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Meet Our Alumni: Mary Erickson

A student walks across the Court of North Carolina

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Mary Erickson, a former ambassador for the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and NC State alum, about life after graduation.

During my first two semesters at NC State, and far before my own entrance into the ambassador program, I was introduced to Mary through the Student Connections Program. As my assigned ambassador, Mary reached out regularly to say hello, share her thoughts and advice, and present herself as a resource for me and others.

Mary Erickson at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Mary graduated from NC State with a B.A. in anthropology and minors in history and international studies in May of 2021. One of the first to join the student ambassadors, Mary took up the position due to her love of helping others. Her work as an ambassador began right before NC State first transitioned to online-only, and for Mary, the change did nothing to dampen her passion for the work she did as an ambassador. 

Mary: I heard so much about how people felt alone, and they didn’t feel like they really had friends. They really didn’t feel connected, I had a lot of Spring Connect students, so they weren’t with us in the fall of 2019. They started about the midway point. […] I wanted people to feel like, “Yes, if you shoot me an email I’m going to do my absolute best to respond.”

Mary remained engaged and involved both with her fellow students and with the department as a whole: writing for the department newsletter, participating in the Anthropology Club and other student events, working on the Oberlin Collection in the Archaeology Lab, and of course, engaging with students in the Connect program. For her, the move to online strengthened her desire to reach out and truly make connections with other students, many of which were just beginning to navigate their time at State. 

Currently, Mary works in Research and Collections Management at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS), in a collection that numbers over 1.4 million specimens stored in ethanol. When initially applying for a position at the museum, Mary reached out with the intention of acquiring an internship. An online career fair held through State caught Mary’s attention last March, and in the middle of preparing for graduation, graduate school, and beyond, Mary decided to take the leap and participate:

Mary: When I got the email I just looked through it, because I was like, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ […] I just so happened to see that the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences was having, 10-minute interviews […] and to make a very long story short, I went for it. I had an interview for what was supposed to be an internship but my boss, she really liked me and must have seen something in me, because she offered me a job instead of an internship, and that is where I have been for over a year now.

Mary Erickson at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Mary’s interest in collection management led her to the NCMNS Ichthyology Department, where she works as the Ichthyology Unit Technician. Mary had toured a few of the Collections at the NCMNS in 2019 as part of a class entitled, ANT495 Collections Management with Dr. Dru McGill, and she felt particularly drawn to the Wet Collections – finding it particularly intriguing, leading her to list the Ichthyology Unit specifically when she first applied for her internship turned job.

Her work involves everything from labeling, databasing, shelving, sewing on specimen tags, supervising interns and volunteers, and conducting ethanol checks for specimens ranging in size from “13-foot thresher sharks to larval state minnows.” The database she works with is globally accessible – meaning her published work can be reached by anyone at any time through the NCMNS Online Collections Database. For her, the most exciting aspect of her job is the opportunity to learn every day: with a collection so large, she finds herself discovering a new specimen to research with almost every shift. Though her work involves specimens as opposed to archaeological remains, Mary feels that the experience she has gained through working at the NCMNS has helped her gain a better understanding of the process of collections management in general.

She expressed that frequently she has been approached by students who feel uncertain about pursuing an internship due to the subject matter not aligning with their major. Her hope is to encourage anyone with those doubts to take the plunge. “If you want an internship, and you want to see what it’s like working at a museum, then there’s nothing to say that you can’t.” Mary’s drive to pursue her interests, no matter what avenue it might take, and explore a world outside of her major helped her find experiences in unexpected places, her secret to success is simply if it sparks your interest, give it a go:

Mary: If there is a department in the museum that you want to work in and it’s maybe not listed, what I say is that I don’t think there’s any harm in putting it down because you might be surprised. Somebody might contact you for an interview. That’s not to say that you also shouldn’t actually list somebody who is actively looking for an intern at the time, but that’s kind of how it worked for me. I had the interview and I guess the rest is history.

Currently, Mary’s plans for the future are to attend Columbia University this fall where she will pursue her master’s degree in museum anthropology with the intention of continuing to work in collection management. Her goal is to eventually work with artifacts in archaeological collections, as well as, focus on reparations and ethics regarding the collection and ownership of those artifacts. Mary urged myself and others to take pride in what we do and our reasons for doing it, to take those leaps of faith to gain experience even if you are uncertain about the path you intend to take and to make sure that what you are doing is what you love and are passionate about. I feel that her words are an excellent standard for us all to follow.

headshot of Dimitri Campbell

This article is by Dmitri Campbell, a Sociology and Anthropology student ambassador majoring in anthropology.