Meet the iDigBio Staff: An Interview with Gil Nelson

Meet the iDigBio Staff: An Interview with Gil Nelson

3 February 2012

Gil Nelson is iDigBio’s digitization specialist, with a focus on developing and improving digitization workflows and providing digitization support for the Thematic Collections Network projects.   He is based at Florida State University.  Here, Gil Nelson is interviewed by Austin Mast, a collaborator with Nelson on prior projects and a member of iDigBio’s Steering Committee.

Mast:  Before we met a few years ago, I was most familiar with your field guides on the flora of the southeastern U.S.  What motivated you to begin producing field guides, and which of the field guides has given you the most satisfaction in the process of writing it?

Nelson:  For me, writing is more about learning than reporting. Each of my books is the result of a self-directed learning project designed to organize my pursuit of a personal passion. Since the study of plants within natural ecosystems is one of those passions, producing field guides seemed a natural offshoot. Researching and writing a field guide provides an excellent and comprehensive framework for guiding personal discovery. My book Ferns of Florida is an excellent example. I knew very little about Florida’s fern diversity before embarking on this project, an important weakness in my botanical field survey work. Writing the book filled a huge number of gaps in my personal knowledge and helped me learn to identify virtually all of the state’s native and naturalized Pteridophytes….or should I say Lycophytes and Monilophytes?

I can’t say that the satisfaction of any one of my books overshadows that of the others. They have all been fun and very fulfilling. Of course, I have a particular passion for woody plants, so I very much enjoyed writing both editions of Trees of Florida, as well as Shrubs and Woody Vines of Florida and Botanical Keys to Florida’s Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines. I especially enjoy trying to keep up with changes in Florida’s ever-expanding diversity of woody plants. The shrub book is in revision now, which, like the tree book, will reflect these changes.

The two wildflower guides, East Gulf Coastal Plain Wildflowers and Atlantic Coastal Plain Wildflowers were also very fulfilling. The excellent color reproduction and high quality printing in those books allowed a welcomed opportunity to refine and showcase my photography—another of my passions—and add substantially to my collection of live plant images. My newest interest is in high-quality macro photography of fruit types by family and genus, which requires a copy stand, studio lights, and specialized stacking software. I am hopeful that what I am learning from this project will fit nicely with my work for iDigBio.

I am now in the middle of a large, two-book project with Princeton University Press, collaborating with colleagues in the Northwest, Southwest, and North, and a water colorist from the U.K. Our completion date is still over a year away. These will make my 15th and 16th books, and just may wrap up my extended preoccupation with writing.

Mast:  And yet your Ph.D. is in Education, rather than Biology.  I get the impression that many of your outreach and service activities use both your experience in education and your expertise on the flora of the southeast.  Tell us about those.

Nelson:  That is correct. Producing books is akin to teaching. Both depend on enthusiastic sharing of information about which one is passionate. My Ph.D. focused on adult learning theory, especially self-directed learning and how we adults acquire the most important and powerful learning outcomes of our lives; outcomes that shape and direct who we are. For me, many of those outcomes relate to ecology, plants, biodiversity, and an appreciation of our biological heritage. I have made numerous talks about plants and led many field trips, which, like my books, are an opportunity to put adult learning theory into practice. My approach to all of these activities, including my writing, is underpinned by sound learning theory that reflects passion, content, and the enhancement of personal knowledge.

My teaching has included post-secondary training in several computer languages, database programming and design, and GIS using ArcGIS, as well as Florida ecosystems. These interests and this experience spurred me to develop PanFlora, my online database for Florida plant records, including an array of plant images, a section for flowering phenology, and an outlet for producing, editing, and keeping up with the plant descriptions that appear in my books. I started the database as a personal project to manage my personal data simultaneous with remaining current in database design and programming. It didn’t take long for this to morph into a much larger project that now folds in data from several other sources, including parts of Georgia, and encompasses nearly 60,000 records.

Combining biology, information technology, training, and education has been very stimulating and, at least I think, is apropos to my work with iDigBio. The opportunity to play a small part in the development of large, interconnected datasets linked across numerous organismal groups and poised to allow us to expose questions, answers, and relationships heretofore difficult to expose, is particularly exciting.

I have been fortunate to have opportunities to combine my interests in biology and education in leadership roles for a variety of conferences and groups. I am currently the conference director for the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference hosted each summer at Western Carolina University. The conference is now in its 29th year and I am in my second term as director, following a stint as program chair. I had the privilege of serving as program chair and later conference director of the Florida Native Plant Society annual conference, and enjoyed serving for several years as president of our local Florida Native Plant Society chapter, before transitioning into the role of program chair for several years. Other service includes membership on the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council listing committee, whose job it is to evaluate and list invasive species, and to work with our parent organization to educate the public about our findings. And, I enjoyed many years in teacher training in my work with public schools.

Mast:  You've been involved in several biodiversity informatics projects in the southeastern U.S. prior to your current position with iDigBio.  I believe that it started with your own Panflora site ( and the start of digitization in FSU's Robert K. Godfrey Herbarium ( a decade ago.  With what other projects have you been involved?

Nelson:  Yes, PanFlora was my first biodiversity project, developed first on a Microsoft SQL Server platform, and later migrated to MySQL with a PHP frontend. As you recall, the species list from that project was the founding list for FSU’s Godfrey Herbarium database when you began it. I was delighted to be involved with the early development of your databasing effort at FSU and with the opportunity to work with you on it. I was even more delighted to join the NSF-funded collaborative Deep South Plant Specimen Imaging Project as its coordinator. That collaboration between Auburn, FSU, Troy University, University of South Alabama at Mobile, and University of Southern Mississippi was very stimulating and productive. Together, we imaged and databased about 85,000 plant specimens, virtually all of which were collected from our focus eco-region, the East Gulf Coastal Plain. Near the close of the project, I worked closely with the staff at Specify to get several of our collaborators’ databases converted to Specify and to push our images and data to Morphbank. This gave me a much better understanding and appreciation for Specify’s schema, interface, and importance, as well as an opportunity to gain greater facility with preparing uploads to Morphbank. More recently, I have been fortunate to work on developing and implementing strategies to georeference about 64,000 of our herbarium records at FSU.

Several years ago I was offered a Beadel Fellowship in botany at Tall Timbers Research Station. Tall Timbers has an excellent research museum with particularly important collections of plants, birds, mammals, and butterflies.  In 2009 you, Dr. Kevin Robertson, and I applied as co-PIs for an NSF BRC project to database and digitize these collections and were fortunate to be awarded a 2-year project beginning July 2010. Leveraging what I’d learned in the Deep South Project, we started with the herbarium collection, which we completed during the project’s first year. I am pleased that these data and images were uploaded to the FSU herbarium database last spring and are now being served via the Godfrey herbarium’s website. We then imaged and databased Lucian Harris’ butterfly collection using a contraption I fabricated in my garage, and have now moved on to Herbert Stoddard’s bird collection. In February 2012 we will begin databasing and imaging the mammals. An exciting component of the butterfly, bird, and mammal collections has been the opportunity to experiment with several image stacking software packages that have allowed us to extend depth of field in our specimen images. Our butterfly images are online at and our bird images are soon to follow.

During the same year we submitted our project for Tall Timbers, I was invited to work with Dr. Richard Carter, herbarium director at Valdosta State University, and Dr. Wendy Zomlefer, herbarium director at University of Georgia, on another collaborative NSF proposal that received funding in spring 2011. I serve as an imaging and databasing advisor on this project, offering recommendations about imaging equipment and protocols, workflows, databasing protocols, and database tweaking. The opportunity to install and set up Specify on a remote server at VSU was particularly instructive. We have begun imaging and databasing VSU’s collection, including implementing OCR for vascular plant and bryophyte images. We are using Specify as our database, and the VSU library has offered to design a locally hosted website to serve images and data. This will be in addition to our intent to serve images and data through our project’s portal to be hosted at the University of Georgia. UGA has nearly completed data entry, focusing first on a species distribution map for Georgia. I oversaw the installation and setup of the imaging station there, and specimen imaging will start shortly. This collaborative is an especially important project. Together, these two herbaria contain over 80% of the state’s botanical collections.

Austin Mast:  What is your current job with iDigBio, and what are you enjoying most about it?

Gil Nelson:  I serve as iDigBio’s digitization specialist, with a major focus on developing and refining imaging and databasing workflows, OCR techniques, imaging equipment protocols, georeferencing strategies, and serving as a resource to the TCNs. The opportunity to review what collaborators and others are achieving, the workflows and digitization standards they are producing, and their output is very stimulating. We are visiting as many sites representing a variety of organismal groups as possible to help us leverage current practice and produce documents that outline common practices across institutions. As they are completed, these documents will be available through the iDigBio website.

Austin Mast:  In what state would you like to see the digitization of biological collections in five years, and how do you see iDigBio getting us there?

Gil Nelson:  I am hopeful that ADBC will prove a powerful tool in the biological collection digitization effort. My overall anticipations five years out fall into three major categories. First, I anticipate that biological scientists and researchers from across the globe will have easy and one-portal access to huge, multi-organismal datasets, with the ability to conduct novel, interdisciplinary searches and data manipulation across broad spectrums of biological data. I think these activities will expose yet-to-be recognized ecological, biological, and cultural relationships as well as suggest new questions and avenues to guide biological and ecological research. Second, I anticipate that citizen scientists and other interested community members will have newfound access to biological collections in powerful ways yet unseen and still undetermined, complete with methods for involvement in the scientific process. Finally, I am hopeful that exposing the extent of our collections will underscore their importance and value as public and scientific resources in ways that ensure their preservation deep into future generations.

iDigBio is poised to be the central link in making all of this happen, by providing technical assistance to new and existing TCNs, arguably the most important component in this process, and by providing the technology to make specimen digitization and discovery a reality.