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Preserving Biodiversity, One Policy at a Time

Posted on January 23, 2013 by in The OFI Blog

13_winter_break_groupUpon entering the National Museum of Natural History, visitors gaze in awe at the massive elephant, and scatter to the various exhibits on the first and second floors. Yet on the third floor (or sixth, depending on which elevator you take), you’ll find a completely different side to the museum: the administration offices. This is where we are interning for the winter break: we are Katie (Oberlin ’15), Sarahann (UMD College Park ’16), and Christina (Brown ’14), and we are working for the Pan-Smithsonian Cryo-Initiative under the mentorship of Piper Mullins, the project coordinator.

We’ve all been learning how to navigate through both the building and the complex interactions of different units at the National Museum of Natural History. During our short stay, we’ve had the opportunity to explore the work that continues behind the scenes of the Museum of Natural History by attending lab tours, getting glimpses into the museum’s gemstone vault, and touring the Mammals Department’s special collections. Along with our increased knowledge of the museum building, we’ve also been learning to navigate the museum’s administrative side. Acronyms like NMNH, NZP (National Zoological Park), STRI (Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute), SERC (Smithsonian Environmental Research Center) and PSCI (Pan-Smithsonian Cryo-Initiative) have been creeping their way into our vocabularies.

So what is the Pan-Smithsonian Cryo-Initiative? The PSCI is an upcoming and exciting effort to oversee all of the Smithsonian’s frozen biospecimen collections not only in the NMNH, but also in the NZP,the STRI, and the SERC. Currently, the specimens are stored in various freezers and are under the policies of each respecting unit.

Biological specimens kept on ice in large freezers may seem like something from a sci-fi film, but these collections are invaluable for research and preserving the world’s biodiversity. The specimens range from animal sections to sperm and oocytes to blood, and provide endless possibilities for genetic research. Some collections are used to study specific diseases, such as elephant herpes, while others aid in efforts of reproductive physiology for threatened or endangered animals.

However, such large and diverse collections are challenging to maintain. As interns, we are working on that very challenge by assisting on two projects in the administrative end: (1) drafting a PSCI Collections Management Policy and (2) developing the PSCI metrics. Katie and Christina are drafting the policy in an effort to create a document all PSCI units can follow, while Sarahann is working on the metrics to track PSCI’s progress, which will be used in budgeting and in projected growth models. Both projects are efforts to promote better preservation and collaboration between the various cryo-collections, and will facilitate research goals.

Our idea of the National Museum of Natural History has definitely evolved with this experience. Not only do we see it as an institution for education, but also as a place where many are working behind the scenes to ensure that further research can be accomplished effectively and comprehensively. We are thankful to Piper and the NMNH for the opportunity!