The theme for the 16th annual Early Career Scientists Symposium 2021 was Natural History Collections: Drivers of Innovation. The symposium was originally planned for a year ago just as the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down the United States.

Over the course of the past year, the ECSS committee and departmental staff rallied their efforts and the original speakers agreed to present the symposium in a virtual format, over five consecutive Fridays from March 5 – April 2, 2021. The symposium concentrated on innovative and unconventional uses of biological collections across scientific disciplines. 

A silver lining for the online format was that the symposium reached an audience five times larger than usual, with 570 registrants and 704 attendees (not unique) altogether. Scientists tuned in from dozens of states across the country from the west coast to the east coast – the University of California to Harvard University and around the globe from Argentina and Australia to Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile and Costa Rica and beyond, including Hong Kong, India, London, Mexico, The Netherlands, Peru, Sweden and Trinidad and Tobago and many more. In fact, there were registrants from over 260 locations.

One of the keynote speakers, Pamela Soltis, Distinguished Professor and Curator, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida, presenting her talk, Integrative research using natural history collections: examples from herbaria.

When biologists think of natural history collections, most tend to think of taxonomy and systematics, yet many are unaware of the uses of biological collections beyond those traditional fields. Studies stemming from natural history collections span the breadth of the Tree of Life and address broad subjects that span comparative genomics to bioengineering and climate change to historical pathogen dynamics, and many more. 

“As stewards of one of the largest university-based biological collections in the world, the EEB Museums are in an extraordinary position to leverage holdings of biological material from the last century or more,” said EEB Professor and Curator Hernán López-Fernández, associate chair for museum collections. “The symposium showcased the often-unrealized opportunities and non-traditional avenues of research that collections make possible to the entire scientific community, and emphasize some of the interdisciplinary ways in which collections are being or could be used. We hope to foster a broader understanding and expanded use of an incomparable resource that the University of Michigan has cultivated for the past two hundred years.” In his role as chair, López-Fernández acts as the director of the U-M Herbarium and Museum of Zoology. 

The keynote speakers included Rob Guralnick and Pamela Soltis. Both are faculty curators at the Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida.

EEB graduate student Teresa Pegan moderates the panel with Laurel Yohe and Eric LoPresti following their talks.

The rising stars/early career speakers included Jocelyn Colella, postdoctoral research associate, Molecular, Cellular, and Biomedical Sciences Department, Hubbard Genome Sciences Center, University of New Hampshire; Eric LoPresti, assistant professor, Department of Plant Biology, Ecology and Evolution, Oklahoma State University; Alexis Mychajliw, research associate, La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, assistant professor, Middlebury College; Daniel Park, assistant professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University; Kelly Speer, Biodiversity Genomics and George E. Burch Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genomics, Smithsonian Institute of Conservation Biology, National Zoological Park and Department of Invertebrate Zoology, National Museum of Natural History; Alex White, Machine Learning Postdoctoral Fellow, Data Science Lab, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution; Laurel Yohe, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University.  

“I am extremely happy that we were able to reschedule this year's symposium, “said Cody Thompson, Museum of Zoology collection manager of mammals, and a committee member. “The pandemic certainly complicated things, but it also presented an opportunity to share natural history collections and their utility with a much broader audience.”

Daniel Park, Assistant Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Purdue University, presenting Herbarium collections reveal wide variation in plant phenological responses to climate.

Common themes

“I was impressed with how the early career researchers were using museums to address some of the big, fundamental issues in EEB. For example, the latitudinal diversity gradient, human/predator conflict, how organisms respond to climate change, and the connection between wildlife and human health,” said Teresa Pegan, an EEB graduate student who served on the symposium committee.

Thompson noted, “There were several common themes in all of the ECSS presentations. The most obvious theme was that the research uses of natural history collections have no bounds, and their utility expands well beyond traditional systematics and taxonomy. A second theme is the continued need for growing collections and holistic sampling. Given we are in the midst of the biodiversity crisis, it is imperative that we document biodiversity and sample biodiversity in a way that not only provides voucher specimens but also the data that expands the research breadth of that specimen. And a final theme that emerged was the need for investment to support collections. This not only includes the physical space to hold the collections, but it also includes the necessary IT support required to manage and share data connected to voucher specimens. It also includes training and growing a workforce of museum professionals to curate the collections.”

Jocelyn Colella, an early career speaker, observed “the importance of the extended specimen and the vast diversity of cutting-edge research that is made possible through museums.”

Research that caught extra attention

Pegan remarked on “one of the presenters, Laurel Yohe, is embarking on a museum-based project that investigates the connection between bat nose anatomy and the fact that many people who get COVID-19 lose their sense of smell! This is one of the coolest examples I've heard of the value of basic research. Last winter, no one would have ever guessed that basic research on bat nose anatomy might have real implications for our understanding of human health and disease. Yet here we are in 2021!” 

Thompson said, “I really liked the use of CT data to examine the function of bat noses. This obviously is an area of research that was not possible a few years ago, and it highlights how natural history collections can be leveraged as new technology is developed.”

Future directions

“I think that collection digitization is helping fuel the recognition of natural history collections as a source of ‘big data’ for EEB,” said Pegan. “Now that the pandemic has taught us so much about how to work remotely and conduct research virtually, I'm sure that digital museum resources will be all the more popular and utilized for both research and teaching.”

“I think we are entering a new generation of collections-based research,” said Thompson. “This is being driven by the biodiversity crisis, and the need to document species. This is leading to a renewed interest in documenting species diversity and basic natural history, which are both fundamental to our understanding of biology. I also think that the continued expansion of technology will continue to realize the potential of natural history collections.”

Colella added, “Like evolution, I believe the future of research at natural history museums is not directional, but will forever be shaped by new innovations, ideas and technologies. As technology enables new ways to probe and extract information from specimens, so too researchers will apply these methods to specimens to better understand the natural world.”

Advantages of an early career scientists symposium

“The Early Career Scientists Symposium provides an opportunity for researchers to engage the community and present novel, innovative research,” said Thompson. 

“Early career scientists may be perceived as more accessible or less intimidating than senior scientists, which hopefully encourages students and other early career folks to ask questions and also to envision themselves as scientists,” noted Colella. “Hearing about the stresses, uncertainty, and/or challenges facing early career researchers brings a realness to scientists and professionals.”

“I really enjoyed this event,” said Colella. “The virtual format was easy and went super smoothly and I loved that the panel discussions were led by graduate students. Thank you all for working so hard (through a global pandemic) to make this possible! Thanks again for hosting such a fabulous event and providing such a phenomenal platform for museum research!”

The committee included Professor Dan Rabosky, committee chair; Brad Ruhfel, collection manager of vascular plants and assistant research scientist; Cody Thompson, collection manager of mammals and assistant research scientist; and EEB graduate students, Ben Nicholas, Teresa Pegan, Taylor West. Staff support included Linda Garcia, event coordination; Gail Kuhnlein, event promotion, and John Megahan, graphic design/art.

Read more about the speakers, talks, and more on the ECSS website

Watch the presentations, question and answer sessions and panel discussions on EEB’s YouTube ECSS playlist (nearly 500 views so far).

The Early Career Scientists Symposium speakers: Jocelyn Colella, Eric LoPresti, Alexis Mychajliw, Daniel Park, Alex White, Kelly Speer, Laurel Yohe and keynote speakers Robert Guralnick and Pamela Soltis.