As a young girl on family vacations to Washington D.C., Helen James asked her parents to drop her off at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in the morning and not come back until closing time.
It was the 1960s and parents could do that.
Today, the paleo-ornithologist and AAAS Fellow is the museum's curator in charge of birds. She oversees more than 640,000 specimens—one of the largest collections in the world—as well as more than 80,000 bird fossils, many of which she helped dig up over the past four decades.
"I had my eyes on the natural history museum from a very young age," James said. "I stuck with it. It was hard to get me to go away."
Through college, she volunteered or worked at the museum during the summer. After graduating from the University of Arkansas in 1977, she landed a job helping identify bird fossils and she's been with the museum ever since.
A backstage pass leads James down long hallways of offices and labs, and through huge rooms full of specimens carefully stored in drawers and boxes, waiting to reveal their secrets about bird evolution, adaptation and extinction. It's not just the bones and feathers, but the people who preserve and study them, that make work fun.
"I like museum people. Often, we're a little bit special," she said, laughing. "The people who choose to spend a large part of their career in a natural history museum tend to care about nature, they care about people, human cultures. They just have a certain spark and they don't necessarily care that much how the rest of the world may see that."
James wasn't always interested in studying birds, even though both her parents were avian ecologists. Her first love was archaeology. As a child growing up in rural Fayetteville, Arkansas, she ran around exploring the forests of the Ozark Mountains. When she found arrowheads, she wondered about the little girls who had grown up in the area long before her. James joined the Northwest Arkansas Archaeological Association when she was around 12 years old—by far the youngest member at the time.
When she was 14, her family lived in Ghana while her father taught on a Fulbright Fellowship. Living in Africa for a year was "an enormous eye opener," James said. "I went back to Fayetteville and high school just didn't seem like enough."
She petitioned the University of Arkansas for early admission and started college at age 16. She wasn't intimidated at all, having already taken the archaeology field course and French at the university.
Fascinated by digging up human history, she studied human evolution and archaeology. But it wasn't until a box of Hawaiian bird bones arrived at the Smithsonian that she plunged into ornithology and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in zoology.
Many species were new, never described by scientists before. "I could see a lot of questions were raised by these bones," she said. "What were these birds? How had they evolved? Where had they come from? How had they changed in response to island life? I was just drawn into the pursuit of uncovering this history."
James and her collaborators have worked for more than 35 years to piece together the story of those bones. She and her now-ex-husband, Storrs Olson, a museum curator, would spend months every field season excavating sites to build up the museum's collection, which now stands at more than 70,000 identified Hawaiian bird fossils. They took their two children with them and the whole family camped at a state park where they worked with another researcher-couple, trading off beachside babysitting with fossil excavtion in a muddy cave.
They've identified about 60 extinct Hawaiian bird species. At first, they theorized the extinctions were part of a natural turnover of fauna. However, through carbon dating and other techniques, James determined most had gone extinct within the past 1,000 years, after the first humans arrived in the Hawaiian archipelago.
"It implies major ecological change," James said. "We often call it an ecological collapse to lose so many of the vertebrates that are native to these highly endemic ecosystems."
Through studying ancient DNA sequestered in the bones, James and her colleagues learn about the evolution of the species and how they relate to one another. Chemical isotopes provide clues about habitat and diet. Paired with precise carbon dating of human events—like the start of farming, or the introduction of rats from foreign ships—researchers can surmise why a species likely went extinct.
These days, her research program also includes using fossils to study existing seabird species. But she must juggle research with her curatorial duties—supervising the four specialists who prepare, maintain and expand the collection; reconfirming identities and digitizing records; hosting 300 annual guest researchers and fielding hundreds more requests for tissue samples.
"There's a tension between conserving the specimens and having them serve science," James said. "We are constantly trying to do the right job of that."
Still, she wouldn't want to be anywhere else—perfectly positioned at the Smithsonian to collaborate with others around the world.
"It is an amazing spot," she observed, pulling open window blinds to reveal a bird's-eye view of the U.S. Capitol's iconic dome rising at the end of National Mall. "It's too bad I'm not into politics."