STEM Career Interview Series: Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Curator and Chair of Archaeology, Dr. Brian Redmond

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I am so excited to introduce Dr. Brian Redmond who is the Curator and John Otis Hower Chair of Archaeology at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Cleveland Ohio for my latest STEM Careers Interview Series.

Dr. Redmond has extensive expertise in understanding, finding, and interpreting prehistoric human life of Northern Ohio. To read more about his background, check out the CMNH website.

I am so excited to share Dr. Redmond’s STEM story in my STEM Career Interview Series below!

MTF: In your own words, how would you describe your job as Curator of the Archaeology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History to a child?

Dr. Redmond: My job is to take care of a large collections of artifacts (pottery, stone tools, animal bones) made or used by the Native Americans who lived in Ohio thousands of years ago. I also dig in the earth to find some of the artifacts they left behind and try to understand what these objects tell us about how the ancient people lived. Sometimes I teach college students about archaeology and help create exhibits to display our collections in the museum.

MTF:  What are your favorite exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History and why?

Dr. Redmond: I really like the dinosaur mounts (skeletons) and displays of the many fossil plants and animals from Ohio that tell us about ancient life millions of years ago.

MTF:  When and how did you become interested in the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields?  Do you have a specific memory or event that happened in your life that helped you choose your career path?

Dr. Redmond: I have always been interested in history and the earth sciences such as geology. I first became interested in Archaeology in high school and in fact all things related to the human past. I was very much inspired as a child when I came to the museum and saw an exhibit on the prehistoric Native American people of Ohio. I think this really influenced my decision to major in Anthropology/Archaeology in college.

MTF:  Growing up, what were your favorite subjects and why?

Dr. Redmond: History, biology, social science, and earth science all contributed to my interest in life in the past and where the evidence scientists study comes from (artifacts and fossils).

MTF:  What were your college / university experiences like as a student? 

Dr. Redmond: In my sophomore year I was able to go on an archaeological excavation and I think this convinced me that Archaeology was for me.  I also took many classes in Anthropology which taught me about the larger field that includes Archaeology. I also was able to work in the Archaeology lab and study the artifacts found in the field.

MTF: Why did you decide to pursue an advanced degree?

Dr. Redmond: I wanted to be a professional archaeologist and either teach in a university or work as a scientist in a Museum. A PhD is required for either job.

MTF:  What roles / job titles have you had in your profession and how would you describe them?

Dr. Redmond: Most of my job duties come under my title as a curator. But I have functioned as a Director of field archaeology, an editor for an online professional journal, a board member on two non-profit organizations related to Archaeology, and am an Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at Case Western Reserve University when I teach undergraduate students.

MTF:  In your opinion, what are some of the most important attributes or characteristics that an archaeologist and a museum curator must have to be successful?

Dr. Redmond: First and foremost a passion for the work, in the field, the lab, communicating with the public, and students. I think a good curator is someone who can at times be a generalist, meaning they have a wide-ranging knowledge of the collections and archaeological context they represent. This comes in particularly handy when identifying artifacts for the public and talking to various audiences about what Archaeology tells us about the precontact history of our region. But a Museum Curator must also be a good scientist and researcher, which involves some specific expertise in the study of material remains (e.g., pottery, stone tools, animal bones, plant remains, etc.).

To simplify, you have to be happy working with objects, material from the past, and be able to work on your own for much of the time. Of course you also need to like being outdoors and getting dirty and sweaty. But you also need to enjoy meeting members of the public who have an interest in Archaeology and ask lots of questions.

MTF:  Do you feel that your studies and experiences in college are helpful to you in your career?  How or why?  What were most beneficial to you? 

Dr. Redmond: Of course the basic classroom learning is essential but for me the most exciting part was the field work and working in the lab with collections. You also need to learn how to write well for professional reports and papers but also for blogs and articles that the public will read. Two very different kinds of writing!

MTF:  Were there any other subjects outside of traditional STEM subjects, like art or history, that have been helpful to you in your career now and how?

Dr. Redmond: Definitely history, since Archaeology is in some way an historical science. At times some appreciation for artistic expression and other aspects of the humanities are very helpful when interpreting artifacts from the past, particularly things that may be related to ritual or ceremony.

MTF:  What has been the most rewarding part of your STEM career?

Dr. Redmond: Being able to do my personal research in the field and lab, as well as teach the public and students about my work in a more general fashion.

MTF:  What has been the most challenging part of your STEM career?

Dr. Redmond: Organizing and administering the many activities required to do the work, such as get grant funding, organize and carry out field projects, prepare budgets, work with landowners, and local officials, etc. All the logistical stuff that allows me to do my work.

MTF:  Do you have fun, exciting or even embarrassing memories or story from your STEM career that you would be willing to share?

Dr. Redmond: Just about all my work is fun in one way or another. One of the most exciting was when our project discovered a 13,000 year old bone spear point in a cave in northwest Ohio. These kinds of ancient artifacts are almost never preserved.

MTF:  What would your advice be to parents and / or educators to help children build confidence and interest in the STEM fields? 

Dr. Redmond: Teach your children to challenge themselves in their academic work and don’t be afraid to try for something that seems out of reach. Good grades and hard work definitely lead to success in the future. And equally, discover their passion and work to achieve a job that will make them really happy. I learned this at an early age from my father, who hated his job. He was always supportive of my interest in the sciences for that reason, even though he didn’t share my particular interests.

MTF: If you could give advice to your younger self, based on your career journey so far, what would it be?

Dr. Redmond: Probably try a bit harder to do what I recommend above!  I could have done better academically as an undergraduate if I had worked a bit harder. But I really can’t complain since I have achieved most of what I set out to do. I have been very fortunate. I was able to maintain my passion for Archaeology and that really helped, particularly in grad school but also in the subsequent job search.

MTF:  What advice do you have for children that are interested in becoming an archaeologist? 

Dr. Redmond: For a young student, just work hard in school and do outside reading or viewing things about Archaeology, history, peoples of the past but also about doing science in general. For high school students, do more of the same and test yourself to see if you really have a passion for Anthropology/Archaeology. Be aware that there are not many Archaeology jobs in academia or museums out there, so you have to do well in college to have a chance on doing those types of jobs. But I also tell parents that there are good paying jobs doing what’s called Cultural Resource Management or “Contract Archaeology.” Which is the applied part of our profession and employs perhaps 80% or more of the Archaeology/graduates. But if your true passion lies in teaching and research, then go for it.

MTF:  I asked my 6 year old daughter if she could ask an archaeologist any question in the world at the museum, what would she ask and she came up with some great questions for you – How old is the oldest civilization in Ohio, where were they found, what kinds of foods did they eat, how did they live, and (how) did they make pottery?

Dr. Redmond: Since she is 6, I will interpret “civilization” to mean “culture” and this would be the people we call “Paleoindians” with “Paleo” meaning ancient. These were the first Native Americans to come to Ohio about 13,500 years ago. These people were primarily hunters and gatherers who moved in small family groups across large areas and collected food resources by the season. They likely hunted deer and small game animals, probably caribou up in northern Ohio. Maybe once in a while they hunted mammoth or mastodon that were still around at the end of the Ice Age—or even the giant Jefferson’s Ground Sloth like the one that we studied a few years ago and found stone tool butchering marks on a leg bone!  The people made flint spear points, knives, and hide-scraping tools which is about all we have left of the artifacts they made. This was a time before pottery-making, farming, or living large social groups such as tribes. This lifeway is generally referred to as the “Clovis Culture.”

Dr. Redmond’s knowledge, passions, contributions, and findings have helped us better understand human nature and reflect on past human activity in our region. This valuable information has allowed us to travel back in time to early human settlements and cultures of the people that lived in Northern Ohio. Archeologists provide valuable scientific insight into human behavior and evolution to our world.

I love that he discovered his true love for his field during an early archaeological excavation in school. I couldn’t agree more that early volunteer opportunities and internships are the best way to decide if your chosen career path is best for you!

I am so thankful to Dr Redmond for sharing his career journey and all of the additional insight and advice he shared for parents and children that might be interested in his chosen career field! I am also again thankful to the CMNH for supporting my passion to share unique STEM careers and stories on my blog, particularly those that are located right here in Cleveland!

Be sure to follow CMNH on Instagram @gocmnh, on Facebook @goCMNH, on Twitter @goCMNH and on their YouTube channel for more fun and unique scientific discoveries, educational opportunities and events!

– Kristen

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