Connecting Natural History, Byte by Byte

By Stephen Deusner ’96

When Ariana French ’95 was a student at Rhodes, she spent hour upon hour hanging out in the computer lab. Tucked away on the second floor of Buckman Hall—which was the college’s newest building at the time—the facility housed what were then state-of-the-art Macintosh desktop computers, bulky contraptions with monitors as big as TVs, mouses that were actually wired to the keyboards, and skyscraper hard-drive towers with slots for floppy discs. Noisy with the clatter of fingers on keyboards and fans cooling circuitry, the room was kept dim, the lowered lights giving it the feel of a cave.

The computer lab was not a classroom but a resource for students from all departments: a tool to research, type, and print essays and lab notes. Most days—and well into the evenings—it was full of stressed-out students, with a slew of latecomers camped in the hallway outside, reading up for class while they waited for someone to leave and free up a computer.

“It was such a great place,” says French. “You could go there at any hour. It was totally unstructured—or at least that’s how I used it. I’m sure other students used it in a very constructive way, but for me it was a place to play.” A psychology major hailing from Martin, TN, she didn’t take any computer science classes during her four years at Rhodes, but French found the lab so inviting and intriguing that she would camp out at a terminal.

“I would just play around with this thing called the World Wide Web,” she says with a laugh. “I taught myself how to build a web page. This was back when the only background color you could have was gray. I was just having fun with it and didn’t even think about it too much, certainly not from a professional standpoint. But the computer lab was where I got my professional chops at an early age.”

For many students, a liberal arts education allows them to take inspiration wherever they find it. By turning any space into a classroom—whether it’s a lecture hall, a chemistry lab, a library carrel, or even Oak Alley—Rhodes allows for experimentation and exploration, and, therefore, unlimited opportunities to develop new ideas and make new connections. French found inspiration in the computer lab, and today those experiences inform her work as the director of digital technology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“People think it’s really strange that I have an undergraduate liberal arts degree and a master’s degree in art history, yet I work doing what I do,” French says. “But I don’t think it’s strange at all.” She oversees a small but growing team of programmers and support analysts who write, maintain, and continually update code for the museum’s websites, mobile apps, and internal databases. “Most of my job has to do with delivery, which means making sure that code is reviewed and approved in a proper code repository for versioning issues and things like that.” Most of the code is written by outside vendors and then edited and stored by French’s department, but because her position covers so many responsibilities and because she works with so many different departments within the museum, her days are largely unpredictable. One minute she might be writing a line or two of code, the next she might be hunting down lost Ethernet cables.

Founded in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History houses a massive collection of biological and geological specimens, including plants, animals, minerals, even meteorites. More than five million people, many of them junior and senior high school students, visit the institution yearly, venturing to its location adjacent to Central Park.
There they visit the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and Milstein Hall of Ocean Life and wander through the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites and the iconic Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, with its Barosaurus skeleton rearing back on its hind legs to show the full length of its two-story neck.

“We have so many school kids come through here, from the time they’re in kindergarten all the way through high school. When they become adults, hopefully they become members. So we have a lot of very active, very involved people who have been coming to the museum all their lives. It means very different things to them at different points in their lives.”

With the bustle of scientists and students, the museum is a busy place both in the galleries and behind the scenes, with more than 1,000 employees ranging from guards to guides to nearly every type of -ologist: paleontologists, anthropologists, herpetologists, mineralogists, petrologists, and on and on. The museum houses a world-renowned natural history library, as well as facilities for microscopy and imaging, biodiversity research, and geochemistry. It also grants a master of arts in teaching (MAT) degree, as well as a PhD in comparative biology. “To some people the museum is a dead zoo—a collection of things that were once living,” observes French. “But it’s a very dynamic place.”

Her job puts her in contact with nearly every department in the institution, as she assesses their specific digital needs. In some ways she is actually helping to bring these departments together, unifying the museum at least from a digital perspective. Currently she is heading up an effort to create a centralized application programming interface (API), which French describes as “the connective tissue that holds together a lot of different systems,” such as departmental databases and case collections. The ongoing project holds special appeal for her, because “it positions us well for the future. In days past, you basically had to get everybody on the same database, but that meant things could get lost. API gives us the tools to create and strengthen those connections.”

French’s route from the computer lab to the Museum of Natural History has been circuitous. After graduating from Rhodes with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in art history, she didn’t think she’d do much with her computer lab experience. She had other plans that aligned more closely with her undergraduate studies, but a chance opportunity provided a new path. In the late 1990s, at a time when websites were still a novelty and before mp3s were the predominant musical format, French offered to create a basic website for a friend’s band, a garage-rock trio called the Subteens. That project, she says, “ended up getting me my first job in technology. And here I am.”

French moved to New Orleans, where she worked as a full-time application developer—or, as she explains, “coder and database developer”—for Tulane University. At the same time, she attended art history classes and, in four years, had earned a master’s degree, studying anatomy lesson portraits commissioned by seventeenth-century Dutch surgical guilds.

Instead of working in academia, she continued pursuing a career in information technology, eventually moving nearly 1,500 miles north to New Haven, Connecticut, where she worked at the Yale University Art Gallery. “I wore two hats,” she explains. “As a digital projects manager, I oversaw projects like website redesign. As a collections systems administrator, I did database development, collections reports design, and systems administration. It was a marvelous job.”

Still, New York beckoned, and she fell in love with the city and its invigorating pace. “I find it hard to imagine living anywhere else now,” she says. “I love going to new restaurants and to plays on and off Broadway, and I really love attending events at the museum. There’s a tremendous calendar of lectures and educational programs.”

While she had no plans to pursue such a path, the educational aspects of her jobs at Tulane, Yale, and finally the American Museum of Natural History certainly appealed to her. “I fell into that by accident, but it was a natural fit for me. Maybe it sounds corny, but there is something so rewarding about working toward the greater good and having that be your bottom line.”

As the museum’s president, Ellen V. Futter, recently told the New York Times, the institution’s founders “were about collecting things and cataloging things. Now what we’re interested in is what the connections are among the different things that we have. It’s a much more interdisciplinary world.”

French’s responsibilities involve facilitating those connections, whether they’re between different disciplines or between the museum and the public. “A lot of what I do has to do with uncovering or reverse-engineering connections,” she explains. “And I feel like a liberal arts degree equips you like nothing else for identifying those connections between very different systems. It can be the economics of one country, the geography of another, and the history of a third—all of which can yield these incredibly rich patterns and similarities. It sounds really conceptual, but on a day-to-day level, I feel like it’s given me everything I need.”