Jennifer Brady, a Ph.D. candidate and graduate teaching assistant in the Department of Biology at Colorado State University, and a group of undergraduate students are working to digitize and update the department’s collection of taxidermized and articulated specimens. The project covers thousands of specimens housed in the Biology Building.
The work of modernizing the catalog of specimens is important for both research and education.
Cataloging for research
“The metadata is what makes (the specimens) valuable for research since that’s what we can use to infer information about groups and populations,” said Brady.
The metadata includes all the relevant information for each specimen: when and how it was collected, who originally collected it, and where it’s from, including the location coordinates.
Over time, some of the metadata has become inaccurate due to moving the collection around and aging specimens.
“We have some old catalogs, some dating back to the 1930s,” said Brady. “But what we don’t have is a comprehensive catalog of the entire collection.”
Starting at the beginning of Spring 2022, Brady began moving the metadata from the original books and tags to a digital spreadsheet.
“For the collection, what we’re working on right now is cataloging it,” said Brady. “We literally just need to figure out what we have. And that was a big question: where do we even start? … The goal would be to make a universal catalog so that faculty and graduate students can log in and see what we have.”
After a couple of weeks, undergraduate students started helping in the process.
Kadin Samlaska, a junior zoology student, started volunteering in the lab early in the semester. Eventually, Samlaska transitioned into using the project as their independent study.
“I just was really interested in learning more about how this all works, because this is really important for research,” Samlaska said. “Especially some species that are more difficult to observe in the wild.”
Cataloging such a large collection helps provide insight into how wildlife research continues over decades.
“My favorite thing about this work is that I’ve gotten to see the old specimens and some animals I’ve never seen before, and all the history of the science before us. It really tells the history of the animals and the people who collected them,” said Samlaska
Brady added: “A lot of these specimens are already 100 or 150 years old. And we want them to last for another 100 or 200 years. But ideally forever.”
Cataloging for education
While the primary goal of the work is to make the whole specimen collection more accessible, the project has the additional intention of providing students with experiential learning.
“The truly exciting thing is engaging students in the process of curation and the power of data associated with specimens,” said Tanya Dewey, a researcher and professor in the department who spearheaded the need to reorganize the collections. “I would love to build a set of student educational experiences around continuing to curate specimens and figure out cool ways of engaging students with specimens in more organized ways – such as displays and educational activities.”
Brady, who works closely with the undergraduates, agrees.
“It’s been really rewarding to get to help the undergraduates just explore the collection,” she said. “It’s exciting to help them to apply some of the concepts that they’ve learned in the classroom.”
Brady is in a specialized graduate position in the department. While not technically teaching a course, Brady works as a graduate teaching assistant.
Dewey facilitated the establishment of the role.
“I talked to our chair, Debbie Garrity, about the dire need for some organizational work on our collections. I have a background in museum collections and the use of museum data, so it’s a special interest of mine here at CSU,” said Dewey. “Debbie argued for funding for a GTA position to help with the collection’s reorganization and we received it.”