Discussing the Future of Biological Collections

This past weekend I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a mini-symposium for recipients of NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowships in Biology (PRFB) at the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The focus of the symposium was the future of biological collections, addressing both how we should support and use collections to best effect. While most attendees had received a collections-based PRFB, a few (like me) were guests from other award types including PRFB’s for broadening participation of underrepresented groups.


The University of New Mexico’s Sevilleta field station was an awesome setting for the mini-symposium.

The symposium was hosted by Joe Cook from the Museum of Southwestern Biology and the University of New Mexico and Scott Edwards from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who both spoke about funding for collections building and related research, careers in collections, and the future of biological collections in a digital age. Specific sessions touched on topics including increasing digital availability of collections data via iDigBio, initiatives like oVert (hosted at the Florida Museum of Natural History), and collecting novel types of data in museums, including microbiome sampling, microCT scans, behavioral, and stable isotope data.

While a planned portion of the symposium dealt with opportunities for collections-based funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF), unfortunately an NSF representative was not able to be present at the symposium due to the current federal government shutdown. In fact, none of the NSF postdoctoral fellows in attendance (including me!) are being paid during the shutdown. The symposium also served as a chance for us all to commiserate with other folks in the same situation and discuss how we are getting through this difficult time.


The Sevilleta LTER boasts beautiful landscapes (and quite the change from my usual scenery in Rhode Island!)

One of my favorite portions of the conference was hearing from Corey Welch at Iowa State and Jessica Light at Texas A&M about ways in which collections can provide opportunities to mentor and support students from underrepresented groups. Jessica and Corey spoke about ways to reach out to and recruit students, including at conferences like SACNAS, and programs that offer financial or logistical support for these students to use collections. Corey discussed successes, challenges, and solutions he has had running the STEM Scholars program for students from underrepresented groups at Iowa State, which I found to be really helpful when thinking about my own work with broadening participation.

The conference also featured poster presentations by NSF PRFB awardees each evening. I really enjoyed hearing about everyone else’s research, especially because it was such a diverse sampling of the type of work that can be done using collections. Presentations discussed topics such as the bat microbiomes, venomics (yes, it’s a word) of catfish, evolution of super-weird shrew vertebrae, and use of botanical gardens as living collections to study aerosol emissions from plants.


Mini-symposium participants bringing it in for a group photo in the New Mexico sunshine.

All in all, the symposium was a great opportunity for me to gain an appreciation for the current state of the collections community. I left Sevilleta grateful for the opportunity to attend, inspired by the work of my colleagues, and excited for the future of museum collections and the important research they make possible.

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