Digitizing Flowering Plants Specimens at the Field Museum: Taxonomy, Technology, and Sustainability

This guest post is the fourth 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. Here Colleen describes her recent work documenting families of flowering plants, the FM’s photographic technology, and the relevance of sustainability to the museum’s overall operations.

image22For the past few weeks, my time at the museum has been divided among more plant families than it had been before.  I started photographing Ericaceae, a flowering plant family including blueberries, cranberries, azalea, and various heathers.  The next day I was assigning bar codes to samples of Lecythidaceae – a family of roughly 300 species, one of which bears the edible Brazil nut – and later in the week I was databasing Loganiaceae, with fruits varying from edible to highly poisonous, and family to some of the most ridiculous of all the ridiculous tropical plant names I’ve come across in my internship.

image20Progress is felt in subtle ways.  We started with the largest groups of South American seed plants, working our way to the smaller and smaller groups.  When we are now moving through a family in a day instead of a month or more, the momentum keeps us motivated.  I knew essentially nothing about plants when I started here in September, but now I can walk through the Plants of the World exhibit and recognize nearly all the families that are native to South America, because I have worked with them myself.

image21It was during these past two weeks that I fully began to realize the awesome scope of what we are really doing with this project.  I’ve come to appreciate the enormity of the herbarium at the Field Museum – one of the largest in the world.  In addition to sharing the collections here with other museums, the e-Museum database (eMu) will serve as a kind of offsite storage for the specimens within.  This acts as insurance for the original specimens while allowing others immediate access to the treasures of the John G. Searle Herbarium.

image23The equipment being used in the Botany department is highly advanced both within the Field and in the area of Botany among other museums.  Occasionally, scientists from different museums come into the imaging lab where I work, either to borrow our camera setups for their own projects, or to learn how they work so their institutions can invest in the same equipment – with good reason.  With a camera whose lens alone can cost upwards of two thousand dollars, we produce very high-quality, valuable images.  These pictures, along with precise and accurate data, make for an admirable collection of infinitely shareable information.

As a student in Sustainability Studies at Roosevelt University, I’m exceptionally proud of my role at the Field Museum.  The institution is so massive, and its impact so vast, that operating on a sustainable platform would be both initially challenging and hugely rewarding.  Currently, the Field Museum’s sustainability committee, “A Greener Field” — led by award-winning Sustainability Manager Carter O’Brien — is implementing various green initiatives on the path to becoming LEED certified.  This will be an enormously influential conversion not only for the museum, but for the entire city of Chicago as well.

image24I’ve now spent 99 hours working at the museum this semester, and I still meet new people and see new things every week.  All the dedicated, gifted people I’ve worked with have made a point to take me under their wing and help me learn more here however they can.  I’m looking forward to the last few weeks of this semester’s internship, as well as whatever follows the eventual culmination of this project that has positively captured my heart.

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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