Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Greatest Hits

Fig.1. Museum in Pennsylvania (Credit: Michelle J. Enemark, 2011) and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault 
 (Credit: Mari Tefre, Global Crop Diversity Trust, via Flickr

Editor’s Note: After two years of exciting and engaging work, staff writer Adele Crane will be leaving Scientific Collections International for graduate school in Arizona. Out of 214 posts garnering more than 34,500 views, Adele chose some of her favorite articles.


From a small natural history museum in Pennsylvania to a seed-bank built to survive doomsday scenarios, collections reside all around the world in many forms. My work over the past two years with Scientific Collections International (SciColl) has been to chip away at only a fraction of the specimens and samples out there, exploring a slew of topics from microbes in your backyard to moon rocks - and on rare cases, even both!

When we initially started the blog, we wanted to connect collections to disease research and response. Articles on cross-disciplinary and novel approaches to outbreaks would lead up to SciColl’s very first workshop on Emerging Infectious Diseases. The workshop was indeed timely, coinciding with the Ebola epidemic in Africa, and it highlighted the need to make this type of active outreach ongoing, instead of sporadic.

Perhaps as a preface to the type of work I will pursue in graduate school, my favorite articles were a fantastic education on how to bridge unique specimens with historic and current disease research. To break down the broad topic of “emerging infectious diseases,” we focused on smaller case studies of known and relatively unknown pathogens that affect millions around the world:

  • Disease Collections and How They Can Save the World: In 1976, a broken vial of blood transported in luggage from the Democratic Republic of the Congo found its way to the young Belgian scientist, Peter Piot. The blood carried one of the most feared pathogens in current disease research. 

  • C. Miguel Pinto, the Disease Detective: A conversation with C. Miguel Pinto in our very own museum explored the cross-section of disease research and classic taxonomy, in which basic evolutionary principles are tested. 

Fig.2. Plate of microorganisms that were cultured from the soil
(Credit: Julia Stevens)

Over the course of the blog, we looked beyond case studies and current research challenges. How can ancient specimens inform future problems? There are many examples where collections were used to further important research in areas like environmental change and food security.

When we take a step back, the larger impacts of educating the next generation of scientists or bringing countries together to protect biodiversity are extraordinarily important. After working with SciColl, I am grateful to have gained that perspective and I hope to hear many more of these stories in years to come:

  • Microbes and Middle Schools: Citizen science has the ability to reach both students and researchers in powerful ways. Collections that not only support invasive species studies but engage middle schoolers in science are a cornerstone of ongoing work at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. 

  • Seeds for the End of the World: Seed banks preserve both biological diversity and cultural heritage. Banks around the world, from Peru to Norway, are working to provide a future for agriculture and historical practices. 

  • Smart Collecting: A New Collecting Culture: What began as a short discussion in our Emerging Infectious Disease workshop turned into a larger conversation about a “collecting culture” that could be improved for museums and biobanks alike.

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