Private donors supply scientists with crucial tools for research

| Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009

Fifty years ago, Dr. Richard Moriarty was the teenage son of a single mom living in working-class Lawrenceville, passing his weekends with scientists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Today he is easing into retirement from a career as a pediatrician. And he still spends his free time with the Oakland museum's scientists. Except now he's able to give something back.

"I knew I wanted to be a doctor," said Moriarty, of Washington's Landing. "But I think I succeeded not only because I had a mom who was ages ahead of her time and said, 'If you want to do it, you can, but you have to work hard' ... but because I had people at the museum saying, 'You know, kid, you've got a little spark but you need to keep pushing.'

"So now it's my turn to pay that back, because the folks at the museum were very influential at a time when I needed that kind of thing."

Moriarty is president of Carnegie Discoverers, a group formed two years ago to give museum members exclusive opportunities for behind-the-scenes tours with museum scientists.

The tours gave Moriarty and other members an appreciation for what the scientists do -- and what they could do if they had the money. They asked the scientists for a "wish list" of equipment or supplies that cost less than $2,500 but aren't in their master budget.

"These scientists are used to asking for grants for zillions of dollars and, unfortunately, people who give out zillions of dollars aren't interested in giving you $1.95 because it's just as much work as giving out zillions of dollars," said Moriarty. "So this was a new concept to them."

The idea caught on quickly, said Barbara MacQuown, director of the Carnegie Patrons Circle and Giving Societies.

"But I don't think anybody ever dreamed that it would be so successful," she said.

The Discoverers collected six requests, ranging from a $700 computer program to create a public Web site about crustaceans to $2,500 in deer-proof fencing to protect an endangered plant.

Moriarty took the wish list -- which totaled $10,835 -- to the members and asked if they'd give money toward any of the requests.

"Somebody could say, 'I really like this idea and I've got $700, so I'll pay for all of it,'" he said. "But it would also work if members said, 'Well, I can't afford the whole thing, but here's $200.'"

Moriarty worried he wouldn't be able to collect the entire amount. Then Lauren and Adam Sufrin of Fox Chapel offered to cover $10,000 worth of wish-list items.

"All the requests had merit and it was hard, for me at least, to choose one over the other," said Adam Sufrin. "None of them were frivolous, and they were all very reasonable, and in the letters they sent to Dr. Moriarty you could see how the granting of these items would improve their work."

Moriarty had no problem collecting the remaining $835 from the 150 Discoverers.

Timothy Pearce, assistant curator and head of the section of mollusks, spent a few quiet hours Friday sorting tiny punctum minutissimum -- Latin for "very small dot" -- snails out of dried leaves, using a stereomicroscope bought with a $1,745 grant from the Discoverers.

"We really needed this," said Pearce, explaining the section's other microscope is on loan from the University of Pittsburgh and could be reclaimed at any time.

David Watters, curator and head of the anthropology section, is eagerly awaiting a scanner. It will enable delicate glass plate negatives of historic museum digs to be transferred to a computer database. When the Discoverers ask for future wish lists -- something Moriarty plans to do -- Watters said his department will throw its name in the hat again.

"We have all these rolls of motion-picture film from expeditions in the past," he said. "If we could convert them onto DVD, that would allow us to take a closer look at this film and learn about the methods and processes used in past exhibitions. ... These are modest investments, but there's a great deal of return."

Additional Information:

Discover something

Carnegie Discoverers is a fundraising group with $125 in annual membership dues, which include four yearly behind-the-scenes events with Carnegie Museum of Natural History scientists. For information, call 412-622-3131.

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