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For UW Biology Burke Curators, A Dual Role

Tuesday, November 5, 2019 - 10:00

Original article by Nancy Joseph for the College of Arts & Sciences Perspectives newsletter. Photo by Dennis Wise/University of Washington.

Christian Sidor clutches a large box as he enters a classroom at the new Burke Museum. He’s about to teach his vertebrate paleontology course, and the box holds a valuable specimen from the Burke’s paleontology collection: a fossilized amphibian skull from the Triassic Period. Students in the class have the opportunity to examine the skull, even touch it, for a visceral connection to a creature that lived 245 million years ago.

“We use real fossils in our undergraduate labs,” says Sidor, professor of biology and Burke Museum curator of vertebrate paleontology. “I have to remind the students that these specimens are extremely rare and fragile. I wouldn’t want to transport them across campus and risk damaging them, but with dedicated classrooms at the Burke, it’s possible to share the collection. It’s pretty incredible that an undergraduate class has this kind of access.”

The same is true for many classes at the Burke, from an art history class on Native American art to a biology class on the evolution of terrestrial ecosystems.  Most classes are taught by Burke curators, who hold joint appointments in academic units. (Eleven of the museum’s twelve curators are faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences.) The joint appointments translate to exceptional opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students, including access to the 16 million biological, geological, and cultural objects in the museum’s collections.

Christian Sidor also wants students to appreciate the effort behind every object on display. He believes that students who accompany him on collecting trips — including an annual summer trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona — benefit tremendously from seeing all the steps involved from discovery of a fossil to its display in a museum. These steps include excavating the fossil, then painstakingly removing the rock encasing it (in the Burke’s vertebrate paleontology lab), studying the fossil, publishing findings, scanning and 3D printing the skeleton as an online resource, and finally displaying the fossil.

“Without a museum on campus, a lot of those links in the chain aren’t there,” says Sidor. “Students can look at fossils in books and peer-reviewed papers, but it’s not the same as seeing the fossil in your hands, seeing the complete life cycle of the fossil on display.”

Like Sidor, Adam Leaché, professor of biology and curator of herpetology and genetic resources, includes students on his collecting trips in locations around the globe. His focus is reptiles and amphibians, with specimens stored in glass bottles in 70% ethanol as part of the Burke’s herpetology collection. 

Leaché became interested in herpetology through genetics research, finding that tremendous variations in traits among reptiles and amphibians provide insights into evolutionary biology. “Horned lizards are some of my favorites,” he says. “Some give live birth and others lay eggs. What factors lead to these variations within one genus of lizard?  That‘s one of many interesting questions.”

Although Leaché has labs at the Burke and in the Life Sciences Building, undergraduates who join his research team always start by volunteering at Burke. “That gives them an appreciation of the diversity of reptiles and amphibians and how we catalog and care for them,” says Leaché. “They’ll volunteer at the Burke for up to a year before deciding on an independent research project.” Many of those student projects, using specimens from the museum collection, have led to published papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Asked about his roles as biology professor and Burke curator and whether he draws a line between the two, Leaché smiles.

“Where’s the line between my Burke Museum and Biology Department positions? There is no line,” he says. “It’s all for the same goals of doing research and building collections at the Burke and mentoring students and teaching. It’s all just one big mission.”

Read the full article by Nancy Joseph for the College of Arts & Sciences Perspectives newsletter. 

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