Exclusive Interview With Dr Paula M. Mikkelsen

Exclusive Interview With Dr Paula M. Mikkelsen

Dr Mikkelsen (2)Dr Mikkelsen has over 25 years’ experience as an author, editor and research scientist. She is Associate Director for Science and Director of Publications at the Paleontological Research Institution.

Dr Mikkelsen is a malacologist, conducting research on the systematics and diversity of marine molluscs. One of her proudest achievements was co­curating the exhibition and book­ “Pearls – A Natural History” (American Natural History Museum).

In an exclusive Interview with the British Pearl Association, we find out more about her career success.

1. How did you get started in the field of malacology?

I had many wonderful mentors, many of them actually amateur shell collectors in the shell clubs that I belonged to. They really taught me about shells and how to collect them. Working at Harbor Branch, I met many visiting scientists to HB and to the close­by Smithsonian Marine Station. One such visitor was the late Dr. Richard “Joe” Houbrick, Curator of Mollusks at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. Joe and I became good friends, and he was the first one to really take my interest in mollusks seriously, showing me how to dissect, prepare specimens for scanning electron microscopy, and encouraging me to pursue research and publishing on it.

2. Can you describe your career highlights? Proudest achievement?

That’s a hard question to answer. I am very proud of my “body of work” as they say, ranging from systematic malacology, to phylogeny, diversity, reproductive biology, ecology, history, biography, translations, and literature surveys. I’ve published on snails, clams, euphausiid crustaceans (krill), and even opossum. I’ve been a member of many prestigious professional societies, have served in offices, and am past­president of two – the American Malacological Society and the Institute of Malacology, which publishes the journal Malacologia. I have met and worked with many, many talented colleagues.

Pearls a Natural HistoryIf I have to single out one achievement, certainly near the top of my “best” list is the exhibition and the book both by the same name, Pearls – A Natural History.  We had the fortunate combination of two biologists (Rüdiger Bieler and myself), a paleontologist/historian (Neil Landman), and a cultural anthropologist (Bennet Bronson), each contributing research, insight, and their own personal styles.

During the project, I was also fortunate to work with the staff of two marvelous natural history museums (AMNH and The Field Museum in Chicago), and an absolutely fabulous exhibit development team at AMNH. This exhibit allowed us to teach about mollusks and bring in different audiences. The subject of pearls is very wide. There are four elements to the subject of pearls: the marine biology side, the history/anthropology of pearls and pearl use, not just in jewelry , but also in textiles and religion and medicine. Then there is the aquaculture, people interested in pearl culturing. And then there is the gemology side to pearls, those interested in the pearl jewelry. We wanted to teach all those people about how pearls are made by living animals as well.

Even more than a decade later, I continue to be called upon to answer questions about pearls (i.e., from you!), and to speak about them – I will be presenting another invited “pearls talk” at the annual convention of the Conchologists of America in Florida in July.

Dr Mikkelsen

Image: Dr Mikkelesen trying to graft (insert a bead) at Mikimoto in Japan

3. Is there anything about pearls that you would still like to research?

Research on pearls – not really, but I would like to develop a comprehensive pearls website as a home for all that I learned during the project. I have information about all of the mollusks known to produce pearls (technically any mollusk that can make a shell can make a pearl, but pearls have have not been reported from all of them), what kinds of pearls are produced by each country worldwide, a huge bibliography, and many, many photographs taken on our travels. I’ve updated these documents since leaving the project, but do not yet have a home for them. Perhaps in my retirement….

4. Do you have a favourite pearl variety?

I was always fond of “black pearls” (which come in many colours, none of them actually black – mine are very dark green) from French Polynesia, and I wear the ones that I bought in Tahiti at nearly every dressy occasion. Another favorite is the pink conch pearls made by the Queen Conch of the Caribbean – they are all natural, having never been successfully cultured, and are not nacreous, possessing instead a lovely pink porcelain finish and a property called chatoyancy (which looks a bit like luminous fibers arising from the center of the pearl to the surface.)

5. What, in your opinion, makes pearls so special?

To me pearls are special because they are “natural gems.” They are made by living animals – even in their human­assisted cultured form – and take on the color and characteristics of the shells of their molluscan originators. (Have you ever seen Melo pearls? Gorgeous orange marbles!) Pearls are finished when discovered, requiring no cutting, polishing, or dying to be beautiful (although all of those “enhancements” have been and continue to be popular). They have a fascinating cultural history, dating back to ancient times and continuing to evolve today. Their popularity never fades.

If you want to know more about malacology, Contact  Dr Paula Mikkelsen at www.priweb.org/research.php?page=702670/cv_mikkelsen

Or Email Dr Mikkelsen

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