Students Shadow Scientists at the Florida Museum of Natural History

Fifteen undergraduate students from seven Florida colleges and universities converged on the Florida Museum of Natural History April 17-19 for an all-expense-paid opportunity to shadow museum professionals and explore careers in the biological sciences. Funded by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to the Institute for Digital Information and Scientific Communication at Florida State University, the two-day event allowed undergraduates throughout central and southern Florida to learn about the importance of scientific collections to our knowledge of the earth’s biodiversity.

Each of the students had previously attended iDigBio’s Careers and Graduate Study in the Biological Sciences workshop, hosted by the University of Central Florida in early February, or the Florida Undergraduate Research Conference held at the Florida International University. About 25 students met the March application deadline. The original intent was to fund ten students for the opportunity, but the quality of the applications was so strong that planning team members Pam Soltis, Claudia Segovia-Salcedo, and Gil Nelson decided to invite all 15 of the fully qualified applicants to Gainesville.

Students arrived in Gainesville the afternoon of April 17 and spent the first evening dining, socializing, and getting organized for the following two days. Early Friday morning, about half of the participants were transported to Dickinson Hall, the main site for the museum’s collections, and the other half headed to the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity at Powell Hall, one of the world’s largest and most active butterfly and moth collections. Nearly 25 collections managers, working scientists, researchers, post-doctoral associates, doctoral candidates, and iDigBio staffers hosted the students in seven academic disciplines, including botany, entomology, high performance computing for bioinformatics and computational biology, ichthyology, invertebrate zoology, molecular biology, and ornithology. Prior to arriving, students had rank-ordered their personal preferences among these opportunities. Using the rankings as a guide, Pam Soltis and Claudia Segovia-Salcedo fashioned a schedule that allowed all participants to visit their top 3 choices and most to visit their top 4.

During their stays at each station, students were treated to a variety of hands-on activities as well as collections tours. Andrei Sourakov fascinated participants with demonstrations of butterfly and moth evolution in the meticulously curated McGuire Center collections. Those working in ichthyology sorted and identified about 30 containers of fish, using field guides to make species determinations, moving specimens into new containers, filling collection containers with ethanol, creating and inserting specimen labels, and helping collection manager Rob Robins alleviate some of the backlog of specimens to be processed into the museum. In the herbarium, Mark Whitten, Norris Williams, Kent Perkins, and Ron Lange helped participants press and identify plants and learn methods for drying, mounting, and labeling specimens for permanent preservation. During morning and afternoon sessions in the molecular biology lab, Blaine Marchant and Claudia Segovia-Salcedo had students don gloves, collect leaf samples, and extract and analyze DNA from leaf tissue. Virtually all students ranked high-performance computing and its importance to computational biology high on their list, which led to a late-afternoon tour of the University of Florida’s supercomputer center, led by Matt Gitzendanner, an activity that peaked several students’ interest in bioinformatics careers.


Friday’s activities were devoted to the museum’s back-of-the-house. In contrast, Saturday was devoted to front-of-the-house activities through participation in the museum’s annual Earth Day celebration. Students explored museum activities, found their way into the Butterfly Rainforest, and participated in the Wolves to Woof exhibits, tracing the history of the dog, before congregating for lunch and a final send off at the Camellia Court Café.



Bethany Miesch

University of Central Florida

Breeann Roberts

University of Tampa

Charlotte Garfinkel

Eastern Florida State College

Chelsea Fowler

University of Tampa

Christine Pardo

Florida International University

Fernando Parajon

Miami Dade College

Genevy Lima

Miami Dade College

Hae-Yuan Chang

University of Central Florida

Jessica Zuazo

University of Central Florida

Kamren Livingston

Barry University

Marcela Arenas

University of Central Florida

Mariana Ruiz-Velez

Barry University

Rose Josue

University of Central Florida

Taina Torres

University of Central Florida

Wendy Whyms

Keiser University

iDigBio and the Florida Museum of Natural History are pleased to have hosted this outstanding group of Florida undergraduates and will remain in communication with them as they complete their education and move into their chosen careers. 

This opportunity is supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, award #1358501. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and presenter(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.