Staff Spotlight - Hannah Merchant

December 13, 2021
Hannah Merchant

Hannah Merchant has been a Curatorial Assistant at the Harvard University Herbaria since 2012. She is a lover of natural history museums, zoos, and botanical gardens. When not working, she can be found on the coast eating copious amounts of seafood, playing video games, or cuddling with her black cat, Bear.

When did you first become interested in botany?

I’ve always loved plants, but my first experience with any kind of botanical work was in the Ethnobotanical Garden at the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve in Phoenix, Arizona. I worked at this small museum during graduate school and, as with all the employees at the time, I wore many hats! One of my responsibilities was developing interpretive content for the garden and working closely with volunteers to curate a living collection of representative plants that are important to people living in the desert. While I live in a much different climate now, I still have a soft spot for these hardy desert plants.


Where did you gain your educational foundation?

My undergraduate study was in Environmental Studies and Anthropology from Bates College, and I have a master’s degree in Museum Anthropology from Arizona State University. My background is different from a lot of our staff in that I did not have a strong foundation in the sciences when I came to work at HUH, but I am always seeking opportunities to increase my knowledge about botany and the biological groups I work so closely with. I learned an immense amount about nomenclature through a workshop at HUH led by Dr. Kanchi Gandhi, and I have taken online courses through the Eagle Hill Institute on lichens and macroalgae.


How did you get to where you are today?

Breaking into the museum field can be hard. Having the opportunity to pursue higher education was essential to paving this path for me, and I was fortunate to have the resources for a cross-country move when I was first offered a position at HUH. I was willing and able to start with temporary digitization positions and jumped at the chance to move up and grow as it became possible. I am immensely grateful for these opportunities and the connections I have made working at HUH.


When did you first become involved with the Harvard University Herbaria?

I first came to HUH in 2012 as a digitizer for the Global Plants Initiative project. Scanning type specimens was a really interesting way to start my work with botanical collections. The project required our types to be digitized at a very high resolution, and each scan took about five minutes. This slow, intentional pace allowed me to appreciate little details and become aware of the important scientific information stored in every part of a specimen. The following year I moved on to the Lichen and Bryophyte digitization project, and in 2016 I became a regular Curatorial Assistant. I now work across all of our collections and enjoy splitting my time between vascular plants and cryptogams.


Do you recall a time you thought your work enlightened others?

I don’t have a specific example, but I love giving tours and getting to highlight our collections for students who may not have been to an herbarium before. I enjoy bringing out interesting specimens and using them to make connections between our collections and the outside world. Often, the tours I prepare are for specific classes and I typically learn a great deal by researching and pulling specimens for these tours.


What was your most exciting discovery while working with a specimen?

Carver rust labelI am always fascinated when I stumble across specimens collected by “famous” people. One of these moments actually happened shortly after the start of the ongoing pandemic. A project I jumped into working on from home was databasing rust fungus specimens from digital images of the collecting labels. I came across a specimen collected by a “G. W. Carver” and thought “that can’t possibly be…”. I soon learned that in addition to being a prominent scientist and inventor, George Washington Carver conducted significant research in plant pathology and collected many rust fungus specimens, a number of which are now here in the Farlow Herbarium. I continue to encounter and digitize his collections on occasion, and I am awe-struck that I have handled the same plant material as someone so influential in American history.


Do you have a specimen that is the most cherished?

vegetable lamb 1
Photograph by Tessa Updike
Because my academic background is primarily in Anthropology, I have a fondness for our Economic Botany collections that shed light on how humans understand, interact with, and manipulate the natural world. A particular favorite specimen of mine is the “Vegetable Lamb”. Middle Age myth told of a plant that grew sheep as its fruit, which was tethered to the ground and grazed as far as it could reach. This fable may have been derived from an inverted and adorned wooly rhizome of the tree fern Cibotium barometz, similar to the specimen we have in our collections. I think of this artifact as a tangible reminder that scientific knowledge is always changing and evolving.


What is something you have found particularly challenging?

The nature of curatorial work, especially at an institution as large as HUH, is that there are an infinite number of tasks to be done. Our work is never finished, and there is only so much time we can devote to it. Mentally, that can be a difficult hurdle to overcome. Being sent to work from home during the pandemic was an interesting exercise. Most of our work requires hands-on time with the specimens, so we all needed to pivot our daily responsibilities to accommodate long periods of time without access to the collections. Many projects had to be put on hold indefinitely; but, on the other hand, working remotely provided an opportunity to really dig in deep to work that often gets deferred. I spent a lot of time over the past year cleaning up our data, such as removing erroneous botanist records and clarifying our geographical trees for the Canadian provinces. It is satisfying to “chip away” at the large mountain of work, no matter how small each chip is.


What do you like the most about your job?

I like being in the background; I find meaning being in a support role for research that could make a difference in the world. My work is generally not public-facing, but specimen data that we enter is pushed out to many collaborative sites and can be viewed by anyone with an internet connection. Whether it’s from a type specimen I scanned that is visible on JSTOR, or a lichen label I transcribed and uploaded to the Consortium of North American Lichen Herbaria portal, every specimen I have entered has the potential to be used to look at the bigger picture: How are plant distributions changing over time? What can we learn from these changes?