I love museums. A lot.
And I am not alone.
According to the American Alliance of Museums, there are approximately 850 million visits to American museums every year, more than the attendance to all the theme parks and major league sporting events combined (a measly 483 million). Museums are also trusted information sources, ranking more trustworthy in a public opinion poll than local newspapers, the US government, and academic researchers. And while museums are cornerstones of education, a recent article in PLOS One highlights how one museum has worked to integrate university undergraduates into a core component of their work in biodiversity science.
The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (MVZ) at the University of California, Berkeley was founded in 1908 by the philanthropist and paleontologist (or at least paleontological enthusiast), Annie Alexander. The museum houses over 700,000 terrestrial vertebrates, 100,000 samples of frozen tissue, 90,000 pages of field notes, 5,000 sound recordings, 12,000 photographs . . .
They got a lot of stuff.
One thing that sets the MVZ apart, is the mutually beneficial arrangement that exists between the museum and the undergraduate students at the University of California, Berkeley who work and learn there—a program that fully integrates students into biodiversity research as the museum.
Open to all UC Berkeley students, the museum integration program includes a tiered structure where students can begin work on introductory tasks such as numbering bones, tying tags, surveying pests, etc. These tasks require little experience or background knowledge and allow students to jump right in and begin work. The museum of course benefits in that these tasks are repetitive, but necessary. As students gain experience they can move up to beginner level tasks, including working the prep lab, the archives, or beginning working curatorial or digitization tasks. From there, there is an intermediate level that includes preparing species work or working in informatics on to the most advanced tasks that include independent research, fieldwork, and advanced tasks in informatics or even genetics.
Students receive academic credit for the work, while gaining practical experience contributing to the work and mission of the museum. Students are also naturally curious and ask questions and contribute ideas. This in turn adds to the vitality of the institution. It is, as the authors detail, a mutually beneficial arrangement.
While the close location the UC campus and strong integration with the biodiversity program at the university has led to this successful program, other museums have strong formal education components as well. The authors offer suggestion for other institutions:
- Hosting workshops or speaker-led seminars.
- Extending opportunities for specimen preparation
- If a fieldwork component is lacking, then consider collaboration with large citizen science efforts such as iNaturalist or eBird
I find this work interesting not only because I love museums and am quite enthused by seeing the partnership between undergraduates and working scientists and curators to help create a mutually beneficial situation—though I am–I am also encouraged by the diversity of the student population this program is able to serve. Students from diverse backgrounds often have a more difficult time breaking into science careers or receiving scientific training because of a lack of opportunity to gain that initial experience needed. More privileged students have the ability to volunteer for unpaid research opportunities or internships that create academic and career capital that can be cashed in later.
Students who are unable to secure these opportunities are then disadvantaged as their careers progress and they may find it more difficult to pursue further education or employment opportunities. This issue, though a problem in many fields, is quite acute in ecology and biology. Auriel Fournier and Alex Bond wrote an excellent piece on the issue in 2015. The problem persists. Any perusal of a job board in ecology and biology is often replete with “unpaid” internships or research experiences—or even worse, ones where you actually have to pay to participate in.
The program at MVZ incorporates a strong mentorship component that is aimed at helping students from diverse background not only learn the skills needed, but to excel in their academics and career aspirations as well. And importantly, there are tie-ins with work-study programs that allow students to learn and earn while they work.
Strong partnerships between institutes such as museums with academic institutions allow a means of potentially subverting these issues and fostering the potential of students with diverse backgrounds. Hopefully these partnerships will grow in number and seek to include not only large flagship universities such as UC Berkeley, but smaller schools, community colleges, and high schools as well.
The MVZ is also hiring, if you are interested in that sort of thing!