University of Florida plant biologist Pamela Soltis has been appointed to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine committee investigating the value and future of biological collections.
Soltis, a distinguished professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History, will join 11 other committee members to review how National Science Foundation-supported collections of organisms are used in research and education and how to maintain them so that they continue to benefit science and society in the future.
These collections include living organisms and more than a billion preserved specimens of plants, animals and fungi housed in natural history museums, zoos, laboratories and other research institutes in the U.S.
The data contained in these collections contribute to major research challenges, such as tracking global environmental changes, improving food security, conserving species and ecosystems and assessing the economics of biotechnology.
But many collections suffer from financial constraints that have resulted in inadequate staffing, insufficient space, reductions in collecting and an inability to curate current specimens, Soltis said.
The committee, which holds its first meeting today in Washington, D.C., will identify the greatest challenges to maintaining biological collections and suggest a range of long-term strategies that could be used for their sustained support.
“This is an excellent time to take stock of the nation’s biological collections,” said Soltis, who is also the director of UF’s Biodiversity Institute. “My work over the past eight years has convinced me that collections are largely untapped resources for scientific research, education and outreach and has made me an advocate for their protection, enhancement and use.”
Open data in massive online portals such as iDigBio, the NSF-funded national center for digitization of biodiversity collections, have transformed the use of collections, including in Soltis’ own research.
Soltis, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, studies plant diversity, with an emphasis on the origin and evolution of flowering plants, plant genome evolution and conservation genetics. She uses genomic methods, natural history collections and computational modeling to understand patterns and processes of plant evolution and identify conservation priorities.
“All of my own research is related to plant specimens – from producing voucher specimens for our molecular studies, using herbarium specimens as a source of DNA or using digitized specimen data in modeling and other analyses,” she said. “Collections are vital to my program.”
The committee will evaluate how to improve the accessibility of online resources such as iDigBio, which is based at UF and has amassed data from more than 115 million specimen records. Committee members will also envision how future technological innovations could be applied to collections, Soltis said.
“Digitization of specimen data, from locality data to images of various types, is yielding fantastic resources for research, teaching and public outreach,” she said “New applications, from CT scanning to machine learning, will provide data to address questions that may not have even yet been asked about the history and future of biodiversity.”
The committee is expected to work for 18 months and will submit a consensus report to NSF at the end of its tenure.