By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 27, 2007
Cristián Samper, the 41-year-old biologist and head of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, was tapped yesterday to become the acting secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, the world's largest museum complex.
Samper (pronounced sam-PAIR) was born in Costa Rica, grew up in Colombia, educated at the graduate level at Harvard and holds dual citizenship in Colombia and the United States. He said yesterday he would seek to lead the Smithsonian away from recent scandals and toward being the nation's noncontroversial scientific and cultural showcase.
"I've been meeting with the key staff, reaching out to regents and to key donors," he said in a telephone interview after the news conference at which he was introduced. "The main issue is that the Smithsonian is a great institution; it has a long history, and what it stands for is very important. I'll be trying to work on restoring public trust and the image of the Smithsonian."
Samper replaces Lawrence M. Small, who resigned Saturday morning after a stormy tenure that culminated in congressional questioning about his $2 million in personal expenses over the past six years.
In reaching out to Samper, who has been with the Smithsonian in Washington for four years, the Board of Regents skipped over two levels of bureaucrats who outrank him. However, Roger W. Sant, chair of the regent's executive committee, also heads the board of the Museum of Natural History -- a position in which he worked closely with Samper.
Sant introduced Samper as acting director yesterday and announced that a national search committee was being set up to seek a long-term replacement. Whether Samper would be a candidate for the post was not addressed, but the position has most often been filled by a scientist, and it would appear to be difficult to ignore Samper's whirlwind career.
"Cristián has a remarkable record of service," Sant said yesterday. "We are delighted he has agreed to serve."
His fascination with the natural world began early. As a child, he used to go to a relative's rural home and hop in the swimming pool.
"I'd go in there, but I didn't swim," he told the New York Times in a 2003 interview. "All I would do is collect the bugs and insects that would fall in the water and try to catalogue them."
He studied at the Universidad de Los Andes in Bogota, then obtained master's and doctoral degrees in biology from Harvard. He returned to Colombia, where he quickly followed his boyhood fascination to become an expert in the Andean cloud forests. At age 29 he founded the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Institute, a biodiversity research entity in Colombia. He helped create the nation's Ministry of the Environment and, in the position of chief science adviser, helped establish 200 nature reserves and design an education program that is now taught in 10,000 Colombian schools. He was awarded the National Medal for the Environment in 2001.
That same year, he moved to the Smithsonian, working in Panama as deputy director and, later, as interim director of the Tropical Research Institute. He maintained a youthful exuberance for fieldwork.
"One of the fun parts about my job there was that you got to learn a lot about bats," he said yesterday, with a laugh.
He moved to Washington in 2003 to become director of the Museum of Natural History, which vies with the Air and Space Museum as the most popular museum on the Mall. More than 6 million people traipse through the doors each year to watch 3-D nature films on the Imax screen, marvel at dinosaur bones or gawk at the Hope Diamond. Samper is undertaking the largest renovation in the museum's history -- a $72 million, 28,000-square-foot-hall for oceans and oceanic research.
In 2002, he married environmental lawyer Adriana Casas. They have a 14-month-old daughter, Carolina.
After being summoned to meet with regents yesterday for a long conversation about taking over the Smithsonian helm, Samper said he took his wife and daughter to the orchid exhibit at the Natural History Museum for the afternoon to await their decision. Later, learning that he had been selected, the family went home. No big parties, no bright lights.
"I just went home and sat down with my wife. We sat by the fireplace and had a glass of wine," he said. "We understand it will change our lives, but I think the best thing about it all is having the absolute support of my wife."