A special reception and lecture Friday at the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History will celebrate the opening of an exhibit that combines an influential Texas A&M professor’s legacy and Ice Age paleontology, as well as honor the museum’s most tenured employee.
Maria Lazo will receive recognition for her more than 20 years of service, a legacy that has proven to be one of the museum’s most essential pieces of history.
On Wednesday, she strolled through the museum’s main exhibit area, admiring the details of Fossil Fever, a collaborative collection assembled and researched by the museum’s curator, Rebecca Ingram. Beneath glass cases the skulls of animals long extinct — including a species of horse discovered by Mark Francis, Texas A&M’s first veterinary science professor — are on display. The collection of dozens of bones and artifacts tells the story not only of ancient natural history, but of Francis and his veterinary research.
While Ingram was preparing the artifacts, description cards and displays, Lazo was doing some research of her own, developing what she perceives as the best way to teach visiting field trip groups and campers about the contents of Fossil Fever.
“I’m particularly interested because it looks at Texas A&M history and our history as a natural history museum,” she said. “It’s also an extension of Ice Age animal fossils, so it’s an extension of something we already have in place. We can incorporate those together, but show something we don’t get to show as often.”
Lazo has hands-on experience with plenty of exhibits at the museum. Years before the museum was able to hire a curator, Lazo was assisting the former director in researching and gathering pieces to bring in on loan from outside organizations. Lazo first began working with the Brazos Valley Museum as a summer camp counselor in 1997 during her time as an anthropology student at Texas A&M. Through that seasonal job, she nurtured her love of working with children and animals. She eventually was hired on as an education coordinator.
“I think for anyone to have worked somewhere for 20 years, it would get boring,” she said. “But working in a small museum, there are so many things I get to do. I also get to work as an office manager, work with volunteers, assist with exhibits. It’s never a dull day.”
Lazo is full of passion — for teaching children, for caring for the museum’s live reptiles and insects and for natural history. She enjoys planning the museum’s camp and field trip curriculum, making archaeology and history palatable and relatable for children.
“My favorite thing is when I’m giving a tour and I see the faces of the kids,” she said. “They’re really intrigued and interested seeing the artifacts and specimens, and that little light shows in their eyes — it makes it so much easier to [conduct] the tour when they’re excited and interested.”
Following a short VIP dinner for donors Friday evening, the museum will host a free public event premiering Fossil Fever. Matthew Brown, director of the University of Texas’ Vertebrate Paleontology Collections, will give a public lecture starting at 6:30 p.m., with a reception to take place shortly afterward. During the reception, the Brazos Valley Museum’s Executive Director Deborah Cowman and colleagues will take time to honor Lazo’s career.
“[Lazo] is one of those rare individuals who’s just extremely dedicated and self motivated,” Cowman said. “She loves children and works very, very well with them. She’s firm, kind and fun. Parents love her. ... Some of the college students who come back to work here as camp counselors were children she’d had in the educational program when they were younger, and you don’t get that without a program that’s really good with consistency. ... I’ve always referred to her as the glue that holds the museum together.”
Cowman asks that any teachers or other educators in the community whose classes have been positively impacted by Lazo’s curriculum at the museum stop by the reception Friday and share a kind word with Lazo.
Fossil Fever is on display through Jan. 11. The artifacts on display were loaned by the University of Texas at Austin — Texas Vertebrate Paleontology Collection, Texas A&M’s Medical Sciences Library, the S.M. Tracy Herbarium, the Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, and the surviving family of Mark Francis.