Expanding My Horizons: Awesome Arctic, Part One

A museum is a magical place to work. At its heart is an enthusiastic team of people doing a dazzling array of jobs to make the business of being a museum happen. Marine biologists; palaeontologists; managers of collections of birds, rocks and parasites; computer animators; exhibition developers; financial officers; public educators and web designers are all busily at work—and this is just the tip of the iceberg!

Roger Bull sits on a rock overlooking a landscape below of tundra and water.

On a calm, sunny evening in summer 2008, Roger Bull braves the mosquitos to pose for a photo overlooking the tundra. He was with a team of botanists from the museum in the southern part of Victoria Island, an area that is part of Nunavut. Image: Jeff Saarela © Canadian Museum of Nature

After studying biology and completing graduate work on the population genetics of a west-coast warbler species, I joined the museum team as the coordinator of the DNA lab at our research and collections building.

Roger Bull sits working at a lab table in the museum.

In the museum's DNA Research Lab, Roger prepares a DNA sequencing reaction. Image: Anna Ginter © Canadian Museum of Nature

This is a very interesting job! The lab is busy with students and volunteers figuring out mysteries of the plant and animal world by unlocking information in DNA molecules. My work includes training students, generating DNA sequence data, fixing delicate equipment, ordering chemicals needed to replicate DNA, managing a collection of DNA samples stored at −80°C, teaching high-school students about what we do, and more.

And, because a museum is a magical place to work, I sometimes have the chance to do some extraordinary things. One of these is travelling to the Canadian Arctic with the museum’s botanical research team.

On these summer trips we travel the vast tundra by foot, canoe, small plane and helicopter to collect plant specimens for the museum’s herbarium, and tissue samples for DNA analysis. We focus on under-explored areas of the North in order to thoroughly inventory the plant life of the Arctic—an area facing many ecological changes because of a changing climate.

Inside a tent, Roger Bull pauses with a herbarium sheet covered with plant specimens on his lap.

Roger prepares a sheet of Griscom's arnica (Arnica griscomii) specimens for pressing and drying. This photo was taken during a museum botany research trip to the Arctic, near the Brock River, in the Northwest Territories. Image: Lynn Gillespie © Canadian Museum of Nature

This autumn, I was asked to undertake another extraordinary task. Because of my love of doing field research in the Arctic and my obsession with taking photos when I’m there, I was asked to lead the development of a new exhibition to be called Awesome Arctic: Images of Our Research in the North.

Standing on a steep slope beside a rock face, Roger Bull holds a plant specimen.

Roger collects a narrow-leaved arnica (Arnica angustifolia) specimen during a museum botany research trip to the Arctic in 2010. The botany team was near Minto Inlet, in the western part of Victoria Island, NWT. Image: Paul Sokoloff © Canadian Museum of Nature

The scientists at the Canadian Museum of Nature are a humble and dedicated bunch. They go about their work with little fanfare, highly respected amongst their Canadian and international colleagues, yet largely invisible to the public. What better way to show off our researchers’ work in the Arctic than to develop an exhibition? We are, after all, a museum!

In my next blog post, I will take you on my journey from DNA lab coordinator to first-time exhibition developer. I was to learn that there are many steps involved in getting photos onto a wall.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Exhibitions, Fieldwork, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Expanding My Horizons: Awesome Arctic, Part One

  1. Painter Lady says:

    I would love to know your process for pressing/drying botonical samples while out in the field. Would you mind sharing? Awesome site!

    • Roger Bull says:

      Hello! Thanks for your interest in the plant pressing process. It’s a simple procedure that hasn’t really changed over the last 100 years. After plants are collected, they are placed between sheets of newsprint. These are then layered between layers of cardboard. A large stack of plant specimens prepared this way are then pressed between two rectangular wooden frames using two nylon straps which are tightened as much as possible. (For a visual, do a quick image search on the internet using “plant press” as the search term. ) We then place the plant press on the tundra and hope for sunny and breezy weather. Air circulates through the corrugated cardboard layers drying the flattened plants. Once they are fully dry the plants are removed from the press, still layered between newsprint, and packaged up carefully for transport out of the field.

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