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  • Writer's pictureFrank DiGiovanni

SMLI Interviews: Our Executive Director

As part of the ongoing series, I am happy to announce our next interviewee: Kristen Laird, the Executive Director of the Science Museum of Long Island (SMLI). As the director of the Museum, Kristen, it seems, is always going here, meeting with someone there or diligently working at her desk on some project, whether it be capital fund-raising, attending to the website's redesign or any number of tasks required of an Executive Director. I sat down with her on a bright and sunny, but cold Friday afternoon in late January of 2023, in her office up on the 3rd floor, looking out over Manhasset Bay and started asking questions.

Kristen Laird, SMLI's Executive Director | Courtesy of Kristen

Our appointment was at 2p.m. and she was coming from the State of the Town Address hosted by the League of Women Voters, I reminded her that as the boss, she could never "late" to something so informal like this interview, and that she needn't have felt rushed in anyway, which I am happy to report, she laughed at. After reminding her that we could hold off if she needed or wanted to, I asked a "hard-hitting": "How does it feel to have a meeting that is 'no stress'?" After she stopped laughing, she said "It IS stressful! All of my meetings are important and I missed your email about what questions I could expect." (Much to my happiness she did, in fact, miss that email!) Remembering that it's easy to say something versus doing it, I reminded her that she didn't have to be or feel stressed as we went forward; whether that helped remained to be seen.

As the Executive Director (ED), Kristen has a wide variety of duties she is responsible for which led to my first real question of the interview: "What is the biggest challenge of being the ED of the Museum?" She stopped and thought about it for only a moment before saying that it is the "Responsibility of the staff and to the board as well as the legacy of the Museum and its financial stability..." that was the biggest challenge. She continued that she "didn't realize the magnitude of it, at first..." but that it quickly became apparent as she continued to sit in the "big chair". As someone who has worked in a variety of nonprofits, I can attest that the things Kristen mentioned are similar to any place with such a long history, such as SMLI. But with challenges can come success, which led me directly to my next question: What do you consider to be your biggest success as the ED of SMLI? "One of the biggest things is the growth in our memberships and not only surviving COVID but thriving since we've gone through the worst of it [COVID]." Kristen continued, "The increasing popularity of our programs and the preserve and the re-engagement with the community which has opened up so many new possibilities and partnerships for the Museum. And of course, the tremendous progress we have made removing the kudzu and other invasive plant species from the preserve. We are light years ahead of where we thought we would be in this process. Ecosystem restoration is so important, and I am extremely proud of the work we have been doing."

After thinking about what she'd said, it was time for the next question: "Why do you think SMLI has had such an impact on the students and communities it serves?" Kristen sat for a few moments, the wheels in her head clearly turning, before answering me with a smile. "We've been here for over 60 years, we continue to share our [teachers'] love and passion for learning and hands-on science education. We've had many generations come here. Heck, my mom came here when she was a kid! It is a special place where we can impart a love of learning to the next generation and that is important. Our communities are looking for a place where they can get hands-on learning that they can't or don't get in schools; we provide that with all of the lessons we offer." Kristen looked almost relieved after that question so it was time to ask another "hard hitting" one. "If you could wave a magic wand and make ANYTHING happen to SMLI, what would it be, and why?" With a burst of laughter came her answer, "Instantly have the money raised to fix the building!" While the building is impressive, it is in need of major renovations, which she relayed to me, "aren't cheap", and without giving away the amount she'd like to have to spend on the aforementioned renovations and fixes, she continued that she would " to have all the capital improvements done to save the building."

IMPORTANT side note! If you are interested in donating, please visit the Donation Page on our website, where you can donate however much you would like. And since we are a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, chartered by the New York State Board of Regents (in 1963), you know all of your donations will go directly to the museum and the various needs it has. We also have no endowment or significant sources of revenue other than fees charged for our programs and the value of contributed services, so any money donated will go a long way. Thank you.

After the serious business of those questions, it was time to turn our attention towards something else and ask who the biggest inspiration in Kristen's life is/was. "I would have to say my grandmothers, but for different reasons." She continued that, "They instilled my work ethic, style and how I work. I also had two amazing teachers in middle school, Mr. Amdur and Mr. Mirza! They were both instrumental in changing my approach to school and igniting my love of learning and giving me the confidence I needed to succeed in school and life." As we moved on and I glanced at my watch with the realization my Girl Scout overnight badge was getting closer to it's start time, so I pressed on.

Kaia, Kristen's beloved Golden Retriever and SMLI's house dog

As you may or may not know, we have a "house dog", Kaia... Who is (the bestest girl EVER and) giving me her paw in the photo at left. Kristen's Golden Retriever has been coming here with her since a few days after she was adopted and is always a hit when students see her! I mean there aren't many kids and adults who don't get all goofy over a floofy, friendly dog like Kaia.

How beneficial has Kaia been on the staff here, and why? Chuckling with a smile, Kristen reached for Kaia, who had been sitting in her office quietly, and who suddenly seemed to realize that we were talking about her. "I think she's been a GREAT addition! I feel that she makes me more approachable, and I think she's a great stress reliever, distraction and source of warmth (if you're feeling low). She loves you guys, loves coming to visit you and seems to miss you when we're not here. I feel that she's helped make us a family." Personally, as a dog lover, I know the power these little wolves-in-disguise have to bring people together and I completely agree with what Kristen said about her. Although sometimes when you're trying to get work done and a wet nose hits you in the elbow with the face that seems to say "pet me", it's hard to not be distracted.

It was time for the last question and through all the seriousness of our conversation, it was time for a silly one: What is your strangest or most fun memory from your childhood? Knowing some of the stories she'd already told me before, I was curious to see what story she came up with and she didn't disappoint. After some thought and a lot of laughter, her answer came to her, she explained it. "When I was little, I'm thinking I was four years old, I used to live in New York City and I would ride the elevator in my building (by myself no less) and I would talk to anyone in the elevator about what I was wearing and whatever else came to my mind. My parents would find me just riding the elevator and telling people 'I am wearing Oshkosh B'gosh'!" I too, was laughing at the end of her answer because I could almost see four-year-old Kristen talking to these random people she mentioned. But, with that answer completed, it was the end of our interview and I had to put the finishing touches on my preparation for the overnight that was getting closer to it's start time.

I thanked Kristen for her time, dropped off my notes at my desk and set off down the stairs to finish preparing (for what I would learn, was a boisterous girl scout troop). And as one more demonstration of the hard work that it takes to run this place, Kristen was here that Friday, until about 7:30pm when the Girl Scouts and I heard the jingle of Kaia's collar and the door closing as the two of them left for the night. Kristen's dedication to SMLI and the things she's willing to do for this place are always apparent to those who know her. Further proof can be see in the photo at right, yes, that is her helping out during summer camp 2022, cooking hot dogs for our campers!

Kristen, helping out during Summer Camp 2022... Hot dogs are served!

With her leadership over the last almost-five years, SMLI has flourished despite the incredible stresses that COVID-19 placed on all of us and we continue to grow and get back to pre-COVID levels of business. This is evident by the increase in teaching staff, field trips coming back and off-site programs being scheduled. Kristen's leadership has seen the growth in membership, has secured funding for some of the projects that are happening on and around the grounds as well as just getting stuff done!! Without her, SMLI would surely be worse off and we thank her for all she's done for the Museum as we navigate into the future.

Remember, if you want to help, please consider donating using the link above. If you want to help by volunteering, please visit this page and set it up.

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