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Life and Work with Judy Gradwohl

Today we’d like to introduce you to Judy Gradwohl.

Judy, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I received a call about the president and CEO position at the San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) just as we were entering the long dark tunnel of winter in Washington DC and after learning about The Nat, I ultimately decided that maybe 30 years in DC was enough. I am a native Californian, having grown up in Venice, and completed my undergraduate and graduate studies at UC Berkeley. Like many others, my late husband and I moved to DC thinking we would stay for a year and it stretched to three decades. I had the great fortune of working in many different capacities at the Smithsonian Institution that entire time and I picked up a variety of skills that serve me well today at The Nat.

Has it been a smooth road?
I had an unconventional career trajectory, moving from tropical biology to curating major exhibitions, running an environmental program, digital outreach, and museum administration. I started young and managed to jump from one challenge to another. I was able to contribute to some major milestones at the Smithsonian, running the first major environmental program and producing the Smithsonian’s first website. It was never easy because I needed to raise funds and bring a variety of projects to fruition while learning on the fly, but it was mostly exhilarating and gratifying. Of course, there were plenty of bureaucratic hurdles and budget concerns, but I learned early to admit when I needed help and rally others to help us achieve our goals. I also owned up to and learned from my failures.

My advice to young women is to be fearless and know when to ask for help. Some of my best mentors were people I turned to for help when I knew I was getting in over my head.

So, as you know, we’re impressed with San Diego Natural History Museum (The Nat) – tell our readers more, for example, what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Nearly 150 years ago, a group of citizens started the San Diego Society of Natural History (now known as the San Diego Natural History Museum) to learn about our region and share what they learned so that they could protect and preserve it. Today, we continue that proud legacy as keepers of the ecological record for Southern California and Baja California. We have also inspired generations of young San Diegans through our exhibitions and educational programs. We conduct research and work with hundreds of citizen scientists as volunteers in the Museum and in the field.

I like to think that I have the best job in San Diego with amazingly talented and dedicated colleagues, volunteers and Board of Directors. The excitement of scientific discovery pervades everything we do and a good day in the office is sometimes on a hiking trail.

It is also a very big job. I need to guide the Museum into its next 150 years. As president and CEO, I need to ensure that our guest experience and programming are superb, protect and preserve the 8 million specimens in our collection, engender a sense of innovation and possibility in our staff, cultivate the collective vision and will to accomplish great things, and create a stable financial base.

Do you think there are structural or other barriers impeding the emergence of more female leaders?
I am proud to be the first woman at the helm of the Museum — 144 years into our existence. I have few women colleagues heading up natural history museums in the United States, but two of the largest, in New York and Los Angeles also have female directors. I think we are seeing generational change, with more women in museum management, and women are well represented as directors of art museums and historic sites, however, their salaries lag behind men’s salaries. Very few women serve as directors of the largest museums or of science museums. I am grateful that San Diego joined the vanguard by hiring me.


  • Adult – $19
  • Senior (62+) / Student / Military (with ID) – $17
  • Youth (3–17) – $12

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Image Credit:
San Diego Natural History Museum

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