WASHINGTON — Childhood visits to the creek on the family farm near Payson nurtured Kay Behrensmeyer’s early interest in fossils and geology.
So did copies of National Geographic magazine, with its window on the bigger world, and lots of books at home in Quincy along with encouragement from her family and teachers.
“I owe a lot to my aunts, my mother and father for just convincing me that science was great — and also to my mom, especially, and my aunts for saying girls and boys could both do science.”
Taking a geology class as a college freshman led to a 40-year-and-counting career as a research curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and, with a Friday ceremony in the nation’s capital, induction to the National Academy of Sciences.
The recognition “is not just me. It’s everybody that’s contributed to the growth of my career, to the opportunities I’ve had,” she said. “It’s a great connected network of people. Some have given me a lot, some one little idea, but they all deserve the recognition.”
Behrensmeyer was elected in 2020 as a NAS member — one of the highest honors bestowed on scientists for career achievements — but COVID-19 delayed in-person ceremonies until this year for the new members from 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Behrensmeyer said she never spent much time thinking about the competition for NAS membership, so “when they called in 2020, it was just the most amazing surprise,” she said. “I love the work no matter whether I get recognized or not.”
NAS, established by an act of Congress signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863, is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.
Scientists are elected by their peers to membership in the NAS for outstanding contributions to research. Behrensmeyer, an interdisciplinary scientist, was recognized for her contributions in anthropology, paleontology and geology.
“Every fossil has a story, and what I have tried to do is learn the language so I can understand the story,” Behrensmeyer said. “I have a particular interest in how does it end up as a fossil, how does it represent all the things that didn’t become a fossil. My particular field is learning how to read different kinds of stories from the fossils and the rocks they’re preserved in — a good intersection of being trained as a geologist and a paleontologist.”
A leader in taphonomy, the study of processes that affect organic remains and lead either to recycling or fossilization, Behrensmeyer has done extensive research in East African human evolution. Starting in 1968, she made one or two trips to Africa a year until 2019 and plans to return again this summer.
“A 40-plus year study of modern taphonomy in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, documents the interaction of environmental change, vertebrate populations and ecological recycling process, with implications for what we can and cannot know from the fossil record,” according to the NAS member directory. “Much of Kay’s work has been collaborative and focused on synergizing team efforts to build new understanding of ecosystem-scale changes in land environments through geological time.”
Adding her name to a book signed by generations of people elected to NAS offered another opportunity to connect with colleagues from a variety of scientific fields.
“What I’ve realized with this stage of my life is the connections with other people are so very important and valuable and the ones that connect me back to Quincy and people I knew then are some of the most valuable,” she said.
Behrensmeyer, the daughter of well-known Quincy architect Charles F. Behrensmeyer and Anna Lane Allen Behrensmeyer, grew up in Quincy with her brothers Ned, who lives near Payson, and Chuck, who lives in Paonia, Colo., and graduated from Quincy High School in 1963. She and her husband William Keyser live in Arlington, Va., and have two grown daughters, Anna Kristina and Sarah Marguerite, and two grandsons.
Behrensmeyer credits her mother and strong women in her family for helping her develop the confidence to pursue her career. Male mentors, professors who saw her potential, also helped, but her mother “was determined that I have every opportunity to pursue my dream. There are always times when you doubt yourself, but my mom would not hear of it,” Behrensmeyer said.
“All I can do is try to pay that forward, provide that for others — my own daughters and also many young people that are around at the museum, who come into the exhibits,” she said. “Science is a wonderful career for people. There are so many ways to do it, but so many kids think it’s beyond them.”