Biodiversity, Research, and Education at the Field Museum (Updated 23 May 2013)

Kristina Lugo in the bryophyte lab at the FMNH (Aug 2012)

Back in September of 2012, Roosevelt University SUST major Kristina Lugo* and SUST professor Mike Bryson participated in an biodiversity education planning session at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, led by museum botanist and adjunct curator Dr. Matt von Konrat. This endeavor is linked to the ambitious Encyclopedia of Life project (which grandly aims to document online every known species on earth) and funded primarily through the Biodiversity Synthesis Center (BioSynC) at the FMNH. The project focuses specifically on accelerating the taxonomic study of early land plants (aka bryophytes, which includes mosses and liverworts), a project called Early Land Plants Today.

The key to that acceleration, in an age when taxonomic specialists are few and far between, is involving large numbers of undergraduate students and members of the general public  in measuring digitized specimens and collecting/analyzing data. The project thus merges the goals of basic botanical research with applied technology and science literacy education. Such participation in “citizen science” endeavors applies rather nicely to general education science courses, such as Bryson’s PLS 391 Seminar in Natural Science, which he’s teaching online at Roosevelt this summer.

Dr. Matt von Konrat of the FMNH

Lugo, Bryson, and RU biology professor and FMNH researcher Norbert Cordiero joined faculty, scientists, and other experts from a wide range of local institutions — including Wilbur Wright College, Northeastern Illinois University, UIC, Northwestern University, the Adler Planetarium, and the Chicago Botanic Garden — in discussions led by Dr. von Konrat, who manages the early land plants collection at the Field Museum and conducts research on bryophytes in cool faraway places like Fiji. The focus of this meeting on Connecting Biodiversity Research with Curriculum was, in part, on a particular genus of liverwort, Frullania, which is biological diverse, geographically widespread, and evolutionarily significant as a living remnant of some of the oldest land plants on earth.

This unto itself is cool enough to stoke a science geek’s imagination. But there’s a lot more to the story. The hundreds of known Frullania species, as well as the much larger group of bryophytes to which they belong on the tree of life, are highly sensitive to environmental disturbances — like, say, pollution or climatic shifts. Thus bryophytes are incredibly useful ecological barometers (or “bio-indicators”) for scientists studying important processes such as climate change or the environmental impacts of diminished air and water quality. There are potential human health benefits at stake, too, since many bryophytes contain chemicals which have been shown to exhibit antibiotic and even anti-cancer properties.

A specimen of Frullania dilatata, on a rock collected from Cork County, Ireland (Encyclopedia of Life)

But here is where we encounter both a big problem and an exciting opportunity: not nearly enough is known about bryophytes such as Frullania. Scientists estimate that hundreds of species await identification and classification, taxonomic work that could keep legions of botanists toiling for decades. Much the same can be said for other genera of liverworts and mosses. And yet this basic work is critical for understanding the biology, biogeography, ecology, and evolutionary history of these fantastically important links to the origins of the plant world — and thus the photosynthetic foundation of the earth’s biological systems.

Microscopic view of a leaf of a Frullania dilatata specimen collected from England (Encyclopedia of Life). Note the “oil bodies” structures easily identified within each cell; these morphological features help scientists identify and classify species of Frullania.

Such a crisis of need is the mother of opportunity. Von Konrat and his crack team of scientific collaborators have proposed that undergraduate scholars (like students in Bryson’s PLS 391 class), K-12 students, and eventually citizen scientists could participate in critically important taxonomic work that would both provide scientists with much-needed analytic data while at the same time teaching important scientific concepts, observational techniques, and measurement processes.

These strategies can leverage the power of advanced computer online technologies, such as utilized in the Zooniverse citizen science projects like Notes from Nature, Bat Detective, Galaxy Zoo and Hear Whales Communicate, to generate enormous sets of data in relatively short time frames. Galazy Zoo has already been wildly successful in this regard, generating not only reams of data from citizen scientists around the world, but also dozens of scientific papers analyzing said data for the astronomy community.

PLS 391 science students and other participants in the forthcoming Frullania project not only will experience what it means to do meaningful scientific work, they also will advance our knowledge of the biodiversity of these little-known yet highly significant plants. While professors at Wright College and Northeastern Illinois University have tested measurement techniques/protocols in their on-campus classes since Summer 2012, RU’s PLS 391 online science students will be the first group of fully-online learners to test drive a Zooniverse prototype site for the FMNH’s Frullania Project. Wow — we think that’s pretty darn cool! Stay tuned as we follow the progress of this exciting and potentially far-reaching biodiversity education project.

* As an intern during the summer/fall/spring of 2012-13 at the Field Museum, SUST major and RU senior Kristina Lugo worked on bridging the research work being done on digitizing the Frullania specimen collections with the education-focused curriculum development that will make this data set of images accessible and usable to undergraduate students participating in phase two of a pilot study at Wilbur Wright College. Lugo also collaborated with FMNH education specialists to start designing curriculum frameworks for K-12 students and teachers. Super work, Kristina!

This essay was originally posted on 1 Sept 2012, and was revised 23 May 2013.

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