Passing the Torch, Part II: Dr. Gabriela Farfan Talks Plans for Her New Curator Role at the Smithsonian

By Jennifer Heebner, Editor in Chief

Given that Dr. Gabriela Farfan has been preparing for her role as the Smithsonian’s new National Gem and Mineral Collection (NMNH) and Research Curator since the age of six—when she started collecting—one would think that she’s pretty well prepared.

Farfan took up the role in May after Dr. Jeffrey Post stepped down, and she brings an impressive resume: volunteer stints at the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum that included research; undergraduate studies at Stanford University, where she helped out with its collection; and graduate school in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) Joint Program in Oceanography/Applied Ocean Science and Engineering. While there, she volunteered at the Harvard Mineralogical Museum, and over the past four and a half years she’s been working at the NMNH.

“I have been very busy learning about it and preparing for this new role,” she says.

All these credentials make her a mineralogist who specializes in environmental biomineralogy—for example, how do coral skeletons, pearl nacre, and biosilicas form and respond to changes in their environment? She also works on projects in classical mineralogy and the gem sciences.

“This has been my dream job since I was 16 years old, when I first met Dr. Jeff Post and he took me behind the scenes at NMNH,” she says. “I will always be grateful to Jeff for showing me that this was even a possibility. To me, this is the perfect job, since it is a blend of scientific research, curating the NMNH, and doing meaningful science outreach. Getting to work with some of the world’s most exquisite gem and mineral specimens alongside incredibly talented colleagues and experts is an honor for me.”

AGTA asks her a few more questions about the new role below.


Dr. Gabriela Farfan Smithsonian National Gem and Mineral Collection

AGTA: What projects do you have planned?

Gabriela Farfan: In the next five years or so, we have our eyes set on revamping the behind-the-scenes space and infrastructure of the NMNH. It will be a great effort to bring cabinets and storage up to modern standards, but it is a critical task to ensure the preservation of our 400,000 priceless specimens for years to come. I also hope to introduce more biominerals and other modern mineralogy topics into the exhibit.


AGTA: What, if any, short-term goals, do you have?

Gabriela Farfan: As a Research Curator, one of my biggest goals is to establish an internationally recognized research program in environmental biomineralogy. So far, I am grateful to have mentored a few doctoral and undergraduate students, and I look forward to fostering more future scientists in the behind-the-scenes labs at NMNH.

In terms of collections, I look forward to working with donors to help us grow the NMNH in meaningful ways. I have gotten to experience some major donations—such as the Kimberley Diamond, the Lion of Merelani, the Uncle Sam, and Freedom Diamonds—while I have been here with Dr. Post as Curator, and now I am excited to be taking the reins while working closely with the gem and mineral team.


AGTA: How will your approach/style as Curator differ from Dr. Post’s?

Gabriela Farfan: Dr. Post was an excellent Curator for 32 years—an amazing feat. I look forward to continuing the legacy of the many Curators before me to protect and grow our NMNH. I am lucky that I am stepping in to lead a very talented and experienced team—both of our gem and mineral collection Managers have been on the job for over 40 years each! My goal is to help the collection thrive by highlighting the talents of each member of our gem and mineral team, including Ioan Lascu, Russ Feather, Paul Pohwat, Mike Wise, and myself. We each have different personalities and bring different ideas to the table, but at the end of the day our team has always worked by consensus to ensure that we are always doing what is best for the collection. I invite all potential donors and collaborators to reach out to any one of us on the gem and mineral team with questions. You may find our contact information here.

As the future of the gem and mineral profession and hobby depends on them, I am also particularly dedicated to mineral and gem outreach aimed at younger audiences. I have already produced content with our Office of Education to engage these audiences (and teachers) in both English and Spanish, and I look forward to many more projects in the future.


AGTA: What’s on your wish list as far as exhibits or donations?

Gabriela Farfan: There will always be new things on the market and “holes” in the collection that we are trying to fill—any donations that help us to fill those gaps are always much appreciated. It is a privilege for me to receive emails about potential donations, since I enjoy the enthusiasm that every person with a great stone brings. As for big dreams, I hope to someday see a very large and spectacular padparadscha Sapphire in our exhibit. A stunning Kashmir Sapphire also wouldn’t hurt.

As for future exhibits, I hope to someday enhance the gem exhibit with a clear demonstration of how minerals are cut into gems. This is a step that the public sometimes gets confused about and it would be a wonderful way to highlight all the effort and thought that goes into crafting a gemstone from a mineral crystal. As a biomineralogist, I also hope to work on an exhibit that introduces the public to biominerals and why they are important to life on this planet (and the gem world).


AGTA: What changes, if any, should visitors expect?

Gabriela Farfan: For now, our exhibit that opened in 1997 is still a classic for a reason, and we will not be overhauling it anytime soon. What’s great about the design of this exhibit is that it has allowed for continuous growth and change. Thus, there are always new things going up on exhibit, and there are new potential donations that we are working on that should pique any gem lover’s interest when they are announced—so stay tuned!


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