Science Old and New: Cataloguing Plant Biodiversity at the Field Museum

This guest post is the second installment of periodic blogs this winter/spring from Roosevelt University Sustainability Studies major Colleen Dennis, who is working as a student intern in the botany division of the science department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Since my last update, I’ve started two totally new roles.  The first, in the same imaging lab where I’d been working previously, is operating a new photography setup involving what is called a light box, or photo box.  This system produces higher quality images than the other camera setup, though the process takes considerably longer.  Knowing how to use both sets of imaging equipment will enable me to be versatile in my contributions to the current project, or to work in different areas on other projects in the future.  The second new skill I acquired was entering the specimen information into the database (a process referred to at the museum as “databasing”).  With this, I can now complete every step of the process of getting a specimen into the e-Museum system, known as eMu.

image06To start, working with the light box was an easy transition from the imaging table I was used to; I just position the sheets inside the box and take a picture via controls on the computer.  All the other steps for formatting the pictures and transferring them into the database are the same steps I’ve been doing all along.  Using Adobe Lightroom software and a fixed-position camera, both systems create detailed images for the digital specimen files.

Using the light box takes longer because it generates larger files (meaning the computer takes longer to process them), and the doors have to be opened and closed again to change out each sheet whereas the table was completely open.  I’m still getting used to the equipment, so I only get through around 400 specimens a day.  On both setups the lights are unusually bright and hot, so everyone working in this lab is usually wearing a t-shirt and a hat or sunglasses, which makes coming to work in the morning feel like walking into summer.

image07Here, the plant family I’m working with now is Meliaceae – the mahogany family.  Some sheets hold a piece of tree bark, and some have shimmering golden leaves sewn or glued onto the pages.  Seeing the incredible variation and beauty among just a small group of species is humbling, and it gives me a great appreciation for the work that is being done here.  The condition of some of the older specimens is really impressive – samples that were collected over a century ago are preserved in such a way to be indistinguishable from newly-collected samples.  Considering the ever-changing advancement of techniques in science, the consistency of plant preservation is especially noteworthy.

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The other family I work with now is the fragrant, tropical Lauraceae – one of the largest plant families known to science.  This group is at the middle stage in the project – the databasing stage.  Databasing takes place on computers dispersed throughout the herbarium.  Though chronologically, this step comes before imaging (it goes: sorting and bar-coding, then databasing, then imaging), it is the most precise and demanding step.

image09Setting up the computer is easily the most complicated part, requiring a 15-page “refresher” manual.  The specimens in the herbarium are all sorted into folders alphabetically by family, genus, and species.  While, for some species, there can be only one (or no) specimen so far, some species fill several shelves of folders.

My job here is to enter each individual specimen into the database using its full scientific name, country of origin, unique bar code, and sometimes the botanist who discovered it.  The only issue with this is that sometimes the labels contradict one another, or they are written in another language, or the information is missing altogether.

image10The more exposure I have to the incredible variety of plants in this collection, the better I understand the professional processes of actually collecting them.  I spend one day each week cataloging samples into the database and one day taking pictures; I’ve now spent 44 hours working here just this semester, and am already learning so much (not excluding more Portuguese than I ever planned on having to know).  I’m starting to understand the kinds of samples scientists choose to collect, how they preserve them, and how they go about deciphering just what they are.  I’m also becoming very familiar with South American states and countries, international museums, and even the names of famous botanists.  There was a time when I could have seen this as useless knowledge, but nature is a part of everyone’s lives and it deserves to be understood.  I am unspeakably grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this behind-the-scenes world that few ever get to see.

IMG00148Colleen Dennis is a Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University and an intern in the Botany Department of the Field Museum of Natural History. She’s writing for the SUST blog about her scientific internship experience during the spring 2014 semester. Colleen began working for economic botany collections manager Christine Niezgoda in the fall of 2013 as a student in Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans‘ SUST 330 Biodiversity course at the Field Museum.

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