Alison and Niblet the bearded dragon.

“My interest in fungi really took off after undergrad, when I received a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship which allowed me to spend a year outside of the U.S., studying fungi,” said New Orleans’ native Alison Harrington, EEB’s new collections manager of fungi, lichens and bryophytes.“During that year, I spent time in Southeast Asia, Southern Africa, and parts of Europe, working with researchers, cultivators, conservationists and collections specialists.”

As a Ph.D. student, Harrington was originally interested in coevolutionary dynamics between plants and plant-associated Ascomycete microfungi, and the genomic architecture and transcriptional changes underlying those dynamics. When she realized that the foundational knowledge required to study those questions was in its infancy, she opted to shift her focus to the taxonomy and systematics of poorly-understood groups of microfungi where the vast majority of biodiversity remains uncharacterized and unrepresented by sequence data.

“My overarching research aim is to speed the characterization of this cryptic fungal biodiversity such that it can be integrated into broader ecological and evolutionary frameworks,” she said. To this end, she uses a diverse suite of bioinformatic tools and data derived from molecular ecology and phylogenetics, in conjunction with biodiversity repositories and collections, to synthesize molecular, morphological and ecological information about poorly known fungal lineages. 

A newly-digitized 35mm slide from the herbarium collections, unseen for decades. Fuscoboletinus spectabilis (Peck) Pomerl. & A.H. Sm. (≡Boletinus spectabilis (Peck) Murrill.). Photo taken by Alexander H. Smith (Michigan, ca. 1960). Copyright University of Michigan Herbarium.

To Harrington, arguably the most important part of the collections are the type specimens, of which the university herbarium has thousands. These are the specimens upon which new species are described, fundamentally creating the definition of what is or isn't in that species. “DNA sequences derived from these type specimens are critical to stabilizing and modernizing fungal species concepts and definitions such that they can be useful to ecologists and evolutionary biologists,” she said, adding, “A big part of what I do is making these and other specimens accessible for sequencing and further study, and I hope to start sequencing all the type specimens in-house in the near future.

”In her role, Harrington welcomes graduate student curatorial assistants who work with the collection managers and curators on a wide range of projects. She also looks forward to bringing more undergraduates into the collections for student research projects and part-time technician positions. Based on the strengths and interests of the students, and the needs of the collections, graduate student curatorial assistants help process newly-donated specimens by confirming determinations and preparing them for archival storage, assist with loan requests from other institutions, and organize undigitized documents that are otherwise inaccessible. Additionally, they may help curate the digital collections and assets as well as physical materials. Undergraduate technicians in the herbarium work most often on the digitization of specimens, either by imaging them or transcribing data from them. Hoping to entice more students to the field, Harrington said, “In the herbarium, we're also exploring a stronger lab-based, molecular angle for student work in the future.” 

Discussing the role of the collections manager in the research museums, Harrington concluded, “Fundamentally, in this role I am able to safeguard, organize and construct, and share shockingly-scarce knowledge about cryptic and fascinating organisms. I want to focus on the fundamentals of biodiversity and on data quality, accessibility and stability, such that they can contribute to a scale of synthesis that is unlikely to be tractable in my lifetime. To me, papers and questions are temporary—subject to the times' context, academic culture, and values—but the data and voucher specimens should be forever, and research collections is where that happens.”