The exemplary staff of the University of Michigan’s Museum of Zoology was honored with the College of LSA Outstanding Team Award at a special ceremony recently.

LSA Dean Andrew Martin presented the awards to the deserving honorees: Robbin Murrell, administrative specialist; John Megahan, biological illustrator and webmaster; and collection managers in the following divisions: Janet Hinshaw (birds); Taehwan Lee (mollusks); Doug Nelson (fishes); Mark O’Brien (insects); Greg Schneider (amphibian and reptiles); and Cody Thompson (mammals).

For the past several years (and for a few more years ahead), UMMZ has been undergoing extraordinary change and a multitude of accompanying challenges, including UMMZ’s formal merger with the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and the University Herbarium; the relocation of the museum’s vast ethanol-preserved collections to a location adjacent to the Herbarium on Varsity Drive; and the “Transforming Ruthven” initiative that will relocate the three Ruthven research museums, including UMMZ (millions of “dry” specimens, and all supporting documentation) to Varsity Drive over the next two years. These relocations are in association with the construction of the new Biological Sciences Building on central campus.

“The UMMZ staff was centrally involved in all aspects of the planning and implementation of this move,” said Professor and EEB Chair Diarmaid Ó Foighil. “This is a vast task for a program that has grown organically in Ruthven over 90 years.” 

“I have been most impressed by the professionalism and teamwork exhibited by our UMMZ staff in meeting these multiple waves of change, while simultaneously performing all of their standard job functions at the highest level as well as implementing a number impressive programmatic innovations,” said Ó Foighil.

The invitation-only Staff Recognition Awards event was held January 30, 2015 in the Michigan League Ballroom. Each member of the team was presented with a cash award and a framed certificate by LSA Dean Martin.

“Thanks to the meticulously detailed planning process engaged in by the UMMZ staff, the ethanol-preserved collections move went remarkably smoothly with no specimens lost or damaged,” Ó Foighil said. “This massive project – moving some five million biological specimens from the Ruthven Museums building to the new Varsity Drive location – was finished on August 3, 2012, under budget and seven weeks early.  This superior performance simply would not have been possible without the dedicated professionalism of the UMMZ staff.”

Two of the main public outreach events the U-M Natural History Museum organizes annually are ID Day and Behind the Scenes Day. Both occur on weekends and attract hundreds of members of the public. UMMZ staff are full and active participants, volunteering their time to share their expertise and enthusiasm.

Professor Bradley R. Smith, Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design and a research professor, Department of Radiology, developed an undergraduate course in the Stamps School of Art and Design titled “Making Science Visible.” He joined the chorus of praises for the team, citing their energetic enthusiasm, insightful suggestions, how generous they were with their time, and the productive, unselfish, and knowledgeable support they gave to undergraduate students and him.

The class has now been offered twice, and will be offered a third time in the winter of 2015. “It is one of the most successful and well-enrolled classes at our school because of the expression of interest and support, and the knowledge offered to the students by the UMMZ staff,” Smith said.

“The UMMZ staff members created a rich, authentic, contextualized, and rigorous opportunity for the students of the “Making Science Visible” class to experience and study these biological specimens closely and thoroughly,” Smith continued. “This could only have happened if the staff members were willing to coordinate their schedules, their facilities, and even their locations with each other and in a way that matched the times when this class was held. Their shared passion for this endeavor has made this class a pleasure for me to teach, but more importantly, a unique and valuable learning experience for the students.”

Charles Engelman, a U-M senior majoring in ecology and evolutionary biology, said: “Over the past year and a half, I have been producing my own personal YouTube series about nature and the environment called “Nature Time.” While producing certain episodes, I contacted various UMMZ staff members requesting video interviews, expert opinions, and general help finding video content. At this point in time, I was not a professional filmmaker. I was simply a student with a camera and some enthusiasm. They always went above and beyond in making time to assist me in my film aspirations.” Engelman worked directly with Hinshaw, O’Brien, and Thompson.

“Not only did they take a considerable amount of time out their busy days to help a young undergraduate with a dream, but they approached the experiences with an inspiring level of enthusiasm and encouragement. Their excitement for these videos encouraged me to continue on with film production to the point where now I am a National Geographic filmmaker.

“When I look back at my time at the University of Michigan, I will consider meeting these people to be the most influential and important event in my undergraduate experience. The have helped me achieve my career aspirations, and in my mind, no other word can be used to describe them other than simply ‘outstanding.’”

EEB Professor Emeritus and UMMZ Curator Emeritus of Fishes William L. Fink, was director of the Museum from 2005-2011. He recalls that in the early days of planning for the move of the collections, some staff members went with LSA Facilities staff to other collections, in particular the Smithsonian Institution, and they polled their colleagues at other museums about ways to facilitate the move.

Then there is the discussion about how to adopt software solutions to inventory the collections digitally and how to provide that information to users of data both at U-M and internationally, a process that has been going on for several years. “Although our collection staff are not trained as database managers, every one of them has risen to the challenge of learning the basics of databasing so that they can help the professional data managers make good choices,” Fink said.  

Fink also provided a shout out to Norah Daugherty who retired after exemplary service to the museum and who was a behind the scenes coordinator for much of the move. He also called Murrell “my right hand man” during the planning who helped keep his office organized and his sense of humor intact. “His eye on money matters and details was a great help to me.”

“The collection managers, administrators and artists, are amazing,” said EEB Professor Emeritus and UMMZ Curator Emeritus of Mammals Phil Myers. “These are not easy jobs, and they are jobs with enormous responsibilities that have grown far beyond what most of them were hired to do. Yet by working with one another, by taking advantage of the strengths and interests of each person, they have done truly outstanding work for U-M.”

“The collection managers have freely contributed their knowledge to the Animal Diversity Web, a U-M website that provides information to several million visitors each year, highlighting U-M expertise in animal biology to all, but especially to critical K-12 audiences,” Myers said. “Without their help in identifying images and providing key information about species, this project would have failed long ago.”

Nancy Smith, the EEB department manager noted, among many other things, the UMMZ staff’s dedication to serving the needs of the educational and research communities they support.

John Torgersen, LSAIT database administrator, has been working with the staff for two years on an LSA Museums’ Database Project. “Throughout this project, they have exhibited a remarkable degree of professionalism, collaboration and good humor,” Torgersen said.

During March 2014, they had a tight turnaround for creating a database data-model. The collections managers held weekly meetings to consolidate their current models into one, they met with Torgersen individually, they met in groups with representatives of other museums, and they spent countless hours studying example databases in order to learn its capabilities. “With everyone’s participation, and extremely intense collaboration, we were able to meet our deadline, he said. “I am continually impressed by their open lines of communication, collaboration and professionalism. I can honestly say that working with them, and being welcomed into their ranks, has been one of the best parts of this project.”

UMMZ is a subunit of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and houses world-class research collections of many millions of animal specimens that support a multi-faceted research and teaching program.

With thanks to the awards selection committee for all of their efforts: Linda Dabrowski, LSA Human Resources; Melissa Eljamal, Program in Organizational Studies; Amy Grier, University Human Resources; Chris Nichols, LSA Shared Services; Leti Rastigue, Facilities and Operations Human Resources.

LSA Dean Andrew Martin presents the Outstanding Staff Team Award to UMMZ. Image credit: Dale Austin.