Mystic Aquarium accepts national medal for service in White House ceremony

First lady Michelle Obama, right, presents a 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service to Mystic Aquarium, of Mystic, Conn., represented by Justin Richard, far left, and aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, May 8, 2014, in Washington. The National Medal is the nation's highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community.
First lady Michelle Obama, right, presents a 2014 National Medal for Museum and Library Service to Mystic Aquarium, of Mystic, Conn., represented by Justin Richard, far left, and aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan, during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, May 8, 2014, in Washington. The National Medal is the nation's highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community. Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

Stephen Coan, president and chief executive officer of Mystic Aquarium, said the impact of accepting the National Medal for Museum and Library Service didn’t quite hit him until he left the ceremony at the White House.

Coan said the award, which he accepted from first lady Michelle Obama in a ceremony on Thursday, recognizes “how we have helped to reinvent the meaning of an aquarium in the modern era.”

Mystic Aquarium was the only aquarium or zoo chosen this year for the honor, which recognizes a library or museum’s impact on the community. It was also the only Connecticut institution selected.

Coan said the first lady praised the aquarium’s efforts in bringing its JASON Project, an ocean science program, to urban youth in her hometown of Chicago.

The aquarium’s community-focused mission is worldwide, said Coan, explaining that researchers in places like Alaska and South Africa involved the community as they study the health of ecosystems and work on species conservation.

Coan said he views his role as president as being the conductor of an orchestra full of “wonderful people” working together to be creative and “create beautiful music.”

One of those people is Justin Richard, who accepted the award with Coan. Coan said Richard, a 32-year-old North Stonington resident who is working on his doctorate degree at the University of Rhode Island, is “a great example of everything that we embody.”

Richard has “had the full experience” of Mystic Aquarium, said Coan. He participated in the JASON Project while in school in Massachusetts, developed an interest in biology when visiting the aquarium as a kid and worked as an animal trainer there after graduating from Connecticut College.

He now conducts the research for his graduate degree at the aquarium.

“We’re really about providing that spark,” said Coan, who said the aquarium will continue “striving for newer and better things” in the decade ahead.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

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