What is the origin of your interest in herbaria and BRIT specifically?
I grew up in the Philippines as an expat family, as a third culture kid, with parents from the U.K. and El Salvador. I was always interested in the tropical biota surrounding me and active in starting up an outdoor club that engaged in hiking and camping. One trip visited Mt. Makiling, on the island of Luzon. I have memories of thick clay slippery soils, sulphurous smells, armed vegetation, and a profusion of color and shape. I have early memories of cutting out photographs of plants and animals from old National Geographic Magazines and then gluing them into a journal with descriptions, distributions, scientific names, and other miscellaneous things I researched from our Encyclopaedia Britannica, school, and club library.
In spite of this, I didn’t truly envision what a path might look like to become an organismal biologist. Dr. Bonnie Jacobs, my Environmental Science advisor at Southern Methodist University, as well as mentor and friend, introduced me to BRIT 17 years ago. I remember a brick-walled, wooden-floored building graced with cabinets, and Barney Lipscomb, Director of the BRIT Press. Barney has been a dear friend since. It was his recommendation to Dr. John Janovec and Amanda Neill, the then BRIT Herbarium Collections Manager, that led to my first volunteer position with the BRIT Andes to Amazon Biodiversity Program in Peru (AABP) and subsequent hiring as a Herbarium Assistant in 2003. Participating in the collections management, botanical exploration (my M.S. thesis addressed the Myristicaceae (nutmegs) at one of the project study sites in Peru), and data management of the Andes to Amazon project was the best education and introduction to the herbarium world.
What are the strengths of the Herbarium’s collection? In what ways does the collection reflect Texas flora?
The geographic strengths of our herbarium lie in Texas, the southeastern United States, Mexico, Central America, South America, and Southeast Asia. The geographic and taxonomic strengths are a result of the many curators and botanists who cared for and developed the collections. I use the plural collections, in the sense that the BRIT Herbarium is a repository for multiple herbaria that have had different curators guiding their growth and development. What these curators have all had in common is the foresight in exploring the natural world and strategically growing the collections through active exchange programs.
You can see the legacy of their work in the herbaria we continue to recognize with their original Index Herbariorum (IH) code, such as collections from across Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida (VDB), from Louisiana parishes (NLU), from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas (SMU), and from Texas, the Philippines, and South America (BRIT). As an organization, BRIT was founded with the Southern Methodist University Herbarium (SMU) in 1987. The Vanderbilt University Herbarium (VDB), developed by Dr. Robert Kral, arrived 10 years later. Over the next 20 years, BRIT grew through donations and the efforts of staff collectors and curators. In 2017, the R. Dale Thomas Plant Collection from the University of Louisiana at Monroe (NLU) became part of BRIT as well. The BRIT Philecology Herbarium collections dovetail into an excellent representation of the southeastern United States, with Texas as a focal area, represented by the greatest number of specimens for any U.S. state.
What do you find most interesting about the Herbarium?
The specimens each have their own content to contribute to the study of a species. The value of these specimens as primary sources of data for scientific research is immeasurable, but when seen as a group of collections—collected or curated by an individual—you are able to see into the mind and passions of that curator. This fascinating character of the Herbarium, as well as its value as a scientific resource, is something that engages me, every day. It is a legacy to be treasured, and a trust that a curator has that those that who follow will have the same care, if not passion.
Is there a hidden gem within the collection?
Those in the botanical world are likely familiar with the name Hugh Iltis (1925—2016), a botanist famous for his conservation ethic and many discoveries, among them those associated with teosintes and with the domestication of corn. Iltis visited the BRIT Herbarium in 2005 and graciously annotated a sheet of Zea mays (corn), which he had collected in King George County, Virginia, with the words, “Nice to see you again after 63 years!” Along with his visit, he gifted to then-Herbarium Director Amanda Neill additional vouchers from his work with teosintes, which are deposited in the Herbarium. A little further research into how we received the specimen, made when Iltis was only 18 years old, indicates that in the 1950s, SMU curator Lloyd Shinners purchased the student herbarium of Iltis, of specimens collected in Virginia and then-Czechoslovakia. This purchase for the SMU Herbarium, was made out of the friendship and respect that Shinners and Iltis held for one another (Ginsberg 2002).
What is something only you know about the collection?
As time moves forward, memory of the people who worked in the collection is lost, and handwriting loses its owner, instead becoming “that all-caps heavy handed, slanted script,” instead of the name behind it. The Herbarium has been a lifeline to many people working in the collection, not only those paid herbarium staff, but the volunteers that have filed collections out or mounted them, or the individuals depositing collections with us. While even from my mind names fade, I do my best to tell stories to other staff in hopes that they will be carried on. I see our collections at BRIT as a tapestry, whose threads will be teased apart and used for different purposes, as they ought, whose weave can be revealed as a whole, once specimens are digitized. However, I consider myself fortunate to be among those who have become intimate with the collection and who will have seen portions of that tapestry woven…and the loom upon which it has been built.
What are the most compelling and challenging aspects of your job?
The number of projects within a collection are limitless. The opportunities for exploring in the collection is one of the most compelling aspects of my job; following one trail or another is exciting and fulfilling. Projects are prioritized in order to best secure the collection (from insects and environmental damage) and of course by funding. Most challenging is to accept that some projects keep moving down on the list. However, the community support we have at BRIT is inspiring and extensive. The volunteers who call the Herbarium home have vastly expanded the possibilities and allow us to do far more, with far more elegance, than we would otherwise be able to accomplish alone. Balancing time between unfunded projects that have willing participants and funded projects can sometimes be a challenge in time management and resources.
What is one of the most valuable things you’ve learned through the years?
Waiting for the right system to first be in place before beginning a project is an exercise in futility. Thought has to be put into beginning, but you sometimes have to take advantage of the resources and timing to simply begin. This is not a one-time decision, but a constant conversation, fortunately with other curatorial staff at BRIT that hold me to account and keep us progressing forward. I have learned that being transparent about the process keeps participants engaged, even when we have deviated in our approaches to a project. Always in my mind is that the decisions we make today will have echoes in the collection moving forward; I plan so that we may make the tasks future curators face easier, rather than harder, and above all best preserve and represent the specimens.
Is there a correlation between the growth of the collection and its value?
Those who have collected and identified their own material see the value in having access to greater numbers of geographically or taxonomically relevant (and related) material. Having specimens collected across time and space, of a species we are interested in, reveals a much more complete picture of the organism and its history.
As our collections grow and more specimens are added, the questions we can ask of them are more fully answered. It’s as if the sample size of your experiment were growing and allowing you greater reliance on your results, or maybe even making new experiments possible. As we are aggregating these collections, through portals such as the national digitization hub iDigBio and the Global Biodiversity Information Facility GBIF, their value is increased. However, since the physical specimen is the primary data source, there is no replacement for having a collection with the breadth and depth as we are entrusted with at BRIT.
How is the Library valuable to the collection?
Using the Library as a reference when wading through an understanding of the taxonomy of a species is an essential part of the process for any publishing researcher. For even those interested in an identification, or other documented use of an identified specimen, the Library is invaluable. Most recently, I have used the Library for floristic treatments, to identify plants from Texas, the Philippines, and Peru, and to study publications documenting the collecting efforts of pioneer botanists.
Numerous times I have consulted the library archives, to better understand our collections. Much like the Herbarium, I consider the Library a wealth of possibility, in which one can easily be lost, emerging much richer in knowledge but still with questions unanswered about the original concern. The Library, like the Herbarium, allows us to preserve what we have documented, but also allows us to see the gaps that must still be filled in our pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. The Library gives us a place to deposit materials and information that will likely be found valuable well beyond today.
How is the Herbarium helping to preserve biodiversity?
How can we restore something? Where do we restore it? Should it be restored? The specimens in the Herbarium hold the key to teasing out a more accurate understanding of our species in peril, either directly through specimens or perhaps indirectly by studying other species associated with the habitat in question, or other species related to the species in question. Kim Taylor oversees Conservation at BRIT. She leads her team in seed banking rare Texas plants and vouchering these collections in the Herbarium, along with associated taxa. These collections will serve as evidence and reference to our current and future conservation warriors. The Herbarium has a role as a source of information and as an advocate for biodiversity. We can document and highlight this biodiversity in our collections and promote the value of their existence in situ. Alignments with botanic gardens and living collections, as can be seen in the Global Genome Initiative for Gardens, represent further possibilities in the advocacy and preservation of biodiversity, as they collect and preserve genome-quality tissue.
Where do you see natural history collections in the future?
Natural history collections will only become more important, and there will be a greater reliance on those who can interpret them. I believe we must commit to training the next generation of botanists as well as always illustrate the relevance of this knowledge to our lives today and in the future. Predecessors at BRIT have set a strong foundation in collections-based research that our leaders continue to support today. Collaboration with other disciplines and other potential advocates is imperative, and we’ve had positive results for our associations with the local museum district of art and science collections.
If you were given a free week with the collection, entirely extra time, what would you do?
Too often I have seen specimens in our herbarium that are in some sort of interim stage, where data for labels exist in some format(s), but they have yet to be actualized in printed labels. This is an ongoing and tedious task and is undertaken as time allows. It is most concerning that these are so close to becoming lost collections, to be discarded by future staff for lack of data. With a week (only a week?), I would spend my time attending to this. I would especially prioritize those specimens for whom information is only in the head of another person, or in materials that are at risk in our herbarium or library. This may take time and effort, and often a trail runs dry without constant pursuit. Selfishly, I would add my personal collections back-log to this effort—the idea of spending an entire week generating labels, identifying plants, and associating images with digital records is a most satisfying one.