Welcome Libby Ellwood, New Postdoctoral Scholar with iDigBio

Austin Mast interviews Libby Ellwood, our newest postdoctoral scholar.

Mast: It's my pleasure to welcome you as iDigBio's newest postdoctoral scholar, Libby. Your research focus will be on broadening public participation in the digitization of biodiversity research specimens.  This is a goal to which your previous research background is well suited.  What do you see as the most relevant aspects of your previous graduate and postdoctoral research for this new position? 

Ellwood: Thanks, I’m thrilled to be a part of iDigBio’s dynamic team. I learned quickly in my graduate career that there is a wealth of information contained in museum specimens and that they are extremely useful in contemporary scientific research.

I earned my PhD in Biology from Boston University where my research focused on the effects of climate change on plants and animals. The metric I used to assess how much plants and animals were affected was phenology, the timing of biological events. Phenology includes the timing of when plants flower, when insects emerge and when migratory birds arrive, and many of these annual activities are impacted by temperature. In order to evaluate whether an organism’s phenology has changed, I first needed to understand the historical phenology—the date that a certain plant was flowering a hundred years ago, for example. Old journals, including those of Henry David Thoreau, were invaluable for this research. Some of these resources I found digitized online, while many others were tucked away deep in the special collections of museums and libraries. These records, combined with modern-day observations of the same plants and animals, allowed me to track phenology over 160 years. Several interesting discoveries came from this research, including the finding that many plant species are now flowering up to three weeks earlier now than they were in the 1850’s when Thoreau was observing them!

Another relevant project I was a part of was monitoring leaf out of trees in New England, and once again museum collections provided an historical perspective. In this research we used herbarium specimens from throughout the region in order to compile a dataset comprised of a range of species and with ample spatial coverage. No other method could provide this level of detail in historical ecological data. Although creating herbarium specimens is no longer the popular pastime it once was, we were able to get comparable coverage by crowd-sourcing the task of monitoring leaf out to eager local citizens. These citizen scientists recorded their observations of leaf out of the same species we found as herbarium specimens, and uploaded them to our online database. This research produced an incredibly long and unique phenological time series.

Through these research activities I acquired the skills to compile, analyze, and evaluate historical records. I’m looking forward to applying these on a much larger scale at iDigBio.

Mast: However, your background is not just in research.  You have also worked as an environmental educator with K–12 students.  Tell us about that and how that might inform your work with iDigBio.

Ellwood: Yes, my background in education will most certainly inform my work with iDigBio. I worked on the education staff at Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a cattle farm in southern Maine where students of all ages come to learn about natural and organic agricultural practices. I also taught at Nature’s Classroom, an environmental education program with numerous locations in the northeast that provides week-long programs for school groups. I then earned my master’s degree in teaching and learning and taught marine and physical sciences at a public high school in Maine. While there I integrated environmental and experiential education strategies within the more traditional educational model.

Many of the public participants in iDigBio digitization programs are employed in fields other than science and working with them to understand the basic science behind the process will help them be more engaged in the process and perhaps help them to answer some of their own research questions. Another group of iDigBio participants is teachers and their students. I foresee serving as a liaison of sorts between participants and iDigBio to ensure the interactions are mutually beneficial—contributors have an enjoyable, informative experience digitizing specimens and the biodiversity research collections community continues to build its remarkable database.  If done well, the network of participants will grow and it can become a positive feedback loop as word spreads, specimens are digitized, a greater diversity of research is enabled, and further interest in digitization is garnered.

Mast: It would be early for you to have developed a detailed view of the activities that will best advance public participation in digitization, but what are your early thoughts on what is needed?

Ellwood: One approach that has been successful in iDigBio programs thus far is tapping into the interests of citizens and finding the personal connections they have with the natural world. This can lead to a desire to reconnect with those emotions and perhaps even play an active role in contributing to activities like those of the biodiversity research collections community. Sometimes it’s familial connections or memories of certain activities, such as bird watching as a child or visiting museums with their own children, that spurs an individual to want to get involved. Also, teachers at all levels have been an active part of biodiversity research collections already, and I think that as we continue to promote the collections and align digitization with classroom learning outcomes that teachers and students will make a big impact in our work. Discovering new avenues to reach interested citizens, teachers, and students will be an early activity of mine.

I also think topical news stories can spark an interest in science for certain people. Words like biodiversity, environment, and biological research get used in the popular media quite often and for some this is intriguing; they want to be a positive part of the scientific process. Digitizing museum specimens isn’t the first thing people thing of when they want to ‘make a difference’, but if iDigBio can continue to demonstrate the value of these activities alongside modern science and conservation issues, I believe public engagement will continue to build. The incentive for participation in digitizing specimens for iDigBio is largely altruistic, and tangible applications and goals will foster increased involvement.

Mast: What are you most looking forward to about your work with iDigBio?

Ellwood: One of the aspects of iDigBio that I was originally drawn to, and that I’m really looking forward to now, is the nationwide collaboration. iDigBio has established an impressive network of biologists, computer scientists, statisticians, educators, and public participants around the country, from a variety of institutions and organizations. Each of these players brings something different to the research and I’m excited to work with them to grow the digitization efforts.

I am also eager to see more and more information contained in museum collections enter the modern scientific discourse. Many research projects have taken advantage of this tremendous resource already, and the increased availability of museum data, as facilitated by iDigBio, will further advance the fields of conservation, genetics, systematics, and climate change, to name a few. Likewise, these data will be a valuable tool for education. Not only can teachers and students assist in digitization, but accessing highly detailed images and associated data of specimens from around the world is an amazing addition to science curricula.

Mast: Tallahassee is quite a change from Boston.

Ellwood: It definitely is, and I can’t wait to explore all that the Florida panhandle has to offer! Historically, culturally, and ecologically Tallahassee and Boston couldn’t be more different and I’m excited to spend my weekends with my field guides in the swamps and forests. The campus of Florida State University is lovely too and the live oaks make for such a different aesthetic than that of a New England campus. It’s not entirely different though and the similarities are equally interesting. It’s nice to be a part of an active academic community nestled in a region with a deep, rich cultural and intellectual history.

Perhaps most importantly, everyone I’ve met at FSU and iDigBio have been entirely warm and welcoming and I’m delighted to be working with such a talented group of people.