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Field trip to the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Wednesday, June 16, 2010, by Aleta Wiley: REU Summer Proctor
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Last Friday, the whole REU program spent the day on a behind-the-scenes tour at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. Split into two groups, the students visited five departments: Herpetology (reptiles and amphibians), Ornithology (birds), the Botany libraries and the Herbaria (plants), and Entomology (insects). Curators in each department spoke with the students about their methods for collecting specimens, the importance of preserving natural history collections for scientific research, and the different ways that they preserve and protect the specimens from damage and decay. The curators showed them where and how the specimens are stored and told some interesting stories! At the end of the day, many students took advantage of being in Cambridge on a beautiful sunny evening and enjoyed eating dinner out, followed by trips to the favorite local ice cream shop.

"The tour of the Harvard museum really changed my perception of the purpose of museums as mostly public attractions to appreciating them as valuable scientific research centers. The museum staff has a very important job of preserving all the specimens so that the potential of the immense amount of data they have stored can be realized." – Joanna Blaszczak

"I was amazed by how many specimens the Harvard Museum of Natural History actually owns! And I was happy to hear that, thanks to new technology, they are in the process of digitalizing their collections - it seems like that will make them potentially much more useful in future. It was also great to think about all the different scientists all over the country who might be using these specimens for very disparate purposes. But my favorite part of the Museum was the Botany Library. In particular, I loved all the old books from centuries ago that students are still allowed to use for their research. It was really inspiring to see the historical research into pitcher plants laid out on the table for us to engage with - and to consider that those dozen books were only a tiny selection of the total collection. I hope I get to go back and explore the Botany Library more sometime in the future." – Megan Jones

"As a student working on the Warm Ants project, I was delighted to see the ant specimen room and to realize that they are one of the largest in the world. The entomology wing was interesting as the curator explained the importance of the largest group of organisms in the world, and the fact that, though considered pests, they are some of the most important to our everyday lives." – Margaurete Romero

"The trip to the Natural History Museum at Harvard was a unique experience—I have never seen so many preserved specimens in my life! My favorite was the glass flower exhibit! And 9Tastes pad thai followed by chocolate ice cream at J.P. Licks made for a fun follow-up." – Morgan Vigil

"Going to Harvard's Natural History Museum was like taking a trip around the world. There is something adventurous about living vicariously through dead animal specimens. Millions of dead organized and stashed in old buildings; I was amazed by the amount of collections each cupboard held and thankful that Aslan wasn't around. However underlying the dead organisms is a bigger scientific challenge - the organization of nature. Humans desire, maybe even need, to have nature organized. Once placed in a pattern, nature can be more easily understood. Patterns allow for understanding which ultimately leads to control—control of an organism to preserve it, control of a disease to prevent it, and control of an ecosystem in order for it to prevail." – Kristen Schipper

[Meredith Kueny checks out specimens of two-headed snakes.]