With in-house meteorite specimens dating back 4.5 billion years, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is deeply rooted in education and science. It’s not a stretch then, that former Scripps College President Dr. Lori Bettison-Varga would be a fitting selection to succeed Dr. Jane Pisano as the museum’s new director.
Revered for empowering students while strengthening the reputation and fiscal standing of the women’s college of the Claremont Consortium, the geologist and former professor stepped into her new role in October. “The opportunities leading an extraordinary liberal arts college have been rewarding,” Bettison-Varga says. “But it’s a longtime passion for me to return to science and focus on advocacy and education in the broader region, and the world. It’s so exciting and inspiring to see the way the museum portrays science.
“What we know has evolved, and that makes us appreciate the responsibility we have to our natural world.”
“Science is dynamic, progressive, and builds upon itself,” she continues. “To be relevant today, the museum uses collections and research to help the public understand how science operates—and how scientific understanding has changed.” She adds, “What we know has evolved, and that makes us appreciate the responsibility we have to our natural world.”
As more women continue to fill top executive positions at LA cultural institutions, Bettison-Varga is ready to advance the trend, but acknowledges LA may be an exception. “I think there are so many factors that prevent women from being recognized as capable of performing a leadership role,” she says regarding the dearth of females in leadership positions, which persists to this day. “People have deeply ingrained, hidden biases. I think it’s hard for women and people of color to make progress when others are unaware of their unintentional biases.” Having personally overcome bias against women in science, Bettison-Varga urged Scripps students to be confident, persistent risk-takers.
Though a family and career are both options for women today, Bettison-Varga said that wage inequality and fear of “mommy versus career track” still exist. She balances both worlds since meeting her husband of 26 years at a geological conference in Cyprus (fittingly known as the island-country of love).
Bettison-Varga takes over for Pisano, who retired in 2015 after 14 years leading the museum. Pisano led a dramatic transformation and increased attendance by 60 percent at NHM in Exposition Park and the museum’s second location, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum. She also launched a $135mm capital campaign, which is just $7.6mm from meeting its goal as of September.
Continuing the museum’s new focus on LA’s rich biodiversity through its urban nature and citizen science initiatives while deepening the community relevance of the museum are top priorities for Bettison-Varga. Long term, she plans to work with the board and staff to re-imagine the Tar Pits experience and develop a master plan for the only actively excavated urban Ice Age fossil site in the world. The site features the world’s richest evidence of Ice Age life, showcasing 40,000 years of climate change against the backdrop of LA.
“Southern California is so alive and opportunistic for learning about the natural world,” Bettison-Varga says. “It’s a very exciting time to be at the helm of this extraordinary organization as we look to the future.”