Marlee Tavlin (MA ’18) on her work at the American Museum of Natural History and Teachers College

Marlee Tavlin (M.A. ’18) holds a crested gecko at the American Museum of Natural History.

Marlee Tavlin earned her master’s degree from the Anthropology and Education program in 2018. Since 2013, she has also worked as an educator at the American Museum of Natural History. Recently, Marlee took some time with the TC Anthro blog to share some reflections on her work and her education. We hope you enjoy the interview!

What is your role at the Museum of Natural History? What sort of work do you do?

I am an educator in the Child and Family Learning sub-department of the Education department. I teach, assist and help write curricula for science classes for students ages 18 months-10 and facilitate and help manage volunteers and interns in the Discovery Room. 

Working at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) has given me the opportunity to see how effective informal science education can be from a teacher’s perspective. For the past seven years, I have worked directly with children and their families, teaching them a variety of subjects including biology, computer coding, earth science and astronomy. While I am now focused on elementary school education, I have taught science to all age groups, from Gateway Storytime for preschoolers to intensive science camps and workshops for middle and high school students.

My favorite type of science to teach is biological anthropology. I have had the opportunity to act as a facilitator in the Sackler Educational Laboratory for Comparative Genomics and Human Origins. The most rewarding programs that I have been involved with are the ones where I teach students and families who may not otherwise be able to participate because of a language barrier or because they could not afford it. This is what sparked my research interest in out of school time (OST) programming that focuses on diversity, multiculturalism and accessibility. Unfortunately, I have also come to learn that this type of programming is limited.

Your master’s thesis was about your work at the Museum, right? Could you tell us about that project?

My master’s thesis used ethnographic methods to explore the experiences of families attending the Discovery Day program at AMNH. Since its inception six years ago, I have been part of the Discovery Day program, which brings families from across the five boroughs living in New York City Public Housing to the museum for a day of informal science education.

Discovery Day, which is a collaboration amongst AMNH, NYCHA and the City Council, began in 2014. It provides a unique opportunity for low-income families to participate in science — not just as a family, but also with members of their respective communities. I interviewed children and caregiving adults and conducted participant observation. I found that attending the Discovery Day was an important piece of a continuum of science experiences for all participants, many of whom have limited access to science.

Has studying anthropology been helpful for your work at the Museum? How?

Studying anthropology has definitely been helpful with my work at AMNH. Since I work with so many different people it has given me a great lens to look through. Additionally, with the lens to notice different cultures I have taken an interest in the extremely different populations we serve at the museum.

What led you to study anthropology in the first place?

What led me to study anthropology was actually my work at AMNH. When I started there, I was a nineteen-year-old social work undergrad student at NYU. My first boss actually had studied anthropology, and the more I learned about it the more it interested me. Social work also is about understanding people and their cultures, so it was not a big leap to add anthropology as my second major in undergrad.

Even though TC’s program is in cultural anthropology, I love all types of anthropology and even worked at the Sackler Lab for Human Evolution at AMNH. I knew anthropology would be the best lens to study my research interest — the NYC school system and out of school time programming.

What were your favorite classes at TC? And who were your favorite professors?

I really enjoyed the flexibility that the anthropology program gave me to study in different departments. I enjoyed the museum education classes I took, but I think my favorite courses were definitely the research methods courses! This led me to want to pursue research and ultimately get my PhD.

One of my favorite professors was, of course, Dr. Limerick, who taught my advanced methods course. And I will never forget the insights into being an “old school” anthropologist given by Dr. Comitas!

Do you have any advice for prospective students who share your interests?

My advice for the non-profit/museum world — which usually has a tight budget and a lot of people wanting the same position, especially in the world class museums we have here in NYC — is to start with an internship, to get your foot in the door. Getting your foot in the door is key. Even if you have to start by volunteering, once you make connections it will pay off!I started at AMNH as an unpaid intern and took every opportunity I could get, whether paid or unpaid. 

For those interested in research in out of school time programming, my advice is to just apply to as many jobs as you can! Even if you are a master’s student, you should still start developing your own research projects and applying to conferences.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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