Improved and Protected

by Carlee Reber

New Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum director Dr. Duke Rogers spearheads ambitious projects

Dr. Duke Rogers has initiative. Even before Dean James Porter began searching for the next Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum director, Rogers approached him about the application process. Porter recognized Rogers’s proactive interest and asked why Rogers was so eager for the job.

Rogers explained that he was brimming with ideas for how to enhance the museum on multiple fronts. His confidence comes from his experiences with the research collections at Texas A&M, where he received his B.S. and M.S., and the two museums and herbarium at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned his Ph.D. The opportunity to curate the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum’s mammal collection was a big reason he decided to teach at BYU. While he has happily curated for twenty-three years, he wanted to stretch himself by being a director. After a thorough application and interview process, he was chosen for the challenge.

In his first year, he has collaborated with other museum staff to determine how to make his ideas become reality. In your visits to the museum over the next few years, look for these four enhancements that will be implemented in the coming exhibits:

Varied Reading Levels

While past exhibits maintain an accessible sixth grade reading level, Rogers envisions more variety. He wants written content for all age groups, from early readers to adults. Rogers hopes it will make each return visit to the museum an opportunity to “not only rediscover things [you] didn’t remember but really discover new things.”

Handheld Devices

Touchscreens are only the first incorporation of technology in the museum for interactive learning. Rogers plans to integrate handheld devices that will enhance adults’ experience without sacrificing the simpler content. Devices will provide easy access to more complex, in-depth information for adult patrons.

Dynamic Visual Effects

Visually learning concepts strengthens understanding. Rogers looks forward to adding “cool stuff” like movement and light shows to facilitate engagement. For example, rather than solely explaining how fireflies use their lights to choose mating partners, an interactive system of lights would help show that a male must light up with the right pulses and color cues to attract a mate.

Emphasis on Faculty Research

Rogers wants to showcase research projects that are pioneering our understanding of biodiversity. He hopes that the public will learn that “there’s serious stuff going on here, because it has implications” for the real world. The exhibits will demonstrate how BYU faculty actively contribute to humanity’s scientific knowledge through their research.

The Research Collection

The Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum is a familiar place for the public to come and enjoy, but even local patrons don’t realize that they know only a portion of the museum. On the other side of locked doors, through the halls for students and curators, are the research collections. More than three million insects, forty thousand reptiles and amphibians, ten thousand birds, forty thousand mammals, and seven hundred thousand plants are preserved beyond the view of visitors. Each specimen, carefully organized with information about when and where it was collected, is part of a hidden treasure with a long history.

A Quick History Lesson

The museum’s namesake, Monte L. Bean, was a wealthy businessman who donated money to build a public museum with exhibits including his African hunting trophies. Storage rooms for BYU’s research collections, which had been growing for half a century, were also part of his vision.

Back in the 1920s and 1930s, BYU professors needed lab specimens to teach their classes. Faculty would go out, collect an animal or plant, and preserve it to show students. Many universities at the time had teaching collections associated with the courses they taught. Some faculty started collections centered on research rather than teaching; for example, to learn what mammals live on Mt. Timpanogos, they would send an expedition to collect at various elevations.

“The reason we have the collections we do is historical: that is, there were faculty interested in insects, there were faculty interested in plants,” explains museum director Dr. Duke Rogers. “The reason we have it is because of a concerted effort of hundreds of faculty [for nearly] a hundred years.” As the collections expanded, it became unwieldy to have cases of specimens sharing rooms with the labs. Thanks to Bean, they now have their own space.

The Hidden Gem

In Rogers’s opinion, “the most valuable long-term asset that BYU has are the research collections at our museum. There is nothing else close to it.” It’s a bold claim, but he has substantial reasons to believe it.

Research made possible by the expansive collections has enabled BYU to become an eminent center for phylogenetic systematics (mapping the tree of life) in the United States. Determining relations among species and identifying new species helps evolutionary biologists put the pieces together.

“If you look at the number of publications that our faculty curators have, in terms of quantity and quality (where they are publishing), and also the grants they bring in from peer reviewed sources like the National Science Foundation, we have one of the best programs in the country,” Rogers says.

That strong program, in turn, attracts quality undergraduate and graduate students to pursue research using the collection specimens. They contribute to projects with real-world implications, such as protecting biodiversity and evaluating the effects of climate change.

Each specimen is an unequivocal historical record of what the biology of a place was like at a given point in time; these biological snapshots enable researchers to track changes over time. Researchers can return to the exact places where students and professors collected decades earlier, use their same methods, and evaluate what has changed. Whether there’s been an influx of cheatgrass, a local extinction of a species, or a thickening of pinyon juniper from fire suppression, the shift in ecology can be discovered by comparing the historical record of previously collected specimens with the contemporary study.

Thanks to modern technology, these historically comparative studies can become “kind of like CSI . . . [because] you can take a piece of skin and actually sequence the genome of that animal.” While comparative studies can show that a change has occurred, identifying the genetic difference between the collected specimens can reveal why. Were they genetically more variable in the past, but only a few survived when ecological change occurred? Maybe they’re inbred, and that’s why they’re not doing well? With forensic DNA, researchers can compare their genomes to find out.

Another advanced method evidences the old saying, You are what you eat. Stable isotope analysis is a way of looking at certain elements such as hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen in once-living tissue to determine diet and migration patterns. A life story garnered from a sample of feathers, a strand of hair, or keratin from a scale.

Genomes and isotopes come only from tissue. “A photograph wouldn’t do it. Notes about it wouldn’t do it,” Rogers emphasizes. “The physical specimen is what does it.” That’s why they’re invaluable.

When BYU professors began collecting, they couldn’t have imagined their specimens revealing such information. Rogers can’t help but wonder “what techniques scientists will develop [in the future], and we’ll be able to apply to these historic specimens to obtain information that we couldn’t get any other way.”

Subsequently, preserving the specimens is of utmost importance. Faculty curators tend their respective collections, and freezers keep tissue from decomposing. However, any power failure puts the collections at risk, so Rogers is setting his sights on obtaining cryopreservation containers to more effectively preserve the sensitive specimens. Storing them in tanks of liquid nitrogen at −320° F would mean “essentially no degradation of the biological material.”

They plan to apply for a collection improvement grant from the National Science Foundation for monetary aid on the project. “It’s competitive,” Rogers explains, “but we have a strong argument to make because of the size of our collections and the importance of them as a result, and the diversity of them.”

Rogers esteems the research collections as invaluable and will endeavor to preserve BYU’s hidden gem.