Suffolk native goes fishing#8217; at the beach Staff 04/29/2006 Ashley McKnight-Taylor VIRGINIA BEACH #110; Plenty of successful Suffolkians have made their mark at home; now one is making her mark 40

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 29, 2006

Ashley McKnight-Taylor

VIRGINIA BEACH n Plenty of successful Suffolkians have made their mark at home; now one is making her mark 40 miles to the east.

Chris Mast Witherspoon is the new director of education for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, 717 General Booth Boulevard, Virginia Beach. She took over the position late last year and has spent the majority of her career with the Center.


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The daughter of Howard and the late Cleo Mast, she was raised in then Nansemond County, outside Suffolk’s city limits, and grew up on Lake Meade, playing in the forest.

“I spent a lot of my time exploring” she said.

She had an early interest in nature and went on to study geology and biology at The College of William & Mary. Then she enrolled in the Virginia Institute of Marine Science School of Marine Science, the professional graduate school in marine science for William & Mary.

Her intention was to become a geological oceanographer, and she was near the end of completing her project when she encountered a common conundrum of college students: money (or lack thereof).

The Virginia Aquarium was to open soon, so she applied for the position of an educator and was hired in June 1986. She figured it would be a temporary job, until she obtained her master’s degree in marine science and went off to be a scientist, she said.

But Witherspoon enjoyed the combination of science and education. With scientific research, she explained, you often have a narrow topic. At the Aquarium, she was able to touch on an array of subjects, and because her interests were as varied, it worked out well.

“This was the perfect combination, because I got to explore the marine environment and research, but I also got to tell people about it.”

During the next dozen years, Witherspoon held positions ranging from education specialist and program specialist to exhibit-development specialist. During that time, she created and supervised programs such as the winter whale-watching excursions. She also served on the exhibit planning committee for the Aquarium’s expansion project in the mid-1990s.

A two-year stint as visitor-education coordinator for the Norfolk Botanical Garden was her only time away from the Aquarium since its opening. She returned in May 2002 as an education specialist for schools and groups.

Now, with more than 16 years of experience in all aspects of the Aquarium’s education programs under her belt, as director of education, Witherspoon supervises a full-time staff of 14 people, as well as many instructors for floor programs.

Witherspoon has a lot on her plate, from applying for grants, mentoring new employees, learning about new exhibits and more, all on top of preparing for renovations of the older sections of the Aquarium.

“With the upcoming Aquarium renovation, we’ll be taking a new direction in our educational content to ensure that our school programs and other educational offerings are new and relevant,” she said.

Today, she can’t imagine doing anything else, because she believes so fully in what the Aquarium is about. Their motto is “conservation through education,” so “I serve a certain purpose in trying to change people’s behaviors.”

And she still gets to do a variety of things, even though her administrative duties have increased. Her assistants have dubbed her office the “Wonder Woman Closet” because she’ll go in wearing shorts and muddy shoes from an activity and come out with combed hair and a suit for a board meeting.

More than anything else, Witherspoon realizes how fortunate she is to go work each day at a place like the Aquarium. She gets to do things “on a regular basis that some people will never do in their life.”

“I feel fortunate to be part of it all.”