A Conversation with Cristian Samper: A Fascination With Forests Finds Fulfillment at Smithsonian


First published in the New York Times Science Section, June 17, 2003

As a boy, Cristian Samper rambled through the tropical forests of his native Colombia, marveling at the diversity that surrounded him. Not content to view the flora and fauna only in the abstract, he began what was to become a lifelong obsession and vocation, cataloging the diversity and assembling it into collections that forcefully argue for its preservation.

Now, at 37, Dr. Samper has just entered his third month overseeing one of the world’s largest collections, the National Museum of Natural History and its 125 million specimens. As director of the museum, the second-most visited of the Smithsonian centers (after the National Air and Space Museum), he is host to six million visitors a year.

Born in Costa Rica and raised in Colombia, he spent some of his youth in his mother’s home country, the United States. But it was his undergraduate field studies at La Planada Nature Reserve in Colombia that persuaded him to pursue graduate degrees and a career in the field. He later received his master’s and doctorate from Harvard. La Planada, he says, remains close to his heart, and he is continuing to study its tree growth and ecology in an effort to understand the nature of the Andean cloud forest. Before coming to Washington, Dr. Samper spent two years leading the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. “If you’re a tropical biologist, S.T.R.I. in Panama, especially Barro Colorado Island, which is in the middle of the Panama Canal, is about as good as it gets,” he said.

His stint there put him on the shortlist for the Natural History Museum job. Those credentials were bolstered by his service as chief science adviser to the Colombian Ministry of the Environment in the late 90’s, while he was setting up and running the Alexander von Humboldt Institute, a partnership aimed at creating science-based environmental policy. Dr. Samper was interviewed on a sunny June afternoon in his office overlooking the Mall, under the watchful eye of a very lifelike mountain lion poised in strike position.

Q. Did growing up amid the natural wonders of Costa Rica and Colombia have any influence on your future?

A. I think it did because when I was a kid I spent a lot of time going out walking and exploring. Every weekend we’d go for wonderful hikes in fascinating country. I think part of my fascination with biology was due to the surroundings. I remember ever since I was a small kid I started doing amazing collections of insects and plants and all kinds of creatures. We used to spend some holidays at some relatives’ farm, and they had this fantastic swimming pool in the middle of the forest. I’d go in there, but I didn’t swim. All I would do is collect the bugs and insects that would fall in the water and try to catalog them.

Q. What plans did you think your parents had for you?
A. There was one moment when I was about 13 or 14 years old where I decided I had this fascination with animals, and I was thinking of being a vet. My parents, with their good wisdom said, “Well, that’s fine as long as you’re a really good vet.” They set up this summer internship with the family vet. Most of what I got to do was shampoo French poodle dogs and cut their toenails, and the most exciting thing was a rabies shot for the dog, and that was about it. So at the end of the second month there, I decided it wasn’t quite the kind of excitement I had in mind.

Q. What prompted you to return to Colombia for your research?
A. My love for the country. I wanted to try to go back and make a difference.

Q. You were science adviser to the Ministry of the Environment and testified before the Colombian Congress on issues like drug eradication. Did you ever fear for your life?
A. It’s gotten progressively worse over the last 10 years, so, yes, it was always at the back of my mind. I don’t think it was so much because of my position; it was because of the fact that we were living in this country, Colombia. At the Humboldt Institute we did fieldwork in some of the most interesting areas biologically, which were almost invariably correlated with the ones most difficult to work in politically. We developed a protocol of how we would actually go into those areas to avoid problems. It was completely counterintuitive because the first reaction of people going to those areas was, We have to sneak in and out and avoid being noticed. We did exactly the opposite. Our policy was whenever we were having expeditions to some remote mountain corner, we would send a scouting team ahead to spend a weekend at the local bar, preferably in the town square, drinking beer, talking to everyone and actually giving out handouts about who we were and what we were doing.

Q. How do you think you will respond to pressure to mount certain exhibits or change them?
A. I believe the strength of this museum, the core of this museum, is the science. And science has to be intimately linked to the collections and exhibitions. My priority is making sure that our exhibits are objective and based on the best science available.

Q. How do you hope to shape the museum’s mission and exhibits?
A. I often come in on weekends and just mix with the crowd, the visitors, and look at their reactions and talk to them. And I think there are many people coming to this museum who don’t realize how much research is behind the scenes. And I think that’s one area where we can probably do a better job in the future. I believe the American people think of the Smithsonian as museums of gadgets, or the nation’s attic. We have to remember that the Smithsonian and the collections here are not only objects, it’s the scientific process behind them.

Q. What do you think can be done about the loss of rain forests?
A. Anything we can do that will lead us toward a sustainable use of natural resources is important. Now I don’t have full confidence in our ability to do that, and I think we do need some backstop measures, including setting up protected areas. I’m convinced that science has to be at the cornerstone of efforts on conservation. At this point we have not cataloged more than 10 percent of all living species on earth, and that’s shocking, after 200 years of work. We probably know more about the surface of the moon than we know about the Amazon rain forest.

Q. Is it a good thing for the jungle to be seen as a cornucopia of new medicines, foods and materials?
A. I’ve seen indigenous communities in parts of Colombia where people have come in and said, You have to preserve this rain forest because this is a cornucopia, here’s a cure for cancer, and you’re going to be rich. But of course, getting from this leaf to that cure and getting the money back is something that really needs to be worked out. The problem that I’ve seen with that is that it has generated expectations that cannot be met in the kinds of time frames that local people are expecting.

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