Genevieve E. Tocci, Senior Curatorial Technician, has been part of the HUH since 2003, primarily in the Farlow Herbarium with the non-vascular cryptogams (fungi, lichens, mosses, hepatics and algae). Her interests include botany, bryology, and mycology, curation of natural history collections, and integrated pest management. In addition to focusing on these areas in the HUH, she also contributes to the Museum Pests Working Group ( https://museumpests.net/ ) and SPNHC. When not working with collections or identifying specimens, she can often be found knitting.
What is the story behind you being the point person at the Herbaria for all things pests?
Integrated pest management (IPM) has long been the practice here in the Herbaria. At one point, there was a large group all working together on a more extensive IPM plan than previously implemented, but as those staff moved on to other positions, what we were doing also changed. It always seemed exceptionally important to me, and with the complexity of potential risk in the cryptogamic collections, I stuck with it. A former manager supported this and connected me with the Museum Pest Working Group and supported some of my trips to work with that group. That connection helped give me the confidence, knowledge, and contacts, to continue IPM work here. I’m so grateful my current manager, Dr. Michaela Schmull, agrees, works with me, and supports the IPM efforts for our collections. All this has resulted in coordination of IPM becoming an official part of my job.
When did you first become interested in botany?
I knew I wanted to study biology in my freshman year of high school. In college I knew that zoology, and things that bleed, were not for me. My dream of working on the human genome was not going to work out, as they were finishing up, and I stumbled into some plant classes. I never looked back.
Where did you gain the educational foundation?
I took most of the limited botanically focused classes available to me at the time when an undergraduate at UMass Amherst. For several summers I also worked creating and updating an access database to track plantings on the Wellesley College grounds. Once becoming Herbaria staff, I used every opportunity I could to learn more about the vast botanical collections as well as museum practices. Professional development opportunities through the Harvard Summer School, Harvard Extension School, Eagle Hill Institute, and additional hands-on opportunities helped me gather the knowledge I use every day. Finally, becoming a member of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC) and actively participating at meetings and on committees has been a huge source of growth and knowledge.
Did you have a mentor(s)? If so, how did that person(s) guide you?
I think I was lucky to have people around me to learn from and act as mentors, but I think equally important has been surrounding myself with colleagues of all levels and learning and working together. Developing ideas, practices, and engaging with the natural history and herbarium community constantly revitalizes me, encourages me, and makes me want to give back and do the best I can. Some of those critical mentors and colleagues are: Paul Godfrey; Donald Pfister; Nancy Slack; James Macklin; Edith Hollander; Michaela Schmull; Rachael Arenstein; Melinda Peters; Sue Williams; Emily Wood; John Tristan; Barry Tomlinson; Kanchi Gandhi; Elizabeth Kneiper; Laura Briscoe; Norton Miller.
When did you first become involved with the Harvard University Herbaria?
I started in the fall of 2003 spending about half my time mounting vascular plants and half in the Farlow.
Do you have a specimen that is the most cherished?
I have a couple specimens that help me remember we cannot disconnect collections and their history with what is happening politically. We have several specimens of Orthotrichum, a moss, collected on the lawn of the White House during the US Civil War. A member of a regimen fighting against the horrific intuition that was slavery took the time to collect some tiny moss. It helps me internalize that botanical collections bear witness to, and tie into, global happenings. Herbaria and our collections are not, and never have been, neutral places.
What do you like the most about your job?
Meeting and working with some of the most amazing humans is perhaps my favorite. For actual work, helping track down mysteries and solve puzzles, especially when something was previously thought lost and finding it allows researchers to solve a puzzle of their own.
Tell us about a typical day in the life of a Curatorial Assistant, both pre-pandemic and how that has changed during the pandemic.
The great thing about being on curatorial staff is that there is no such thing as a typical day. In our herbaria, much of the day to day functioning is shared across staff and not broken up into separate roles. We have a basic priority for the various tasks and adjust as special projects or other needs arise. Collections safety is always the ultimate top priority but fits into every action we take.
- Assisting visitors
- Providing tours and assisting with classes
- Loan and information requests, which can include verifying types and macroscopically and microscopically imaging specimens
- Incoming loan processing for researchers here
- Checking in returned loans, updating any annotations, and refiling specimens
- Accessioning incoming material
- Sending out gift and exchange specimens
- Filing specimens
- Specimen recuration, repacketing, and repairs
- Applying taxonomic revisions as assigned by the curator committee
- Monthly IPM trap monitoring
- Digitization, both label transcription and specimen imaging
- Specimen data cleanup
- Working through historical unprocessed materials
- Assessing physical space needs of the collections and shifting/decompressing specimens
Almost all day to day work is not something we can do at home, and prior to the COVID-19 pandemic we did zero work at home. Through several different processes, curatorial staff were able to image specimens to do transcription from home over a VPN connection. We have been almost exclusively doing a combination of label transcription, database record cleanup, georeferencing of specimens, and other small remote projects as time allows. As a group we have been able to help replace the feeling of popping over to another office to ask a question by using the collaboration software Slack.
As we have transitioned back to the collection in a limited capacity, additional imaging for work at home, monitoring IPM traps, and a base level of the tasks have been resumed. With such limited time we are not sending loans but do our best to provide information and images to researchers, which with the non-vascular cryptogams has greatly increase stereoscope and compound microscope imaging. For the most part we are asking all returned loans and shipments to be held when possible, but as new packages arrive we add them to our queue to process. Generally the days we are in we try to get as much done as we can while also keeping social distance from any colleagues also in the building and collections.
What would you like the next generation to seek out?
I think that intersectionality and collection decolonization is a critical direction I hope future generations focus on. Part of this is increasing access to collections and their data, but another part will be finding and sharing the stories that have been lost or hidden do the colonialist and western scientific approach many natural history collections are founded on. Certainly, some stories have been told, but there are so many lost, and so many pieces of knowledge and stories to connect. I always wonder how much more we would know about botany by connecting these stores, these people, and the different types of botanical collections.