscapes and pushing herself to explore the natural world, she’s now an avid walker and budding naturalist. Whether hiking the trails in the Fort Ord Natural Reserve or simply walking near her home, she loves to watch seasonal changes in flora and fauna, and now seeks to help others find the same joys.

“I think it’s similar for a lot of folks,” she says, “where the outdoors isn’t associated with recreation. It’s either associated with hard work or danger. I want to help people see that there’s so much more.”

After earning a B.F.A. in painting from the College of Santa Fe, New Mexico, she pursued her M.F.A. in exhibition design and museum studies at California State University Fullerton, followed by her M.A. in American Indian studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. in American Studies at the University of New Mexico. In the past, she has helped guide the Museum’s educational efforts in sharing Native American history.

“Often, when we talk about American Indians,” she says, “it tends to be about loss, difficulties, struggle, and the realities of what occurred. But it’s also important to talk about the contributions, the joy, survivance, and the fact that we’re still here and contributing in important ways.”

Steve Davenport: Board Member

Meet Steve, a member of our Board of Directors and a regular at the Museum since the ‘80s. From keeping his finger on the pulse of our building’s structural wellbeing to ensuring our programs’ financial support, Steve has played a crucial role in the Museum’s trajectory for many years.

Steve first came across the Museum when he and his wife Julia helped set up the California Native Plant Society’s Spring Wildflower Show when it was held here. He’s been involved in several of Santa Cruz’s scientific institutions, having worked his way from sample-collecting field technician to Managing Director at UCSC’s Long Marine Laboratory over a 39-year career there.

Ask him which of our County’s native wildlife he enjoys most and he’s hard-pressed to choose just one. A longtime enthusiast of the natural world, Steve has been inspired by natural history since he first learned to sail on lakes as a boy and, years later, on open ocean voyages.

It was on one such trip he was first inspired to engage the natural world in a deeper way. While sailing home from Hawaii, he was struck by the expansiveness and wonder of the Pacific, and determined to study ocean and Earth sciences when he arrived back on California shores. Since then, he has enjoyed a diverse career in marine operations and research organizations, including the U.S. Geological Survey Branch of Marine Geology, the UCSC Institute of Marine Sciences and others.

“I think it’s important to instill in everyone, especially youth, an appreciation — and hopefully a love — for the natural world,” he says.

Whether you’re noticing the broad shape of our coastal mountains or which bird species frequent your backyard, Steve is a fan of deliberately familiarizing oneself with the natural world, one phenomenon at a time.

“If I could make a pitch it would be that people pick one natural thing to observe, then go learn more about it and figure out why it’s there. Doing that, I think, makes life richer, and perhaps makes us more likely to know, appreciate and protect our environment.”

Penny Rich: Museum Supporter

Meet Penny Rich, one of our ardent supporters and a regular at our many special events. You may have met Penny at one of our exhibit openings, or even down in the garden with clippers-in-hand at a Saturday in the Soil.

Penny is a familiar face in the Seabright neighborhood, having moved to Santa Cruz over 20 years ago. Her outdoors-loving family enjoys a long tradition of supporting community-focused libraries, open spaces and museums.

“It’s so nice to have the Museum in our neighborhood,” she says. “It’s unique, it’s intimate, I like the wildlife, and I like the new and different exhibits!”

Her granddaughters first brought her to the Museum, where they often visited the sea stars and other marine creatures in our intertidal touch pool. “I even have a picture of all seven of them on the whale!”

Penny is an educator. For two decades she taught students at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California, both the history and culture of Latin America, from Mexico and Central America to Peru.  

Her interests brought her to Mayan and Incan ruins in a historical trip through Latin America, where she met her husband. She continued teaching once back in Santa Cruz, where she taught English as a second language for 12 years, and eventually claimed the helm at her family’s flexible packaging business in southern San Francisco.

As a teacher, Penny enjoys seeing the Museum’s education team bring science education to Santa Cruz’s students through its robust programs.

“I really admire them,” she says. “They’re enthusiastic, they make it interesting and they really keep the kids engaged!”

Brendan Bane: Community Relations Manager

Brendan heard the call of natural history early on, when he first peered through the foggy glass of a tarantula’s terrarium in his kindergarten classroom. While others enjoyed beautiful birds, graceful whales or majestic trees, his fascination with all things biological was sparked by a hairy, venomous arachnid. Soon enough, his bedroom shelves were filled with natural history books, snake skins and terrariums.

Brendan later pursued his scientific interests at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he earned his B.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology. While studying tarantula courtship abroad in Costa Rica’s cloud forests, he reaffirmed the idea that he loved talking and writing about science more than practicing it. Once home again in Santa Cruz, he completed the Science Communication Program at UCSC in 2016.

He enjoyed roughly two years of freelance science communication, working with scientific nonprofits and digital magazines to highlight new findings in geophysics and biological science before uniting with the Museum. Today, Brendan is the Museum’s Community Relations Manager.

He enjoys promoting the Museum’s extensive programming and events, and highlighting Santa Cruz’s rich natural history through the Museum’s social media channels. He also lovingly cares for the Museum’s oldest resident: Prometheus, the California kingsnake.

“Santa Cruz and the surrounding Bay Area hold a wealth of natural history, from slippery newts to secretive mountain lions,” he says. “And with research institutions abound, there’s an endless supply of new discoveries to unpack and explore!”

In his spare time, Brendan teaches jiu jitsu ­­— a martial art whose aim is to incapacitate through choke holds and joint locks — in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He continues to report scientific findings as a freelance science communicator, and adores hiking and herping throughout the Bay Area with his dog, Baph, and partner, Julia.

Chris Soriano: Field Programs Coordinator

Chris is a born educator. Even at 12 years old, you could find him teaching others about interpreting nature with a hawk perched upon his arm. His career in outdoor education began roughly there, at the Last Chance Forever Bird of Prey Conservancy in San Antonio, Texas, where he volunteered alongside his family. His knack for outdoor education carried him to the San Antonio Zoo soon after, where he helped with everything from animal care and facilities maintenance to educational programming.

Chris found his way to the West Coast after graduating from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, with a B.S. in Zoology and Evolutionary Biology. In California, he worked for The Web Of Life Field School as Naturalist and Program Director. He taught thousands of kids about nature and Earth stewardship, all the while further cementing his love for outdoor education.

“Outdoor education is the only job I’ve had that, no matter how tired you are at the end of the week, you know what you’re doing is saving the planet.”

Today, Chris is the Museum’s Field Programs Coordinator. He leads interpretive programs at Neary Lagoon and Pogonip for school groups, as well as our Earth Stewards Program, which aims to empower the next generation of environmental stewards by providing STEM education to alternative education high school students through outdoor experiences. He creates curriculum for the Museum’s educational programs and delivers classroom presentations for local schools.

He’s eager to help program attendees push past their boundaries, meet and surpass the expectations of the newest generation of science standards, and keep comfortable in nature, no matter how distracted their world may become.

“The classroom experience is important,” he adds, “but it needs to be supplemented by students going outside and seeing science and nature in action — getting outside actually helps kids learn better.”