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Alf Museum’s Director of Visitor Engagement and Education Receives National Honor

Gabriel-Philip Santos, the Alf Museum’s director of visitor engagement and education, has been honored for his exceptional service to the field of paleontology with the 2022 John and Mary Lou Pojeta Award.

Santos accepted the award, conferred by The Paleontological Society, at the Geological Society of America Connects 2022 gathering held October 9-12 in Denver.

This national-level award was created in 2014 to recognize “exceptional professional or public service, by individuals or groups … above and beyond that of existing formal roles or responsibilities.”

Santos, along with frequent collaborator Brittney Stoneburg, collections manager of the Western Science Center, was recognized for bringing paleontology into new venues through efforts such as Fossil Friday Chats and Cosplay for Science.

“These innovative programs have reached thousands throughout Southern California, nationally and globally and continue to put the Alf Museum on the map,” Alf Museum Director Dr. Andy Farke said. “The recognition from The Paleontological Society, one of the major organizations for our profession, shows the respect that Gabe has earned within our scientific and educational communities.”

Santos, who has been with the Alf Museum since 2015, was promoted to his current post earlier this year. He previously served as both outreach coordinator and collections manager. Santos holds a Master of Science in geological sciences from Cal State Fullerton.

“This was an incredible honor,” Santos said. “When I first started in paleontology I didn’t know if I belonged in this field because I couldn’t see anyone like me in it. It was hard work forging my path, but now to be recognized by the community, I know that I made my place here and I hope I can show others like me they belong here, too.”

In 2021, Santos was named a 2021 Grosvenor Teacher Fellow by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions for his work as an informal science educator, including using cosplay and pop-up museums to engage diverse communities.

Paleontologist, Dr. Mairin Balisi, Joins Alf Museum as New Curator

Filipina woman holding a Smilodon skull in an aisle of museum cabinets

Paleontologist Mairin Balisi, an expert in fossil mammal carnivorans – such as dogs and cats – has joined the Alf Museum as the new Augustyn Family Curator of Paleontology.

Balisi earned a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology at UCLA. She earned her Master of Science in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. She attended UC Berkeley as an undergrad, earning a Bachelor of Arts in both integrative biology and comparative literature.

Most recently, she has worked as a National Science Foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum, and concurrently as a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at UC Merced.

She specializes in small to mid-sized mammals from 40 million to 40,000 years ago – including some that remain part of our world today.

“I really view the present as an extension of the past and as an early sign of the future. What we see in the fossil record are the roots of the present,” Balisi said. “What I hope to bring to the Alf Museum is this perspective of continuity between the past, present and future.”

Balisi succeeds Dr. Andrew Farke in the role of Augustyn Curator, a post created by the Augustyn family in 2011. Farke, who focuses largely on dinosaur paleontology, became director of the Alf Museum in 2021, succeeding Dr. Don Lofgren. Like Balisi, Lofgren specialized in mammal paleontology.

“Dr. Balisi’s outreach and publication records are impressive, as is her deep connection with the Southern California paleontological community,” Farke said. “She has conducted fieldwork throughout the western United States and Mexico, in addition to her work at the Tar Pits. Furthermore, she has a significant track record of mentoring students – including high school students. She’s an extraordinary addition to our team at the Alf Museum.”

Balisi will join Farke and Webb students on her first Peccary Trip, a sojourn to Wyoming from July 23 to August 6 to explore a site rich in mammals and dinosaur fossils.

During the academic year, Balisi will also teach paleontology courses within The Webb Schools Science Department, assist with after-school museum volunteering and mentor students in advanced research courses.