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Curatorial Museum Work: Musings from a Future Scientist

Aug 4 2017


Image: Photographing cataloged items

By Amelia Traylor
Biomechanical Engineering, 2020
Curatorial Museum Intern
Yellowstone National Park Heritage and Research Center

Out West Student Blog

Student Blog

Arriving to work at Yellowstone National Park, I was thrilled to arrive among real-world examples from my previous science education. In my first biology class, I learned about predator-prey population dynamics by studying graphs of elk populations before and after wolf reintroduction. We looked at pictures of secondary succession from a series of fires in 1988. Our introduction to bacteria included images of a beautiful rainbow pool with rings of brilliant color apparently caused by different species of microbes. To anyone unfamiliar with the rich history of Yellowstone, the pattern here is that all of these examples are drawn from observations researchers have made within the world’s first National Park.

Of course, back then I never could have imagined that now I would be living in this indescribably beautiful place. For ten weeks this summer, I am working in Yellowstone National Park’s Heritage and Research Center, a building near the north entrance of the park. More specifically, I am a Curatorial Intern for the center and my primary responsibilities include cataloging, researching, and maintaining the park’s museum collection, which contains over 720,000 items that document the cultural and natural history of Yellowstone. Until very recently, I never imagined myself in museum work, especially not curatorial work. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to be involved in scientific research. At Stanford, I plan to study biomechanical engineering. However, Yellowstone National Park provided the lens through which my introduction to key aspects of biology was filtered and I was drawn to educate others, as well as myself, on the importance of the park to scientific research. What better place could there be to accomplish that goal besides a museum?

In the past three weeks, the Heritage and Research Center – as well as its staff – has not disappointed me. As a part of a park tour last week, I created and presented an overview of the incredible thermophiles (bacteria that thrive in extreme heat) that live in the park. Not only are thermophiles responsible for the vibrant colors of the hot springs, as I learned in biology, but they are essential for scientific research in the fields of astrobiology and DNA fingerprinting. Thermophiles from Yellowstone provided the heat-resistant enzymes needed to make polymerase chain reaction (PCR) feasible. PCR is a common technique that allows scientists to replicate DNA quickly for analysis. These amazing microbes are also being researched in the hopes of one day genetically modifying plants to live in extreme temperatures so that they can be grown on Mars. The collections themselves provide new insights every day into the park’s importance to scientific research. This building houses the skulls of the first two wolves to form a natural pack after wolves were reintroduced to the park. In my research for the exhibit case I will create for public display, I have found slides of ice crystals seeded by Vincent Schafer using the “vapor method” he developed to preserve the structure of the crystals for research during the Yellowstone Field Research Expeditions. Daily, I work on cataloging the vast number of fish scales that have been collected in the park for monitoring and research purposes by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

As I learn more about the history of research in Yellowstone and the scientific importance of the park, I also experience a greater appreciation for the role of the humanities in scientific research, a role that I feel many engineers and scientists overlook or dismiss. In fact, the incredible scientific discoveries in this park may never have occurred if not for the work of two artists, Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson. Their images depicting the natural wonders encountered by the Hayden Survey of the Yellowstone area greatly influenced Congress to preserve this majestic place as the world’s first national park. A wonderful aspect of the Heritage and Research Center is that it stands at the intersection of science and humanities as it houses not only the museum collections, but also a herbarium, a library, research archives, and an archeology lab. These facilities provide a place for scientific research to occur, but also a place for it to be documented and preserved for future researchers and the public to study. It is truly a delight to work here and to discover more about the history of Yellowstone National Park and its importance both culturally and scientifically.

Thank you to Mrs. Sisk for inspiring me with many anecdotes about Yellowstone National Park in her biology class and to the staff of the Heritage and Research Center for their support and guidance in my journey through the field of curatorial museum work.

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