Observers of the Smithsonian Institution's beloved but imperiled showplace, the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), believe it is about to get another chance at excellence when Cristián Samper becomes its newest director in April.

Scientists and others who have mourned the steady erosion of the Smithsonian and the NMNH seem confident that the Colombian scientist can turn the place around. Samper is young (37), experienced (as deputy director for the past two years at the Smithsonian's well-regarded Tropical Research Institute in Panama), and a strong international scientist.

A plant ecologist by training, he has spent two decades studying forest dynamics in long-term plots. The research closest to Samper's own heart involves the ecology of Andean cloud forests. But he seems unfazed about facing the poison darts of the Washington policy jungle and taking over an organization that has been described as dysfunctional, neglectful of its scientific side, and...

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