SMLI Interviews: Dr. Hildur Palsdottir
Updated: Apr 19
As the start of the ongoing interview series here at SMLI, I was able to sit down with a most interesting person whose journey to the Science Museum started over 2,700 miles away in another country. The current president of the board of Trustees is Dr. Hildur Palsdottir, Rev. RMT. Dr. Palsdottir, or “Hildur” as she’s known to the staff here at SMLI, sat down with me a back in September of 2020 to discuss her incredible story: originating in her native Iceland to the Max-Planck Institute of Biophysics (Germany), from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (California) before NYU owning a small business in Port Washington and now to SMLI.
It was a warm and sunny late-September day when we sat down and with an excited smile, Hildur dove right into my first question regarding her studies at the Max-Planck Institute of Biophysics, Department of Membrane Biology, where she studied cellular bioenergetics, and what exactly that was. “My work was about the structure and function relationships of the cytochrome b-c-1 complex in the yeast respiratory chain and the use of X-ray Crystallography to study the structure of membrane bound protein complexes.” (Right now, I am sure you are as confused as I was when she told me, but it’s a FASCINATING area of study!) “I was lucky enough to work with a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry!” Dr. Hartmut Michel shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre”. The driving force behind this unique area of study was Hildur’s “…interest in the big picture…” But that wasn’t Hildur’s only stop on the research pathway she walked at the time, for now it was on to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California.
On the campus of UC Berkeley, her research took the form of “Electron tomography…”- a technique for displaying a serial representation of a cross section through a human cells or tissues or other biological tissues with transmission electron microscopy. She smiled and laughed as she relayed that she had access to the best (micro)scopes but that changed when she bemoaned that she “couldn’t leave (to go home)” due to the intense nature of her research. It was also while at Berkeley that Dr. Palsdottir had much of her research published, such as “Three-dimensional macromolecular organization of cryofixed Myxococcus xanthus biofilms as revealed by electron microscopic tomography” (It’s COMPLETELY okay if that is beyond your scope of understanding or if that doesn’t make any sense to you, don’t worry. I had to have to have her explain it to me as well!) After her time at Berkeley, Hildur’s path took her to NYU Medical School where she “continued the study of bacterial biofilms” - a collective of one or more types of microorganisms that can grow on many different surfaces. Or, she continues with a laugh, “whatever people brought to me. Including the high-pressure freezing of cells.” This allows the cells to freeze without forming damaging crystals within the cell; when asked if this was SOMETHING like the deep-freeze sleep in science fiction stories, she laughs and agrees but states that we couldn’t “wake up” the cells yet.
While at NYU, Hildur found the extremely competitive nature within the research department and the “funding issues” there to be very disheartening and that “good ideas were not funded”. These negative feelings, issues with funding, along with working with harmful chemicals and a significant chemical spill experienced while pregnant in the lab, helped shape her next “great experiment”; it was back in her research days in Germany that she discovered Buddhist Meditation that continued to help shape her life. Gathering the strength, Hildur stepped away from the research setting at NYU, to conduct the next great experiment in her life, one coming from the burgeoning life inside her.
Her PhD is a long way from what she does now, running Sol Center in Port Washington and I asked her about such a 180° shift from where she had been. Along with doing her part to eliminate the use of single-use plastics in her lab (and field), “The next big experiment is children,” she says smiling and laughing, “I decided to make this change for my family. I asked myself ‘What’s important to me?’ and the answer was obviously ‘family’.” The chemicals, über-competitive nature of research and a personal change in what she wanted from her life, led her to become a climate activist and she “stepped away” from the research world.
As people of science here at SMLI, we all seek to educate both students and their adults about the world in which they live. Despite the onslaught of misinformation and outright lies that seem to permeate everyday life, I asked her what she felt was the most effective way of educating the public and coping with those who deny facts. She starts out with “meditation” before laughing and saying, “I gather the flock.” She continues, “We have to admit we live in a sick society before moving forward (with a fix).” Shifting in her chair she smiled before speaking again, “Gather roughly 3% of the people to a cause and it can change the cultural consciousness.” But she admits that’s not always easy. As she gathers the flock to causes that she is passionate about, she reminds me that “This can bring awareness to something like single-use plastic items and how they are damaging the environment.” I nod in agreement, as she finishes “You have to create a movement to demand the change you want to see.”
Hildur might be a certified mindfulness meditation instructor (which she is), ordained interfaith minister (that too) and Reiki Master Teacher (a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation) but, she is also the co-founder of and highly involved with ReWild Long Island, a newly formed nonprofit whose mission is “Organized primarily for the purpose of working with communities on Long Island to protect and improve the biodiversity, resilience, and health of regional ecosystems by adopting sustainable landscaping practices centered around native plants.” I asked, "How could someone get involved with ReWild Long Island?" Hildur gladly explains, “Join as a member (there is a fee), be part of the discussion, be part of a plant sale. You can reach out and connect through the website www.rewildlongisland.org.” Something that we can all do is to plant native species of plants; ReWild’s website says it perfectly: “ReWilding is the act of bringing life-supporting native plants with all their genetic diversity into our private and public spaces, so that our lives become a little less sterile and a little more wild.”
The sun was setting and the questions became more SMLI-focused and when I asked her how she learned about SMLI as well as what provoked her to get involved with the Board of Trustees . “My children came to summer camp here, we would wander the grounds and I became fond of them [the grounds]. And before the holidays one year, we created a party for kids who didn’t celebrate the ‘regular’ holidays and called it the ‘Solstice Party’ here at the museum; it allowed me to get to know the board and staff. I wanted to help, so I got involved.” With Hildur being president of the board of trustees now, it felt appropriate that the next question looked towards the future, specifically the next five years here at SMLI and what she envisions for the museum. “I want to create an environment where the institution not only survives but thrives; it becomes an educational center where our young scientists learn to relate mindfully to the world around them and each other. We must teach regenerative methods and get back to Earth in all our affairs.” Specifically, she mentions that getting back to the Earth insofar as people becoming part of the solution and not part of the problem or mitigating the negative impacts that humans have already had on our environment. She went on to say, “I also want to continue to be aligned with the incredible staff here and have our ‘graduates’ recognize their effects on Earth and how they can help. One thing especially is the elimination of non-essential single-use plastics.”
Personally, I have been fortunate enough to work with incredibly smart young people when I ran an international, STEM-based innovation competition for high school students which sent me on a cruise to the Dominican Republic as well as work with such wonderful people like Joan Dickinson the director of Community Relations at Stony Brook University. When I asked what the “most interesting STEM-based thing” she’d ever done, I was shocked to learn that it wasn’t working with a Nobel laureate or researching at Berkeley National Lab, rather it was something much closer to home. “Raising Monarch butterflies from eggs, observing them through their entire life cycle much in the way Maria Sibylla Merian did.” Addressing the confusion playing across my face as she finished her previous sentence, Hildur elaborates, “She was a Naturalist at a time when it was unheard of that women were going on research expeditions. She lived from 1647 to 1717 and she provided evidence of the metamorphosis insects went through; they didn’t just APPEAR from the ground.”
Having my eyes opened to a woman in history I didn’t know of before, I saved the hardest question for last. Being from Iceland, I asked her what the coolest thing about your native country is. Laughing, she says, “The ice… and underground fire … geothermal energy! This energy is very sustainable and is leading to Iceland dropping its usage of fossil fuels as it hopes to be carbon neutral by 2040!” This is in part due to Iceland’s participation in the Paris Agreement signed by 197 countries, aiming to lower greenhouse emissions and limit the global temperature increase in this century to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. “The fresh, clean air and pure water of Iceland is something I am proud of.”
It was with that answer, that our time was over, and I had to attend to other duties around the museum. Hildur continues to be a source of ideas and helps guide the museum into the future. Always willing to lend a hand or listen to an idea, if you meet her, you’ll know. She’ll listen and move forward excitedly into the future.
If you'd like more reading...
Further reading about Dr. Hartmut Michel’s Nobel Prize winning work is available through the Nobel Prize website.
A list of some of Dr. Palsdottir published works can be located here.
Information about the Sol Center can be found at their website.
Further reading about ReWild Long Island can be found here.
More information about Maria Sibylla Merian is located at the Botanical Arts and Artists website.
The 2020 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has information regarding the Paris Climate Agreement’s website
The Science Museum of Long Island’s website as always, is www.smli.org, the phone number is 516-627-9400 and contact email is email@example.com for any questions, programs schedules or if you just want to say “Hi.”