Faces of BioSCAN: The Heinzelmännchen

Heinzelmännchenbrunnen

Heinzelmännchenbrunnen (© Raimond Spekking, via Wikimedia Commons)

By Regina Wetzer

Who are the Heinzelmännchen who sort all those BioSCAN samples? — a peek into our lab and behind the scenes.

Our BioSCAN project collects 30 samples per week, 52 weeks per year, for 3 years. That will be a staggering 4,680 samples. In order to describe the biodiversity of Los Angeles, we need to figure out what is in each jar.

How can this possibly get done? The short answer is a small army of undergraduates. The longer answer is — young, bright, energetic minds looking for petri dish safaris under microscopes.

BioSCAN poster

Recruiting poster for BioSCAN students (photo and design credit: Phyllis Sun)

Our lab recruits from all over the USC campus, and you don’t have to be a biology major to become a valuable member of Team BioSCAN. In any given semester we have 20–30 students with majors ranging from applied mathematics to zoology. Assistant Collections Managers Adam Wall and Jenessa Wall do the initial recruiting, interviewing, and personnel selections. “Newbies” come green, inexperienced, but totally enthusiastic. Collections Manager Kathy Omura does most of the initial introduction to general lab operations. Then Kathy, Jenessa and the older students (the “Seasoned Ones”) who have been with us for a semester or more, provide microscope and lab techniques training, proper forceps handling, cotton stoppering, specimen vialing, specimen labeling, and much more.

Using descriptive and pictorial identification keys, students learn how to identify insects to the taxonomic level of order, distinguishing wasps (Hymenoptera) from beetles (Coleoptera) from flies (Diptera) and 22 orders more. Students have their own lab notebooks to record observations as they proceed in their training. I smile as I reflect on my own ridiculous sketches and annotations as I learned basic taxonomy in my introduction to the vast yet miniature arthropod world many years ago.

Lab notebook page

BioSCAN lab notebook page

BioSCAN Assistant Collections Managers Lisa Gonzalez and Emily Hartop hone students’ finer insect identification skills and ground them in basic insect biology, arming each of them with amazing stories of ant decapitation, coffin dwelling, and human flesh boring — all good stories they can impart on friends, family and the NHM visitors. I’ll come back to the NHM visitors in a minute. Finally, Project Coordinator Dean Pentcheff rounds out student training with sessions covering everything from the big picture project goals, the science, and public expectations.

The breadth of different tasks they perform is amazing. Insect sorting and sample processing are only the start. Based on their skills and interests some move on to specimen drying, pinning and labeling with those really tiny insect labels entomologists so love. Others specialize in photography. Still others help in the field, rear flies, or extract and amplify DNA for molecular studies. All of our students also spend time at the Nature Lab Table, where they do some of their work in front of our Museum visitors and are able to answer questions about insects and biodiversity. Two students at a time work at the table from Wednesday through Sunday, four hours per day, for more than 1,000 hours per year interacting with Museum visitors in the public space.

Students sorting

Students sorting insects for the BioSCAN project (photo: Kelsey Bailey)

Because we have such excellent students working on the project, we can use a layered training and quality control scheme. Staff and veteran students approve or return for redo anything that has been misidentified by more junior staff. Students proficient at a task or taxon train others that are not yet experts. Mastery from one level to the next is an ongoing process: students become teachers communicating their new learned skills, all the while honing their skills as effective mentors and communicators. To date, the BioSCAN Project has hosted 35 students, 4 interns, 11 volunteers, and 10 research students. Three times a year new students are recruited to replace those graduating and moving on. Over the years, four of our most successful students have become amazing permanent full time NHM curatorial staff.

It is my great pleasure to follow the development of such diverse cohorts of young people. They are incredibly diverse ethnically, socially, and in the language and skills they bring to us. They are as diverse as the biodiversity we study. They have aspirations of becoming doctors, lawyers, dentists, and filling jobs that do not yet even exist. They are amazing young people, each with amazing potential, making major contributions to the BioSCAN project. Some stay for their entire four years. A few stay in touch long after they have moved on to grad school and their careers.

Coffee machines

The Marine Biodiversity Center’s stable of cappuccino machines

We have some of the most amazing laboratory food fests filled with Asian, Latin American, European delicacies. Oh yes, for some learning how to make great cappuccinos is as essential as learning fly identifications. Meet these fabulous young people in the Nature Lab and say hello. As you stroll through the NHM gardens, if you catch a sweet waft of coffee as you turn the corner past our lab, you’ll know our students are hard at work.

Meet our lab at: http://research.nhm.org/bioscan/students

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