Meet a Scientist Days, which are held from noon to 2 p.m. every Friday, allow Field Museum visitors to examine collections that are seldom seen and ask questions of the museum's scientists. Public programs manager Eduarda Briseno said "people seem to be very excited" to work with the scientists and view items they wouldn't be able to see in the museum's exhibits.
That proved true when Corrie Moreau, assistant curator of zoology, set up shop in Stanley Field alongside interns Racquel Kelley and Stephanie Morgan and collections assistant Jim Louderman on July 12. Moreau and Morgan taught passersby about ants while Kelley showed attendees how beetles will pick clean the bones of owls.
Louderman proved especially popular. A tarantula on his head — to warm his bald spot, he said — and another in his hands, he didn't even have to coax most listeners into holding one of his fuzzy spiders. Groups of children and families crowded around the table to get their chance with the tarantulas and to look at Louderman's hissing cockroaches, framed beetles and scorpion.
"I find that most people are originally scared of all kinds of spiders, but when you bring the tarantulas out and talk to them they tend to lose some of their fear, at least, and have a good time with the tarantulas or really get excited," Louderman said. "They’re not dangerous at all."
Sisters Tina Burnham, 43, of Missouri, and Jennifer Holman, 34, of Kentucky, managed to squeeze in a few seconds with Louderman amid the rush. They said the Mexican redknee tarantula they held, Charlotte, was very light, a little sticky and didn't move much.
"I thought it was awesome," Holman said.
Burnham said she is "crazy scared" of spiders and wasn't sure why she was quick to hold Charlotte. Holman, who held the tarantula first, said she knew: "She can't let her little sister outdo her."
When people are nervous about holding the captive-bred Charlotte or Lisa, a Chilean rose hair tarantula, Louderman knows how to make them comfortable: He has visitors touch the spider, then puts the spider's leg on their finger. When they're ready, Louderman places the tarantula on their palm or, for the more daring, on their head.
"There was one little girl ... who was petrified of the tarantula and after a while she finally did hold it, and then she came back four more times to hold it again," Louderman said. "She just loved it once she held it. They’re just such docile animals that once you hold them you’re the one who is most scared. You fall in love with them and want to hold them again and again."
At Kelley's station, visitors touched stuffed owls and bones as the Marian Catholic High School student explained how insects will eat a dead animal. Kelley said she was "a little" nervous because it was her first time presenting at Meet a Scientist Day. It was Morgan's first time, too. She said she was excited because not everyone knows that the Field Museum works with researchers and doesn't solely display exhibits.
"There's so much energy. Everyone's eager to learn," said Morgan, a biology major at Beloit College. "I'm not sure people know we do science here."
Briseno said Meet a Scientist Days launched in spring, though the Field Museum has done it off and on in years past. Future exhibits will showcase pottery, fossils and plants, among other things.