For 15-year-old Molly Paul, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences has felt like a second home.
On Thursday, along with director Emlyn Koster, she accepted the nation’s highest honor for museums and libraries.
First lady Michelle Obama presented the National Medal for Museum and Library Service to the Raleigh museum and nine other institutions around the country, including the Chicago Public Library, Mystic Aquarium in Connecticut and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
Obama, after welcoming the award winners to “a little museum we like to call the White House” and praising them for their work, also challenged them to do more to reach low-income students who now rarely get to museums or libraries and “give them the opportunities they need to fulfill their boundless potential.”
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The Institute of Museum and Library Services, which presents the medals, was established by law in 1996 to provide federal support for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The agency provides grants and conducts research to help the institutions serve their communities.
Molly, a sophomore at Mary’s School in Raleigh, said she decided to become an aquarium director when her parents took her to the Natural Sciences museum when she was 5. It’s been her goal ever since. She attended the museum’s summer camps and later its “Girls in Science” program. For the past thee years she’s been a junior curator, part of a group of young people that takes care of the snakes, hedgehogs, birds and other live creatures that live in the museum’s holding areas and exhibits.
At least two afternoons each week, Molly works in the museum’s fish and invertebrates department, but often is there more frequently for meetings and events. The museum trained her and treated her like a professional, she said.
They’re so open and warm to every visitor,” Molly said. “They are passionate about science and they want to help other people find their passion. They wholeheartedly believe more science will make the world a better place.”
Molly also runs her own turtle rescue operation at home and sells turtle-shaped soaps in the museum gift shop, donating the proceeds to the museum.
“The museum is my second home,” she wrote in an essay about receiving the award. “It’s where I’m the happiest. The museum has helped shape me into a lifelong learner, active community member and leader. I think I always have had the potential to be everything I’ve ever wanted to be and more, but it takes people believing in you and enabling you before you start fully believing in yourself.”
It was Molly’s second trip to Washington in just a few days. Earlier this month she was one of the winners of the Prudential Spirit of Community Award, given to one middle school and one high school student from each state and the District of Columbia. Each won $1,000, an engraved silver medallion and the trip to D.C.