(l-r): Former Herpetology Collection Manager J. Angelo Soto-Centeno;
Volunteer and Citizen Scientist Dick Schwenkmeyer;
and Dr. Bradford Hollingsworth, Curator of Herpetology in the Museum’s Wet Collections Facility.
Photo: Bob Ross
By Jessica Holmes Chatigny
“Citizen scientist” is the new turn of phrase ascribed to volunteers, with or without scientific backgrounds, who contribute to scientific research. This differs from general volunteerism in that these people produce tangible, relevant, and important research. While the term may be new, researchers at the San Diego Natural History Museum have participated in citizen science for 133 years.
Dr. Thomas Deméré, Curator of Paleontology and Director of
PaleoServices, explains, “As a natural history museum, we serve a
unique, two-way purpose. We distill knowledge and information
from the academic world for the public through exhibitions,
classes, lectures, and books. On the other hand, we invite
members of the public to engage in real research, which feeds
back into academia.”
Two of the Museum’s long-time citizen scientists are Carole Hertz and Barbara Myers. The “Shell Ladies” have volunteered in Marine Invertebrates for 34 and 31 years respectively. Their love of San Diego’s coastline drew Carol from her classroom and Barbara from her paralegal office to research at the Museum. They have co-authored scientific papers describing at least 35 new species between the two of them.
Provost and Director of
BRCC Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra was
brought into the ecological fold
his first year at university by a
soil specialist and professor.
This professor invited Dr. Ezcurra to assist him in the soil study
lab—this invitation led to cleaning test tubes at first, then
managing the greenhouse and herbarium, then co-authoring a
paper during Dr. Ezcurra’s second year.
The San Diego County Bird Atlas was published in 2005. It addresses all the county’s birds — wintering birds, migrants, and exotics as well as breeding birds. The Atlas, spearheaded by Curator Philip Unitt, is based on data collected by Unitt and over 400 volunteers who devoted some 55,000 hours to observation and record keeping. The data collection would never have been possible without this active group of citizen scientists. Each one is credited in the San Diego County Bird Atlas.
The Museum’s Botany Department staff has trained over 550 “parabotanists” for the San Diego County Plant Atlas project. While the Bird Atlas was an enormous effort (there are approximately 500 species of birds in San Diego County), the Plant Atlas exceeds it (there are 2400 plant taxa, 600 non-native weeds alone!).
Volunteer Mary Ann Brooks-Gonyer’s collection area is north
of Escondido. After six months of training and practice, she could
identify 70% of the hundreds of specimens she collected. She says,
“Volunteering with the Plant Atlas is a win-win: I win because I’m
learning, and the Museum wins because they are furthering their
collections and research.” Brooks-Gonyer’s contributions to the
herbarium will serve the botanists of the next century, right
alongside the specimens collected in the 1800s.
Dick Schwenkmeyer got involved with the Museum when he
was in his early teens—he was a member of “The Specialists
Club,” created by Charles “Harbie” Harbison (the Curator of
Entomology at the time) for a group of high school students
interested in science. Schwenkmeyer later taught Museum classes
and continues to lead trips into Baja California for the Museum.
SAN DIEGO NATURAL HISTORY: FIELD NOTES, December 2007/ January 2008