Staff Spotlight - Digitizers

June 7, 2021

At the HUH we have several Curatorial Assistants working on collections digitization projects generously supported by NSF grants. Their work in the vascular plant collections includes tasks such as barcoding and imaging specimens, entering information into our database, georeferencing specimens, and fixing mistakes and problems they find in the collections and in the data. We are lucky to have such a large group of amazing people stewarding the collections in this way!

Herbaria Digitization Staff
Herbaria Digitization Staff: Zachary Bailey, Kala Brzezinski, Allen Milby, Ellen Rullo, Madeline Schill, Emma Tanner, Ellie Taylor, and Carolyn Thornton

What path led you to the HUH?

Zachary Bailey: As an undergraduate, I worked and conducted research at the E. L. Reed Herbarium at Texas Tech University. My first research project was actually a poster presentation entitled "Guadalupe Mountains National Park: How Digitization of Herbaria Aids in Research." Having fallen in love with the field, I knew working in herbaria was exactly what I wanted to do post-graduation.

Kala Brzezinski: A primary interest of mine is the pursuit of work which grants me access to explore vast collections of objects, manuscripts, art, specimens—copious amounts of interesting stuff, essentially—in order to satisfy the curiosity I have within museums and cultural institutions while simultaneously contributing to the mission of preserving and expanding access to those collections to wider audiences. The path I took to get to the HUH began in my pursuit of my museum education degree after moving to Boston. One of the first trips I made to a museum in the city was to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to visit the Glass Flowers. From that point, I was interested in anything relating to the collection and to the Harvard museums as a whole—therefore when the opportunity came to apply for a position within the HUH, I immediately seized it.

Allen Milby: My path to the HUH began when I got involved with the Virginia Tech Natural History Collections Club (VTNHCC) while I was studying Wildlife Conservation at the university. I joined the club when it was formed and became one of the founding officers, my title initially was club “jester” but eventually this position became Collection Representative for the Herbarium (a bit more formal). Through the club I built a relationship with the curator of the Massey Herbarium of Virginia Tech and began to work for him as a curatorial assistant where I helped with digitization efforts as well as performed identifications of incoming specimens and other curatorial tasks. Eventually I started to conduct research under the curators supervision on the lichens and bryophytes of two on campus forests, one being an old-growth forest fragment. Working and doing research in the herbarium and being a part of the VTNHCC was one of the best experiences of my undergraduate career and really fed my passion for natural history – leading me to apply for my current position here at the HUH!

Ellen Rullo: What lead me to the HUH is that I have a background in archives and digitizing special collections, I had previously worked at the Harvard Observatory Plate Stacks digitizing that collection, which lead me to my current position at the HUH digitizing specimens.

Madeline Schill: I began working with natural history collections my senior year of undergrad at The University of Texas at Austin after being introduced to the herbarium through a plant systematics course I was taking. I enjoyed working with the specimens, many of which were from places and times I can only imagine, and it felt natural to move onto HUH after I graduated.

Emma Tanner: I grew up working on a farm and in greenhouses, so I have always had an appreciation for the natural world. By the time I graduated college, I knew I had a passion for working in historical collections, and the HUH seemed like the perfect place to combine these two interests.

Ellie Taylor: I was a digitizer at the L. H. Bailey Hortorium Herbarium while I was a plant sciences student at Cornell University, which introduced me to the concept of herbaria and gave me my love of collections. I worked in libraries for a few years after college to engage with other types of collections. When this position arose, I jumped at the opportunity to work with plant specimens again.

Carolyn Thornton: I studied biology in college with some geology on the side in the hopes of fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a paleontologist, and because I thought evolution in general was very cool. A series of events in my junior year of college turned my focus onto plant biology: I had to take a plant course while I was studying abroad, my advisor put me on a plant biology research project, and the summer job I snagged that year was a paleobotany research internship. I never got very excited about animal science so it was a relief when I found plants. And I had had enough of dissections! After college I had jobs in paleobotany research at the University of Florida and in paleobotany collections at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. It was at those jobs that I became aware of herbaria and started using herbarium specimens and digital records for paleo work. When it was time to find another job, I decided I should look at herbaria positions so I could learn more about how they work and how they contribute to other branches of plant science. Luckily HUH was looking at the same time I was!

Is there a favorite specimen or story you have come across in your work at the HUH?

Zachary: While digitizing, I came across a specimen with collector "O. Meusebach," a collector I could not find in our database. Upon doing a bit of research to create a new collector entry, this is what I found. Baron Otfried Hans Freiherr von Meusebach was a Prussian noble who moved to Texas under the Adelsvrain in 1845 to pursue his passions of botany and geology. Upon arrival, he quickly gave up his title of nobility, changing his name to John Otfried Meusebach and founded the settlement of Fredericksburg. It was while living in New Braunfels that he befriended Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer and George Englemann, two botanists whose specimens can be found throughout the collection. Despite not indicating so on the labels, it is speculated that Lindheimer was accompanied by Meusebach for many of the collections in Comanche Springs made in 1849. Meusebach went on to become a Texas State Senator while keeping in touch and sending specimens back and forth between his botanist pals.

Kala: One of the best stories ever passed along to me came from Walter [Kittredge]—although we may need to fact check some elements of this story as it’s been a while since he told it and I’m sure I’m forgetting some key details. The story goes like this: A famous Harvard botanist was nearing the end of his life. He was a man who had a flourishing and enduring career within the field of botany and within Harvard—leaving him well regarded and known throughout the discipline. His final resting place was to be Mount Auburn Cemetery and one day he took a trip to inspect his grave plot. Upon arriving to the cemetery and completing the inspection of final resting place, the botanist found a plant producing a small yellow flower. He knelt down and picked it. He then placed the small thing in his journal to be pressed and preserved. This was his final collection. The story was so striking because it was told to me so early on in my work for the Herbaria and it set the tone for how I came to understand botany, plant science, and the scientists who contribute to the field. The quest to collect and preserve, to understand and inform is never ending. It’s the pursuit of preserving and understanding so many of the beautiful and natural things we have in the world. In my work to preserve the collections at the HUH, I allowed this story to guide me and provide a little infusion of humanity into each individual plant specimen I encountered. Whether a grave-site collecting trip or a journey to some far-off place—all specimens have a tremendous story and contribute to an incredible narrative of science and humanity.

Allen: It is hard to choose a favorite because the HUH has such a rich history – One of my favorite stories/specimens that I have come across is a set of specimens of Micrathemum micranthemoides (Nutt.) Wettst. The species was discovered and described in the early 1800’s by Thomas Nuttall along a river near Philadelphia. Since the time it was discovered it was a relatively rare plant and now, sadly, the species is thought to be extinct. One of the last known, if not the last, collections was made by Harvard botanist M. L. Fernald in 1941 in Virginia. The HUH has two of these specimens collected by Fernald and the last duplicate is held at the Massey Herbarium of Virginia Tech. I really liked this connection between these two herbaria and these very important specimens. This story also illustrates the importance of natural history collections in documenting our changing ecosystems.

Ellen: My favorite specimens usually coincide with my favorite flowers, and I had a really good time digitizing the Iridaceae and Hydrangeaceae families since they were very beautiful and are some of my favorite flowers!

Madeline: I've discovered so many fascinating stories about botanists and their situations, but one that stands out is the oldest specimen I've personally come across, collected by Captain Christie in 1792 from Adventure Bay, Tasmania. Looking at plant material that was collected over 200 years ago is like peering through a time portal. I also enjoyed finding a large (non-living) spider tucked between the leaves of a 1930 Ynés Mexía specimen collected in Brazil.

Emma: There are so many unexpected, amazing stories within the collection that it's hard to pick just one! Last month I found specimens collected by Lewis and Clark on their expedition west. It was really neat to see specimens collected by historical figures I learned about growing up.

Ellie: Since I am working on Plants on Edge/Endless Forms, I am fortunate to get to see a lot of unique plants and collections. Digitizing the Cactaceae family was particularly fun and engaging since many weren’t mounted. I will also always remember the delight at encountering this Darlingtonia californica Torrey specimen that includes a frog pressed into it!

Carolyn: One time I was digitizing a specimen collected by Rudolf Blaschka (co-creator of the Glass Flowers), asked my coworkers about it, and then was taken to see a half cabinet of unmounted specimens upstairs that were collected as references for creating the glass flowers. Another is when I was researching what precautions to take while digitizing the Anacardiaceae (the family containing poison ivy/oak/etc.) and I learned that mango skins contain the same compound that makes poison ivy so terrible. Obviously, mango skins don’t have quite the same effect as poison ivy, but it’s nice to know. By the way, I was careful not to touch the actual plant specimens of the dangerous species and had no problems digitizing the family!

What do you like the most about your job?

Zachary: Hands down the best part of this job is the people. I don't think I could ever find a workplace environment better than the one we have here at HUH.

Kala: I deeply value the collections I work within. This job has allowed me a glimpse into a discipline and profession I never had access to before. I’ve learned so much about plant sciences in addition to museum collection management and I am incredibly grateful. Each time I’m in the collections I remind myself I’m surrounded by hundreds of years of botanical history in one of the greatest herbaria collections in the world and it’s an honor to be one of the individuals tasked with its preservation and dispersal out into the world through ongoing digitization projects. 

Allen: I think my favorite part of my job is having the privilege of working everyday with such historically and scientifically important specimens. As I already mentioned, the history of the herbaria at Harvard is incredibly rich and the fact that I am able to see and handle some of these specimens is a constant thrill. This fact also attracts some of the best researchers and staff to the HUH and I love to meet and work with these phenomenal folks. It is an absolute pleasure!

Ellen: My favorite part of the job is probably working hands on with the collection. I like seeing the history of the collection as well as reading any notes or information the collectors leave, there is always something new to discover!

Madeline: While providing virtual access to our specimens to researchers all over the world is the goal of digitization, learning about botanists and their expeditions is undoubtedly the most personally gratifying outcome. Many botanists left behind expedition journals and photographs of the plants and people they encountered. Putting a face to a collector's name reveals their curiosity and quest for knowledge of the natural world, an innate desire to discover that still fascinates researchers today. It is also extremely satisfying when you finally decipher a particularly poorly-written label.

Emma: Although I love working with the collection itself, it's my coworkers at the HUH that make it all the more worthwhile. Everyone is so friendly, and I love that we are encouraged to learn as much as we can through the collection, historical research, lectures and even conferences. More experienced staff members are always willing to help and answer questions, and I feel very lucky to be a part of the open and supportive environment fostered by the HUH staff.

Ellie: I love following the collectors through time and space, getting a glimpse at where people were and what they were doing on important dates through history. I also love visiting new places through the specimens and getting a glimpse of the amazing plant diversity across the world. I am always excited to make these collections more accessible for researchers and a wider audience.

Carolyn: My favorite thing about my job is that I work with so many specimens that it’s impossible not to stumble across interesting plants or labels or bits of history pretty much constantly. For example, I’ve found that some collectors liked to glue little bits of decorative paper onto their specimens so it looks like the plant is coming out of a vase.

This work is supported by the HUH and NSF Awards #1902078, #1702322, and #1802019.