This guest post is 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. This is the first installment of periodic blogs this winter/spring from Colleen on her internship experiences.
In September of 2013, I started an internship at the Field Museum of Natural History. Originally, I wound up there through a class I was taking regarding biodiversity [SUST 330, taught by Prof. Julian Kerbis Peterhans], but I’ve since finished that class and stayed on independently as an intern. My experience at the Field during the fall was incredible (read: backstage tours, private seminars, and the staff Christmas party), but it was also somewhat limited in terms of time. The class met once a week for four hours, which was divided between working in the various departments and attending class lectures. This spring semester I will be spending twelve to sixteen hours a week solely in my specific department, Botany, working under the direction of Christine Niezgoda, Collections Manager in Economic Botany. This extra time will allow me to really experience what working at the museum is like, as well as provide an inside perspective on the importance of everything they do there.
The project I am currently involved in deals with South American plants. The Field Museum took on an exciting endeavor to digitally catalog these plants and enter them into a universally-accessible computer database. This would allow scientists from other museums to access the Field Museum’s collections without transferring physical specimens (protecting the integrity of the fragile dried plants, reducing risk of loss or damage, and saving on time and shipping/transportation expenses). Specimens of all kinds of plants, many pre-dating the 20th century, have been dried, preserved, and mounted onto large sheets of cardstock, and they maintain many of their original characteristics.
These sheets are stored in enormous file cabinets, composing impressive herbariums in museums across the globe; however, the Field Museum’s collection is especially notable. I asked my mentor very recently how far along we were in the project, since we seemed to be making great progress every day. He laughed and told me, “Well, there are a hundred thousand specimens from South America alone in each herbarium. It’s probably better not to think about it.”
Before we could begin, the supervisor of the collections had to choose specific sections to start with. There are certain plant families that appear in greater number in South America than other families – these are the large groups we tackled first. For example, the flowering plant family Solanaceae was my first assignment. These plants are particularly useful to humans, as they produce all kinds of food (potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, eggplant, etc.), spices, decorative flowers (petunias and forget-me-nots), and medicine. Some can also be fatally toxic, and some produce strong hallucinogenic effects (as we were warned by our mentor before we began). Of the 3000-4000 known species, there is an incredible amount of variation within the Solanaceae family in terms of potency, use, appearance, and location. The specimens I encountered varied greatly, but were some of the most beautiful and interesting flowers I’ve ever seen.
My first task, and the most basic, was assigning bar codes to all the eligible specimens. I would start with a stack of folders containing all South American plant specimens, filed in alphabetical order. I had to check the labels to verify in which country they had been collected, then designate a unique bar code to every individual specimen. There were certain exclusions I needed to be aware of, but overall the job was simple.
I had a partner to work with for the first few months so I had someone to talk to, and our mentor stayed close by. In a matter of a few short months, the Botany team moved through the Solanaceae family and moved on to the next great section, Melastomataceae. These plants are characterized by patterns of prominent veins within the leaves, ranging from herbs to small trees. Melastomes are largely considered tropical plants, very common in South America.
At this time, I was given a new job to do during my days at the museum. Once the specimen sheets had a bar code, they could be taken to an imaging lab to have their pictures entered into the computer database. I got to learn how to use digital imaging software, including actually taking the pictures and then formatting them into the final images that will be used in the collections. In a day, I process between 500 and 600 images, which is a small sliver of the work that needs to be done.
So far this semester for my SUST 395 Sustainability Internship, I have logged 16 hours. I start a new task this upcoming Monday, entering the plants’ information from the labels into the database. More to come in future posts!
Colleen Dennis is a Sustainability Studies major at Roosevelt University and an intern in the Botany Department of the Field Museum of Natural History.