Graduation year: 2022
Semester/year area of interest proposed: Spring 2020
Major status: ENVS single major
Other major (if applicable):
Minor(s) (if applicable): MUS minor
Biodiversity, or the variety of life, is important to understand in order to work towards the conservation of any species. NHMs across the world maintain millions of records about organisms on Earth, from mammals and birds to plants and bacteria. As of 2010, biologists have classified 1.7 million plants and animals. These can be found in our own collections, but this doesn’t mean that all specimens are already or correctly classified. There is still so much of the world that has not been discovered or reclassified. Of newly recognized mammal species, ¾ of these are part of the collections at the time of its naming, meaning that they were misidentified at the time of their collection (Kemp 2015). DNA sequencing in NHMs, a newer practice, has helped with reidentifying specimens, but a large portion of this work has been completed by dedicated amateur and professional taxonomists. Museums contain information that is the key to understanding more about the natural world, thus allowing us an understanding of what we may do to support what lives within it.
Education is essential to the public, no matter their age, race, or class. There are traditional spaces for education, such as K-12 schools, community colleges, and universities. There are also non-traditional spaces for education, which an NHM falls perfectly into. Education is often seen as the most prominent objective of an NHM. The first form that this may occur in is through university-based NHMs. University NHMs are specialized institutions for public education, specifically for undergraduate and graduate students. They can create a healthy balance between activities and services for those who work within the museum (Macfadden and Camp 2000). The second form that this appears in is public NHMs, which are important for public education and community building. Having an open space available for the public to explore is a critical piece of education, because it creates a welcoming environment for anyone to step into and learn more about natural history. NHMs unfortunately have difficulty with opening public exhibits, due to budget cuts or lack of staff, so it loses a valuable educational side to it through that.
Ethics surrounding animals and the scientific community’s use for them is complex, with countless facets of the broader perspective. Some specimens are donated from outside sources, as part of a repository agreement that an NHM may have with agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service or a local zoo. Much of the specimens found in an NHM have been collected by teams or field researchers. In order to do that, the collectors must kill the animal that they have caught so that the specimen may begin the process of being stored in a collection. This leads to some dilemmas that scientists in any field must face: is it ethical to take a life for research purposes? What is the value of these lives, how must we measure the value, and how does the value of these lives impact our decision in taking a life? Some philosophers argue for a hierarchical way of categorizing the moral standing of an animal (Kagan 2019). Others explain that there is either an instrumental or intrinsic value to each specimen (Norton 2005). It’s extremely important to explore the ways in which scientific research interacts/interferes with philosophy.
Accessibility is an issue that many face every day, whether that be spatially or academically. In environmental studies, there can be a large gap in accessibility when it comes to the technology that is used to gather, store, and disperse knowledge. The digitization of data is a significant point in the scientific community, and it’s crucial to explore the ways in which it can and cannot be accessible, and how to develop the ways in which we collect, analyze, and store data. Digitizing collections comes with many advantages, including the increased use of data to a wider audience, the lessening of physical harm of specimens, and the formation of a permanent archive of information that can benefit many different communities, like researchers, educators, and the general public (Ruiz et al. 2009). Crucial data about biodiversity is often not available to those who develop policy and management decisions that affect specific species, thus not being taken into account, which is difficult because biodiversity is a vital part of understanding the basic needs of an organism and how to better support it. In recent years, there have been strides made towards universal systems to store data. One of the first largest databases formed is the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), an international network founded in 2001 that is funded by different governments throughout the world (Edwards et al. 2000). This database was created with the intent of providing anyone in any part of the world information about all kinds of life on Earth. This database was pivotal for natural history museums, which before relied on storing information of thousands of specimens on paper that would then be stored away on shelves full of books, shut away from the public. Still, training is required in order to run databases like these and recent studies have shown that not enough graduate students are prepared to do this (Hernandez et al. 2012) and already existing curators are having difficulty keeping up with the fact-pace technology (Marty 2007). Today, there are a handful of open-access systems that have been designed specifically with accessibility of data in mind, including Arctos, CollectionSpace, and smaller databases formulated by universities and museums, such as Canada’s national Museum of Nature.
- How do NHMs shape the understanding of biodiversity and conservation?
- What is the role of NHMs in education for K-12, college students, and the public?
- How has technology changed the way that analog data is collected, processed, and stored?
- How are NHMs impacting the lives of animals by collecting them?
- Why are more species discovered already in NHMs than in the natural world?
- Why are NHMs changing how they function in order to further education for the public?
- Why are NHMs beginning to digitize their data to put into a larger system?
- Why do most of an NHM’s stock come from field collection?
- Do NHMs make a change in conserving species by providing new information about them?
- How will advancing education within an NHM affect students and the public?
- Does digital access to data on biodiversity allow for misuse of data by an under-informed public that may draw false conclusion?
- How does an NHM’s practices in field collecting affect the value of animal life?
- How can NHMs continue to improve our knowledge within biodiversity as a means of advancing conservation?
- How can NHMs build an educational community in collaboration with its local residents?
- What kind of technology and training do scientists require to create a more accessible database?
- How can NHMs balance animal ethics with field research?
- ED 450 (Philosophy & Practice of Environmental/Ecological Education) Spring 2022: In this class I will learn more about scientific literacy and education. I will also complete a 15 hour practicum in an educational space where environmental or place-based studies are a core idea of the curriculum.
- SOAN 222 (City and Society) Spring 2022: I will learn more about how cities and societies function, particularly with museums as the intersection (and perhaps heart) of these two.
- BIO 244 (Practicum) Spring 2021: I would conduct an independent study within Lewis & Clark’s Natural History Collection.
- ELI 310 (Curatorial Affairs in Arts) Fall 2020: An introduction to issues of the role of a curator and the unique functions that the curator has. I will meet with local curators and visit local museums and venues to learn more about exhibition-making.
Here are the required breadth courses I will include in my ENVS major/minor: BIO 201, GEOL 150, ECON 260, SOAN 305, HIST 261, PHIL 215. These are in addition to my ENVS core courses, and the area of interest courses I propose above.
Revisions to date
- Feedback from Parvaneh Abbaspour (April 2020): Suggested doing a practicum with the Biology department earlier than originally planned so that I can be more grounded in further research with my Area of Interest.
- Feedback from Greta Binford (April 2020): Noted that as I progress with my Area of Interest, I should focus closer on one of the four topics that I explore. Offered revisions in the paragraph about biodiversity for better clarification.
- Edwards, J. L., Lane, M. A., & Nielsen, E. S. (2000). Interoperability of Biodiversity Databases: Biodiversity Information on Every Desktop. Science, 289(5488), 2312–2314. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.289.5488.2312
- Hernandez, Rebecca R., Matthew S. Mayernik, Michelle L. Murphy-Mariscal, and Michael F. Allen. “Advanced Technologies and Data Management Practices in Environmental Science: Lessons from Academia.” BioScience 62, no. 12 (2012): 1067–76. https://doi.org/10.1525/bio.2012.62.12.8.
- Kagan, Shelly. How to Count Animals, More or Less. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Kemp, C. (2015). Museums: The endangered dead. Nature, 518(7539), 292–294. https://doi.org/10.1038/518292a
- Krishtalka, L., & Humphrey, P. S. (2000). Can Natural History Museums Capture the Future? BioScience, 50(7), 611. https://doi.org/10.1641/0006-3568(2000)050[0611:CNHMCT]2.0.CO;2
- Maas, B., Toomey, A., & Loyola, R. (2019). Exploring and expanding the spaces between research and implementation in conservation science. Biological Conservation, 240, 108290. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108290
- Macfadden, B. J., & Camp, B. D. (2000). University Natural History Museums: The Public Education Mission. Curator: The Museum Journal, 43(2), 123–138. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2151-6952.2000.tb00008.x
- Marty, Paul F. “The Changing Nature of Information Work in Museums.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 58, no. 1 (2007): 97–107. https://doi.org/10.1002/asi.20443.
- Norton, Bryan G. (2005) “Values in Nature: A Pluralistic Approach,” in: Cohen, Andrew I., and Wellman, Christopher H., Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (2014): 298-310.
- Ruiz, Miguel, Jacob Kramer-Duffield, Jane Greenberg, and Nathan Hall. “Digital Libraries for Biodiversity and Natural History Collections.” Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 46, no. 1 (2009): 1–5. https://doi.org/10.1002/meet.2009.1450460155.