The Master of Mantises

May 17, 2017
Bugging Out

Dr. Gavin Svenson of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History


Dr. Gavin Svenson is the Curator of Invertebrate Zoology and the Assistant Director of Science at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

What's that mean?

It means he loves bugs, and he's doing some pretty cool things in evolutionary research. He describes new species, and is the curator of the largest praying mantis collection in the Western Hemisphere. His work is so well respected that the Smithsonian sent their praying mantis collection to him for safe-keeping and research.

But that's not all he does. Dr. Svenson runs a research lab in entomology and oversees the invertebrate zoology collection. His specialty is in evolutionary biology, and he is responsible for finding funding, overseeing PhD and undergraduate students, and participating in field work. He also does his own core research and teaches at Case Western Reserve University.

"This is why I got into this career," he said. "Because every day is different."

He's an interesting guy, and we wanted to find out more about him and what brought him here to Cleveland. Here's what he had to say.

What got you interested in praying mantises?

Praying mantises are an incredible group of insects that have diversified and done all sorts of crazy adaptation in the environment to look like different plants and behave differently, and there's just a lot to look at within this group.

Through chance and circumstance, I ended up doing graduate work at Brigham Young University in Utah. And that was because I linked up with a guy who's a professor out there who used to be a graduate student where I was going to college. His whole research area was something I really thought was interesting, and I'd always been interested in praying mantises, specifically. When I got out there, he had just got a major National Science Foundation grant to do the evolutionary history of all insects. One of the groups that had no information on it was praying mantis. So I basically said, "That's mine. I want that."

What do you like about Cleveland?

I came here in February, 2012, so a little over five years ago, and I didn't know what to think. I grew up in Chautauqua Lake, New York, so I love this weather. And I lived out west, in Utah, and I lived in New Mexico. The climate is so much better here. I like seasonal change, I like winter, I like spring and fall.

I just didn't know what the city was like, and what my wife and I would find. What we found was something that just really fit well with raising kids and having a family. I really, really like the size of this city. I live in the eastern suburbs, and my commute is under 20 minutes. I don't have to get on the highway. I never have to face traffic.

I've spent years and years and years going from natural history museum to natural history museum doing research. Nowhere on planet Earth is there a natural history museum adjacent to a university, next to an art museum, next to one of the best orchestras on the planet, next to a history center, next to Cleveland Institute of Art. This doesn't exist anywhere else. It just doesn't happen. So it's really, really unique.

Cleveland's so awesome, because you can do all the things that are available in a big city, but they're available to you at a more reasonable price, and a more reasonable schedule. If you go to New York City, and you want to go to the Met, you're probably only going to go see the opera at the Met and go out to dinner. But here, everything is so accessible, you could hit all of this stuff and experience all of these things and go to Playhouse Square and go to the orchestra. You could fit it all in one weekend, and not come out of it thousands of dollars down.

And the quality of what you can get is comparable to major cities, except it is less expensive and more accessible. It's a big little city, is the best way to describe it. It feels like a smaller town, but it has the resources of a big city.

What do you like to do around town for fun?

I sail, and I use the lake a lot. I race a boat out of Lakeside Yacht Club, with a boat owner, so I crew.

We definitely try to do a lot of the cultural things. We go out to eat. We go to Playhouse Square. We come down to University Circle a lot. We go to the orchestra a lot, and try to have dinner before that. I like the restaurants. The Metroparks, obviously--we spend a huge amount of time in the Metroparks.

What can visitors expect as the Cleveland Museum of Natural History approaches its centennial year in 2020, and with the upcoming redesign of the museum?

If you think about what a natural history museum is, it really is one of the few places that is the leading edge of presenting science to the public. I think there's a large disconnect in society in terms of how people can participate in science, and how accessible science really is. And institutions like this have the capability of doing that.

Science has happened off in inaccessible areas for so long that people have decided that it's not that valuable. And it's fundamental to everything. It's fundamental to people's daily lives, and they don't realize that. Ultimately, a natural history museum can participate in changing the conversation in society, and that's really the underlying approach to the upcoming redesign of the museum.

Our research programs here are internationally recognized. The institution is headed in a very, very positive direction, and ultimately, what I see is a facility that supports the need of scientific engagement. What you'll see as we move forward is you walk into the new building and you'll see exhibits that incorporate current scientific understanding and incorporate research that happens here at this institution, so people can see the value being added right here--it's really about placing people in the scientific arena.

And the other thing is, kids go to classes, read books, their education is fact-based science. Getting them to see research labs, see collections, see the stuff they don't normally get to see and put themselves there, I think is a hugely important step. If we remain in the basement, and the research remains in the basement and my students never get to interact with the public, then we remain a disposable, inaccessible thing that is not valued.

Imagine a museum that, every time you walk in, there's the exhibits which are cool, but then you can go talk to somebody. Your kid can walk up to a graduate student who's working on a project or there's a thing set up in one of our science studios where there's an interaction with the parents and the kids. It's the trajectory that this institution is going on.

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