Seymour Center director to retire

During Julie Barrett Heffington’s 21-year term as director, the center has established widely appreciated public programs and served nearly 1.5 million visitors

Julie Barrett Heffington at auction
Julie Barrett Heffington, director of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center for 21-years, retires July 1. Photo courtesy of Julie Barrett Heffington.
Kathy Sullivan
Kathy Sullivan (Cowell '73, earth sciences), Julie Barrett Heffington, and Gary Griggs at the 2010 Global Oceans Awards Gala. Photo cortesy of Julie Barrett Heffington.
After 21 years as director of the Seymour Marine Discovery Center, Julie Barrett Heffington has announced her retirement, beginning July 1.

Heffington assumed the directorship when the center was still housed in a double-wide trailer. With lengthy expertise in environmental education, Heffington hired the staff and oversaw development of exhibits and programs as construction completed on a purpose-built building on the bluffs of Terrace Point with a system to supply fresh seawater to its aquariums.

Gary Griggs was director of the Institute for Marine Sciences at the time and led her hiring. He credits her for bringing about the center’s most recognized and appreciated public programs.

“Julie was the perfect person to serve as the center’s founding director,” says Griggs, who is now distinguished professor of Earth sciences. “She really created the center: the education program, outreach, summer ocean explorers. Julie should get a large share of the credit for what the center is today.”

Sharing UCSC’s research with the community

The center has had nearly a million and a half visitors while she has been director, a statistic that Griggs says makes the center UCSC’s most active point of contact with the community as well as out-of-town visitors.

“If you come to the university to visit, you can drive through the campus but you can’t go in and see what’s going on in the chemistry or biology building,” Griggs says. “The Seymour Center has become a wonderful year-round community resource as well as a university resource.

“In 26 years as director of the Institute for Marine Sciences, the Seymour Center is what I’m most proud of,” he says. “I couldn’t have had a better partner to do that with than Julie. ”

Griggs also commends Heffington for leading a fundraising operation that has supported the majority of the center’s budget for over 20 years.

“There are very few people on campus who know they have to fundraise their salary every day," Griggs said. "That is a big burden to carry, and Julie did this with grace, passion, and dedication.”

Her natural habitat

Heffington grew up amid the oilfields and farmlands outside of Bakersfield. The experience that led to a lifetime of work with nature was a summer camp in the Sierras.

“I was the happiest kid in the world,” she says. “Some kids say they want to be an astronaut. I wanted to grow up and be an elk.”

In 1978, her experience with farmwork led to a job with the state of California as one of the first women in the state hired as a heavy equipment operator — driving snow plows. The solitary work did not suit her highly social personality, and it was difficult to be the “token 20-something female,” she says.

Three years after she took the job, she enrolled at CSU Humboldt.

Environmental educator

While pursuing her master's, she worked for the National Park Service—she met her husband when they were both rangers at Redwood National Park. She went on to work with the U.S. Forest Service in the Cascade Mountains and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife at Elkhorn Slough, among other roles in wilderness areas in California and Alaska. Making science and natural history accessible to the public has been a constant theme of her career.

In the early 1990s, she became director of education and gardens for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The former first lady was her supervisor’s supervisor and worked just upstairs. Similar to her later role at the Seymour, Heffington established and then oversaw public outreach and educational programs as the center moved into its permanent home.

Seven years later, friends in the Santa Cruz area alerted Heffington that the Seymour Marine Discovery Center was making its own transition to a permanent home and needed a director who could build up its educational programs.

“I loved the idea that the institution would be smack in the middle of the science that was happening," Heffington said. "Often nature education is third hand.”

Under her direction the center’s well-established volunteer operation grew to more than 200 volunteers.

A rare opportunity to share science

Roxanne Beltran, an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, says Heffington helped her figure out what she was doing in marine science education. Beltran had her first paid education position as a Seymour Center student assistant, a work-study role, in 2010.

“Julie was always there, a constant source of support and inspiration,” Beltran says. “Her office door was always open for any questions or any help that I ever needed.”

It’s uncommon, Beltran says, for an aquarium to tie its exhibits so closely to ongoing research.

“A lot of the science that we do is outside in remote places where there's no internet connection,” Beltran says. “The fact that the Seymour Center is able to interpret that research to so many people in such compelling ways has always been a real plus for us as scientists and a real special opportunity.”

John Laird, former California secretary of natural resources, who is also an honorary Seymour Center board member, says the center was lucky to find Heffington.

“It was incredible that she had the background that she had before coming to the Seymour,” Laird says. “She brought this knowledge and ability to communicate when she walked in the door, and she took Seymour to the next level, made it what it is.”

Heffington was especially successful at building support in the community, Laird says. Regular events like Science Sundays and the annual Global Oceans Gala earned the center recognition, and Heffington’s combination of friendliness and knowledge made her a persuasive ambassador.

“There's a whole generation of community leaders in our region who have not had the ability to say no to Julie,” he says.

The next 20 years

With visitor operations halted by the pandemic, much of the staff have been laid off. Science Sundays and the Ocean Explorers summer camps continue, although in virtual form. Meanwhile, the center is working with national museum experts to review its programming.

Heffington hopes the center continues growing. The beloved programs established during her tenure built on work that began in the 1970s, she says.

“Imagine what the next 20 years could look like,” she says.

Heffington plans to spend retirement on the adventures she didn’t have time for—or didn’t get enough of—during her career. She hopes to ski up to 60 days of the next year, and to go kayaking, backpacking, and bicycling.

“Time's a-wasting. It’s still in the back of my mind that I could go be a seasonal ranger somewhere,” she says. “I still have my uniform.”