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  5. Students flourish at the museum while learning to ‘handle with care’

Students flourish at the museum while learning to ‘handle with care’

By Howard Martin

Each year, the Canadian Museum of Nature’s scientists mentor students—from those getting their first experience in a lab, to Ph.D. candidates exploring detailed questions about natural history.  

Their base is the museum’s national research and collections facility, the Natural Heritage Campus in Gatineau, Quebec, where they have access to Canada’s national natural history collections – more than 14.6 million specimens!

Mark Graham, the museum’s Vice-President of Research and Collections, feels the students learn valuable lessons every day as they work with the scientists and the collections. “They need a place to finish their training – or get further instruction on how to document and study specimens. By working with the collections, they appreciate the preservation process more so than someone who hasn’t been exposed to it.”

Meet four of these scientists-in-training, who benefit from the guidance of museum experts.

Howard Martin © Canadian Museum of Nature

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James Darling holds a tray of dung beetles in the museum’s insect collections area. He is looking to name an undescribed species when he begins his master’s degree.

James Darling – Dung beetles

James started his undergrad at Carleton University studying biology – eventually focussing on the taxonomy of beetles. He discovered his passion for taxonomy when some of his courses delved into studies of biodiversity.  “I tend to appreciate the diversity of life rather than the interactions between species…I just love to classify things,” he says. 

Darling is being mentored by François Génier, collection manager of Zoology, whose expertise is on the taxonomy of weevils in the Americas. Darling was introduced to the museum as a summer student for its Environmental Monitoring Program in 2015. He took a keen interest in the beetles collected while studying the ecosystems around the grounds of the Natural Heritage Campus.

Génier was impressed, and offered Darling a volunteer spot in his lab, which subsequently turned into a paid position. Darling’s goals are to enrol for his master’s at the University of Ottawa in May 2018.

“It’s rewarding to assess the morphology of a potential species whose nomenclature is unknown, especially when it results in describing a new species. It basically immortalizes you in science as an author of a new species, something I would find very fulfilling.”

Howard Martin © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Yiminxue Zheng processing samples in the museum’s DNA lab.

Yiminxue ZhengDNA barcoding of Arctic fish

Yiminxue is completing her master’s degree while studying evolutionary biology and ecology at the University of Toronto. During a recent internship at the Canadian Museum of Nature, she tapped into the museum’s exhaustive collection of Arctic fishes. 

She is focussing on the DNA barcoding of Arctic fish—processing sequences of samples in the museum’s molecular biology lab. Arctic fish don’t have much documentation about their DNA, so her work mainly consists of putting this information in a database – “filling in the gaps” where there has been a lack of information previously. 

The DNA barcodes are unique to each species. While the steps to extract the DNA in fish can vary, they are usually similar and don’t hold up the barcoding process.

Zheng was unaware that the museum’s research facility existed. She was blown away by the size of the collections they hold. “I really enjoy being a part of the science that goes on here,” she says.

While gathering the raw data and building the groundwork for the system to advance, Zheng feels she and her collaborators are “building an important tool,” and a new base of knowledge for use by other scientists. 

Howard Martin © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Rachel Bergeron prepping specimens of Arctic plants in the museum’s Herbarium for digitization.

Rachel Bergeron – Digitization of plants, Herbarium

A third-year biology student at the University of Ottawa, Rachel Bergeron originally had an interest in medical school but has changed her focus to pursuing a career in research.

She is digitizing some of the countless vascular plants in the museum’s Herbarium. Digitization is a critical step in sharing the information about the plants with researchers around the world. She is guided by Jennifer Doubt, the museum’s curator of botany, who oversees the processing and collection of over a million specimens of Canadian wild plants.

Describing herself as a “neat-freak and a bit of a perfectionist,” Bergeron finds satisfaction in digitizing the plants and storing them in the collections.

Her time at the museum has been enlightening. “It’s an amazing experience to use this equipment and work with the collections,” she says.  She finds the herbarium to be very inviting and easy for students and scientists to access. The trust and confidence the scientists have in the students is also something that she finds motivating and refreshing.

As for her future in science, Bergeron foresees pursuing a master’s degree and then a Ph.D., which may focus on animal physiology or ecology.

Howard Martin © Canadian Museum of Nature

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Tom Dudgeon with specimens from Champsosaurus in the museum’s collections.

Tom Dudgeon – Champsosaurus/Palaeontology

As an undergrad at Trent University in Peterborough, Tom transferred his studies from anthropology to biology, and completed a thesis on the foraging of First Nations peoples at a site not far from the Ontario city.

With his degree in hand, and with a route to palaeontogy in mind, he started his master’s degree at Carleton University in September 2017. He is now working under Dr. Jordan Mallon, museum research scientist and palaeontologist, and is looking at the cranial anatomy of Champsosaurus.

These animals died out about 50 million years ago, and looked like a cross between a crocodile and an iguana. What Dudgeon finds most interesting about the species is the strange morphology of the reptile’s inner ear, which is located at the bottom of the skull rather than the sides.

Dudgeon finds the staff and atmosphere at the Natural Heritage Campus to be “very professional, but also relaxed with a feeling of home.” At first he thought he may need to have his guard up and mind his own work but got the opposite reaction almost immediately after starting his studies. “Everyone enjoys being here and you can have fun with what you’re doing.”

Support for Dudgeon’s master’s research is provided through a Discovery Grant awarded to Dr. Jordan Mallon from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).