Frost Museum of Science hires new chief science officer from Smithsonian Institution

The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science has tapped a longtime Smithsonian Institution scientist and executive for the new position of chief science officer.

Eldredge “Biff” Bermingham, whose most recent role was as director of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, moves to Miami with his wife this weekend and starts his new job Monday.

“I think the museum was anxious to get me started,” said Bermingham, 60, whose research explored the genetics of biodiversity in Panama.

The molecular geneticist with a doctorate degree from the University of Georgia will supervise science content, education and research at the $275 million museum in downtown Miami. Bermingham said his goal in Miami is to connect science and society in more beneficial ways, especially on environmental issues.

“I’d really like to change the way that we converse with society about science so that society becomes better educated, better informed so the political decisions that ultimately are going to determine how we manage our coastlines are made much more thoughtfully,” he said in an interview this week.

Bermingham said he also wants to raise money for research on behalf of the museum while delivering information to the public “in delightful ways.” He knows the Frosts, who donated $35 million to the museum, and said it was important to them that science at the museum “is being done and told in a way that’s very serious.” The $275 million museum is under construction in downtown Miami on Biscayne Boulevard, just west of the newly opened Perez Art Museum Miami.

“I’m already in love with Miami, but I certainly want to see this museum become something that has national and international relevance and authority,” he said.

For its part, the museum knew it wanted to create the role of chief science officer and became interested in Bermingham before ever posting the job.

“We were looking for somebody that had a really strong science background to help us with ensuring the science credibility of what we do,” said Gillian Thomas, the museum’s president and CEO. “Because we want this to be really enjoyable, really engaging, open to everybody but actually really good science too.”

Thomas said Bermingham did some consulting work on the Living Core aquarium last year and impressed museum staff.

“We’d all enjoyed working with him and found that his mix of experience and general enthusiasm —especially around the environmental topics, which is at the heart of what we do — was really engaging and special,” she said. “He’s a very, very talented scientist, but also a great communicator.”

Anthony “Bud” Rock, president and CEO of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, said he spoke to Bermingham about the position, which is more in-depth than what many science museums have on staff.

“I think one of the things that is important to emphasize is that science itself is not a boring discipline, particularly if it’s conveyed the right way; science can be filled with curiosity and interest and creativity,” Rock said. “And Biff comes from a particular aspect of the science community that really accentuated that, accentuated the creative and interesting elements of what science brings to the world. He has a very special opportunity to convey a wealth of experience that he has already obtained.”

Bermingham joins the museum two years after its groundbreaking in Museum Park — and with plenty of work left to go. The 250-seat planetarium is about halfway up, the angled wall is in place behind the future ticketing area, construction has reached the fifth and top floor in some sections and the supports for the 600,000-gallon aquarium tank are in place.

No opening date has been set.

“Our public debut is expected to take place between 20 and 24 months from now, and we're planning for a big party inside the facility at the end of 2015,” Thomas said in a statement.

“We just want to make sure we get it absolutely right,” Thomas said this week, pointing out the complexity of installing the exhibitions once construction is finished.

So far, about $85 million in private gifts and pledges have been made or are in the works, including some that have not yet been announced. Of the $275 million total, $165 million will come from a Miami-Dade County bond issue.

Bermingham said plans for the 250,000-square-foot museum intrigue him, especially the Living Core aquarium, which will seek to replicate the Gulf Stream; the museum’s rooftop, which will include a solar farm and urban garden; and the planetarium.

“It’s a remarkable opportunity to be associated with a museum which is under construction both from an architectural and intellectual perspective,” Bermingham said.

Former colleague Owen McMillan, academic dean and staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, said Bermingham will bring passion, vision and energy to the job.

“That combination is electric and it’ll bring an electric atmosphere to the museum,” he said.

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