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Gorillas ‘dig’ databasing

For the past two years, associate professor of biology and curator of T.M. Sperry Herbarium Neil Snow has been working with his students on a project that spans the country and can be helpful around the globe.  

“We Dig Bio” is an event that took place Oct. 18 and 19 in which 20 Pitt State students undertook the task of collectively databasing and mobilizing approximately 1,107 dried plant species. This research was grant funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).  

“Each specimen represents a record of a plant having grown in a particular place in a particular time,” Snow said. “With each specimen there’s typically data collected—things like where, when, what habitat, what time of year, etc. The reason it’s important is until we have a lot of collections or observation, we don’t know what their emergent properties are—any bit of information that to really understand you have to have multiple observations of.” 

In addition to the two-evening event, Snow has five students whose work in databasing continues to be funded by the NSF grant. 

“The other thing that’s important about these types of specimens is most we know about plants worldwide comes off these labels,” Snow said. “There are a few plants that are really well studied. Those are crop plants like corn and wheat. Some aren’t well studied; believe it or not, coffee is not, at least genetically. Most of what we know about where plants occur comes off these herbaria specimens. The goal of the National Science Foundation is to mobilize these data so they’re available for anyone to look at and use. Until that specimen is databased that information isn’t available to anyone.” 

Although the project is stationed at Pittsburg State, it reaches students and faculty across the country. As of now, approximately 15,500 species out of 70,000 have been databased. 

“The We Dig Bio is part of a larger thing called ‘I Dig Bio’—Integrated Digitized Biocollections,” Snow said. “That is a much larger project funded by the NSF University of Florida State University and the Florida museum. Those institutions coordinate all this digitization. As part of that, they provide outreach to smaller institutions like ours. The larger institutions typically have full time collection managers that curate the specimens. We don’t have collections managers. We have faculty like me that try to teach and also curate the specimens the best we can. They provide all sorts of research and outreach to help people like myself get these specimens databased, get them digitally imaged, and put all that information online.” 

Snow said that, even personally as a researcher, he often benefits from the same type of digitization efforts that his students put forth. Having the ability to look up different specimens around the world from his computer makes his research better and easier to check past work or confirm what other colleagues in the field have done.  

Beyond the usefulness of the information, working on databasing through the ‘We Dig Bio’ project is a fun opportunity for students. 

“Dr. Snow told the Wildlife & Fisheries Society, a club I’m very involved in, about it and so we had a sign up for it at one of our meetings,” Maggie Murray, sophomore in biology, said. “I had a lot of fun! A lot of my friends also signed up and the energy was just really welcoming—Dr. Snow brought us pizza and we were listening to music and it was cool to learn about some of the plants that grow in our area in a non-classroom setting, even though we were databasing everything in a classroom.” 

Snow appreciates the opportunity for his students to have fun while also learning about new elements of biology and data collection. 

“I can tell you that the students really enjoy it,” he said. “They seem to thrive on these opportunities. It gives them real world experience. There are full-tims positions in some places—doing this kind of work in collections management. They also learn about the importance of the specimens doing this work. By participating in this, I think students gain an appreciation for the science that underlies this as well as the careful systematic accounting for all of this data and the benefits of mobilizing the data online so it’s available for any researcher or person to use.” 

The NSF grant funding the databasing is active until 2020, and Snow is excited to see the impact that his students can continue to make.  


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