Ever since I began my internship in the fall of 2019, I had only ever worked with the hands-on, curatorial side of the collection. When the pandemic stripped away the in-person aspect of my work at Triplehorn, and I anxiously emailed Dr. Musetti – is there a way to make this work? – I discovered the beautiful scaffolding of the collection’s data storage: the digital side of the collection.
Before the pandemic struck Columbus, I had been working on sorting specimens from a jumble of legs and bodies sloshing in plastic containers of alcohol into distinct orders, each order with its own glass vial. I used to think that when a bug landed on a leaf, it was a good opportunity to observe it. Sorting allowed me to see insects displayed under a microscope. Seeing a bug flying through the air in a fleeting instant and examining its intricate details splayed across a square tray are such different experiences that I wish everyone got the chance to see insects under the microscope. Magnified, the insects become a beautiful array of metallic colors, glinting eyes, and textured legs, each tray a tiny replica of the posters lining the halls leading up to the collection.
It used to take a painfully long time for me to sort even one row of insects, as I internally deliberated with the dichotomous key I was using to distinguish each order. A dichotomous key (link to PDF file) lists a series of paired questions to allow the reader to determine the characteristics of a specimen so that it can be identified. As I grew familiar with the key, I began to sort faster, and at last saw the miniature knobs on either side of each fly, called halteres, that separate them easily from Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, sawflies), besides the fact that Hymenoptera have two pairs of wings and flies only possess one.
Examining specimens from Brazil, the variation and beauty of the insects I picked through with my forceps was stunning. One insect, white and furry with black lines tracing its body, is my new favorite insect, although I am not certain what it was. Its legs appeared so thick from their hair that it looked like a yeti.
Through sorting, I connected with Jenna, an Entomology major at OSU and undergraduate curatorial assistant in the collection, who personally mentored me at the microscope. We even had a discussion about the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea), an invasive carnivorous snail that I have studied extensively for research projects. Sorting was methodical and stress-relieving, and once my eye was crammed against the microscope eyepiece, I couldn’t see much beyond what was happening in the world of the forceps and the tray.
I don’t think I can describe the thrill of seeing my name written on a drawer of dry specimens and a container of wet ones. It was seeing my name that made me realize I was part of something, something permanent in the world of science. I didn’t discover a new species or write a book on entomology, but the label with my name on it felt lasting enough. I had contributed a mere thirty-three hours to the collection, yet those thirty-three hours lessened someone else’s workload. It was a highly rewarding feeling.
School closed on March 13th. There was a part of me that believed the pandemic would be over in three months like people predicted. The scientific part of me cringed at my belief. My hope of continuing my internship diminished, and while the collection scrambled to figure out how to accommodate the pandemic, the internship was suspended. As September breezes breathed through Columbus and virtual school began again, I reached out to ask whether I could do a virtual internship. What I did not remember existed until Dr. Musetti delegated it to me was the data transcription work I had seen others in the collection doing the year before.
I was given access to specimen image files and yet another reason to continue my work with the collection. From working with the imaging team to photograph each specimen with their respective labels, I had seen the contents of these labels before, but had never fully understood their significance until now. During data transcription, each specimen label is written out word by word – even if there are typos on it – into a spreadsheet and stored in the collection’s database.
Example of specimen images used for data transcription:
Capturing the exact information requires care and meticulous attention to detail. I realized after transcribing roughly eighty labels that this was one of my favorite curatorial activities, because of how relaxing typing each word is, and how there is no risk to the specimens if I make a mistake. I can press delete on the keyboard, but I can’t just reattach a beetle’s leg. Although I haven’t broken any poor bugs in my time at the collection, working with the insects directly is stressful because of the fear of breaking them. However, I still miss seeing the tidy drawers, the heads of staff and volunteers intently bent over their workspaces or turned to their computer screens, and the spread wings of butterflies on display. The closest I have come to this at home is the “kaleidoscope of butterflies” poster on my bedroom wall. And, looking this up, I realized that the collective noun for a group of butterflies actually is kaleidoscope, which I never knew before!
Despite the catastrophic circumstances of this year, I am glad to still be learning about insects and to know that that, at least, has not changed.
It turns out there are two types of collection occurring at the Triplehorn, but the second – the data maintenance side – goes largely unnoticed. Whether handling specimens or the data behind them, I am glad that I can still delight in the wonders of the insect world and continue my internship through the tumultuous times of the pandemic.
About the Author: Rowan Killina is currently a senior attending Columbus Alternative High School and an intern at the Triplehorn Insect Collection.
All photos from the Triplehorn Insect Collection’s archives.