Biology Jobs

Careers in Biology: Curators, what they do and how they do it

What is the role of curators in herbariums and museums? Do curators have to do research? Do they apply for grants? How stressful is their job?  These and more questions will be answered in this post of Careers in Biology, in which Dr. Charlotte Taylor explains her job as a curator of the Herbarium in the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). The summary presented here was prepared by our guest blogger and PhD student Haydée Hernández, with contributions of the UMSL grad students Priya Maharaj, Vona Kuczynska and Alicia Marty.

In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

 

WordCloudCuratorsDr. Charlotte Taylor’s research focus is in floristics and systematics of Neotropical and Malagasy plants of the family Rubiaceae. This interview session with Dr. Taylor was particularly exciting, because although most people have visited museums and botanical gardens, few know what happens behind the scenes. Curators are important personnel of these interesting places. They are the managers of the herbarium’s (or museum’s) collections and are content specialists that are responsible for species identification and the species’ geographical data. This interview was, therefore, a good opportunity to learn more about their job.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Dr Charlotte Taylor is a curator of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT). Photo by Kate Lawless, MOBOT.

Can you walk us through a typical day as a curator? For example, the percentage of time spent in the field, in the office, or in educational outreach.

” I first start by taking my morning coffee, this is essential. My main duties are the identification of plant specimens, description of new species and taxonomy.”

Dr. Taylor also assists people from the different places in the tropics with specimen identification and verification. For instance, she recently received 150 boxes from a “blank area on the map” (a place that has been poorly explored), in this case the MOBOT Peru Project, filled with plant specimens that need to be identified. After identification, the next step is to compile the species data in a database for analysis. Geographical, community diversity and composition analysis are a few things that can be done with the data obtained. Dr. Taylor works closely with different personnel to perform these analyses, such as ecologists and conservationists working at the MOBOT. She also does field work, which can be either mind numbing or exciting, depending on the project and the location.

She explained that the main output of the work as a curator highly depends on the mission statement of the institution you work with. In the case of the Missouri Botanical Garden (MOBOT), it relates to field exploration, research and conservation. Other museums allow curators to do their own independent research.

We previously had a talk given by Dr. Kellogg regarding project funding. How does the gathering research funds process work when you are a curator?

A MOBOT curator is responsible for a project, such as organizing flora or doing surveys of an ecological area, which is funded by the Institution. Yet sometimes curators can be responsible for the funding of the project, which means writing up proposals. Depending on the institution, curators will run projects in which they are interested. This is indeed very important, because institution-wide projects often have large grants or institutional funding, but smaller personal projects require curators to obtain their own funding through grants. At the MOBOT, Dr. Taylor has a specific set of duties that do not require her to apply for grants, but she has the option to apply for grants for her own research. She usually spends 10-20% of her time writing up grant proposals. However, there is much more pressure for grant writing in other museums, where the primary mission is cutting edge research and publications. Dr. Taylor has applied for and received her own funding in the past, and this has allowed her to manage her projects as she likes.

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How about fieldwork and traveling as a curator?

 According to Dr. Taylor, young scientists working in the country where the samples are being collected primarily do the majority of fieldwork. Scientists and curators from the museum will occasionally travel and work alongside other field workers.

 In your job, how do you share your findings of new species and their locations?

 She writes as many papers as possible for publication in scientific journals, regarding the new species found. The MOBOT does a great job in terms of sharing information: TROPICOS is the MOBOT’s database that is used to upload project data on specimen information, literature references, and images. TROPICOS used to be an internal database, but has now become publicly available (you can access it at www.tropicos.org), and it is also used within the MOBOT to verify information from outside sources and ensure data accuracy.

How about innovations in the type of Museum work you do?

 Dr. Taylor expressed the need to integrate new technology into the museum work. Currently they use high-resolution scans, which are magnified, copied and printed, and then are used as reference in the museum. New positions are occasionally created for database work, data analysis, GIS work, and predictive modeling. These types of positions require plant/biological knowledge, as well as specific technical skills.

 Does one need a MS or a PhD degree to become an entry or senior level curator?

 Entry-level personnel are usually assigned specific topics consistent with their expertise, typically from their graduate research. A Ph.D. is required as a tool for projects that require heavy outside funding, even though people holding MS or BS degrees also work in other capacities in these projects. For example, individual projects have research assistants that help in data processing, specimen handling and identification and some may even have smaller projects; these assistants may have BS or MS degrees.

 What are the criteria for advancement?

 She explained that unlike other jobs, in Museums there is not much competition, and likewise little room for advancement. There are assistant curators, then associate curators and finally [full] curators, and in some institutions, senior curators. Advancing to the next level typically happens with time and may not always come with a salary increase. Other people can also switch to more administrative roles or take a position at a University.

What is the typical salary range (entry and senior level)?

 Salary can range from about US$30,000 to as high as US$250,000, with an average of US$40,000-60,000 per year. Some museums offer tenure positions, and generally administrative positions are higher up on the pay scale than curators.

QuotesCover-pic82What is the job security like as a curator?

Many people stay within the museum for life, and because of this, there is generally a low turnover rate in these positions. However, this depends on the institution. For example, in a sister organization, personnel in the molecular section have been denied tenure for not securing grants and publishing. Publishing may not always be mandatory, but Dr. Taylor views publications as her form of success and tries to publish as often as possible.

 How do you determine a curator’s productivity?

 Productivity is mainly in the form of publications: such as floras, identification guides and papers in scientific journals. In her job, the samples she receives are mainly from previously unexplored areas; this allows her to publish papers on approximately eight or more new species per year. However, Dr. Taylor estimates that she discovers 20-30 new species each year, but the publications associated with those sometimes require more time than what she has available.

 

How long does it take you to become an expert in the field?

 This is not something that happens quickly. It took her about 20 years before she got a handle on her area of expertise. She started out with relevant knowledge, and slowly learned more throughout her career and gradually became more comfortable and confident with her results, and identifying specimens quickly.

 How demanding is your job?

 She believes it is not as high pressure as a University setting. However, you have to learn to pace yourself because there is a lot of work, and there are no large breaks such as spring and summer vacation. Many curators work on weekends and devote extra time to their personal research, but you can limit yourself to 40 hours a week if you want.

Finally, to all readers out there, if you find yourself interested in pursuing this career and want to get some hands-on experience, Dr. Taylor shared information regarding volunteering at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

First of all, she explained that this requires a commitment of regular work, from two hours up to a full workday in the museum once a week. Interested persons can contact the volunteers’ office and they are matched with personnel according to their interests. Another possibility is to directly contact Dr. Peter Hoch, MOBOT Graduate Director, and he will spread the word to people who are looking for a volunteer. Another option for you is to directly contact a curator by finding their information on the MOBOT website. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/

I hope this has provided you with useful details into the life of herbarium and museum curators. As you read, one of their main duties is species identification, but they are also able to do their own research, and although they do not travel much, they can visit the sites where the species come from and collaborate with other professionals such as ecologists and conservationists. What do you think about this choice of career? Is it for you?

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About Haydée Hernández: I am a PhD student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Robert Marquis Lab. My main interests are ecological interactions and their role in community structure. I believe that pollination and herbivory are fascinating processes that are able to change ecological communities. I also enjoy reading and delving into the fascinating worlds that books can provide.

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Careers in Biology – Zoo based conservation

How can I work at a zoo? What do employees at a zoo do behind the scenes? Dr. Eric Miller, from the Saint Louis Zoo, provides students with an insider’s view on the day-to-day responsibilities of directing a zoo, tips on getting hired in the zoo/conservation field, and so much more!

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In this column of The Naked Darwin, you will find interviews with outstanding professionals that have devoted their careers to different fields of Biology. Here, they share their expertise in their career, and we hope our readers can gain from the knowledge and advice they will share. The interviews are performed by students from the University of Missouri-St Louis, who are taking the seminar “Careers in Biology” offered by Dr. Parker.

This week in Careers in Biology – a series of interviews: Dr. Eric Miller on Zoo based conservation. Dr. Miller’s interview was conducted by graduate students Courtney Pike, Whitney Collins and Alicia Marty. This is a guest post by one of the students, Courtney Pike, who is doing a Masters at the Biology Department, University of Missouri, St. Louis under the supervision of Dr. Parker.

Dr. Eric Miller, senior Vice President of the Saint Louis Zoo. Photo from the Saint Louis Zoo website.

Dr. Eric Miller is Senior Vice President at the Saint Louis Zoo. He also serves as the zoo’s Director for both Zoological Operations and the WildCare Institute and holds a DVM.  Dr. Miller was inspired to enter the zoo conservation field at a young age.  After reading the book “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson when he was a child, he decided to do many of his school projects on the effects of pesticides. Dr. Miller knew he wanted to pursue a career in biology and the applied aspects of being a veterinarian was the perfect fit. When he learned that he could be a Zoo Vet and have an impact on conservation programs, he knew he was on his ideal path.

Below are Dr. Miller’s answers to some of the students’ questions:

What is your job actually like on a daily basis? Do you spend the majority of your time in an office, around the zoo, traveling, doing fieldwork, or anything else particularly?

Dr. Miller: A typical day primarily includes working in an office and in administration roles, managing people rather than managing animals.  Traveling is required approximately 6-8 weeks out of the year to check on research projects and gain a better understanding of what is actually going on, along with attending meetings and conferences (WAZA, AZA, etc). As an active veterinarian, there are also opportunities to attend conferences related to medicine.

What are the advantages and disadvantages for having a DVM versus a different graduate degree?

Dr. Miller: A DVM (and most graduate degrees) will provide you with problem-solving skills, which are essential to succeed as a conservation researcher. The main difference with a DVM is that it is mostly applied science, rather than theoretical. Many of the conservation research programs have a veterinarian that is involved, but it is not necessary to have a DVM to work in conservation, even in conservation medicine.

What types of entry-level positions are involved with zoo-based conservation?

Dr Miller made a few important points:

  1. Positions available: The WildCare Institute is a branch of the Saint Louis Zoo that formalizes their interests in and commitments to worldwide conservation. There are very few positions within the WildCare Institute as many researchers are hired in-country by NGO’s and other conservation organizations. Positions available within the WildCare Institute are zoo-based; specifically, the curators, zoological managers and zookeepers are also involved. Also, many graduate students from local universities are involved with some of the centers. Students are encouraged to contact the specific center leaders (usually the curators) to find opportunities to become involved http://www.stlzoo.org/conservation/wildcare-institute/
  1. How to enter the zoo field: Currently most zoo curators began as zookeepers and worked their way up; however, this is not always the case and there are occasionally openings based on expertise, including: Anthropologist, Endocrinologist, Educator, Curator for a specific taxonomic group, Nutritionist, Pathologist, and Des Lee Professor of Zoological Studies (currently Dr. Parker). There may even be positions available related to environmental policy, such as a lobbyist. Having animal management experience is great and anything that gets your foot in the door can be useful experience. Positions are very competitive; therefore, candidates must be persistent! The Saint Louis Zoo is a relatively stable organization and there is not a high turnover rate for researchers and curators. Some people that work in zoo-based research jobs have come from academia, but others may take the alternative path and leave zoo research for academia. However, the majority of people come from other zoos.
  1. Internships: There are many unpaid internship opportunities at the Saint Louis Zoo that could provide great experience while you obtain your degree. There are animal care internships, and a variety of research internships that focus on Animal Behavior, Animal Reproduction and Contraception, and Endocrinology. There are also internships available through the Institute for Conservation Medicine. Students interested in these internships can find more information at these links: http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/scienceresearch/researchinternships/           http://www.stlzoo.org/conservation/institute-for-conservation-medicine/
  1. Other zoos may have similar opportunities as well. San Diego Zoo has Post-doctoral positions in Applied Behavior, Ecology, etc. The Saint Louis Zoo may have similar opportunities for post-doctoral work, but it would be on a case-by-case basis because there is not a formal program. The National Zoo in Washington D.C. used to have an internship program that took Ph.D. students and taught them the animal management side of zoo operations.
  1. The Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago houses the Population Management Center that occasionally has openings for graduates with skills regarding population management, genetics, and database management. Other opportunities can be found on the AZA website. http://www.aza.org/joblistings/
  1. Occasionally, the zoo may need someone to spearhead a new laboratory. Dr. Parker is the go-to researcher for genetics work, but other zoos may need similar people. However, not every zoo needs the same research labs and may sub-specialize within genetics, for example. The San Diego Zoo has an in-house genetics staff and lab, while the Saint Louis Zoo has an in-house endocrinology staff and lab, and nutrition staff and lab. They also have a modest genetics lab used by keepers and zoological managers that were trained at UMSL.
  1. All positions at the Saint Louis Zoo receive on-the-job training in addition to any formal degree requirements specific to each position.
  1. Specific positions for CMB students would include some of the aspects of the research with endocrinology, physiology and contraception, and population genetics. Additionally, there is more genetic research being conducted at the San Diego Zoo.
  1. Students interested in the education programs at the Saint Louis Zoo can contact Louise Bradshaw, the Director of Education. http://www.stlzoo.org/education/
  2. Alternatively, aquariums may also involve conservation efforts and have positions, such as an aquarist/aquarium keeper, available.

What qualifications and skills sets are necessary to be a top candidate for these positions?

The three skills that Dr. Miller utilizes most frequently are communication, problem solving, and animal management. It is crucial to understand and excel at all three aspects.

Dr. Miller: The specific skills that are required to be a conservation researcher depend on the area and the skill set that is needed. It is best to be a free thinker who can also work in a team setting. One must be able to work in a group, but also maintain his or her opinion and identity. It is important to be passionate, but also to understand that your coworkers are just as passionate and that you should work together to solve problems. In addition, every zoo should be involved with fieldwork in some way and most are. It is important to have the skills to manage wild populations similarly to captive populations until the conservation threats are eliminated.

What would a typical salary range be for these positions?

Dr. Miller: For Zookeepers at the Saint Louis Zoo, salaries range from the mid to high $30K range, while research biologist salaries, depending on their experiences, range from $60K to $85K. Another important point is that zoo jobs are not similar to industry jobs- it is not typical to rise up and make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

What are job securities and benefits like for these types of positions?

Dr. Miller: There is no tenure for zoo-based researchers and benefits are on a zoo-by-zoo basis. Globally, economies are changing and so are benefits programs, but the Saint Louis Zoo has a great benefits package and retirement plan.

What are the specific types of research projects researchers are in charge of?

Dr. Miller provided references for different types of research programs. The specific programs are chosen because there is someone (typically a curator) that is passionate about a specific species or region of the world. Then, the program can proceed from there and often involves collaborations. Below are links to the various programs’ websites:

1.See http://www.stlzoo.org/conservation/wildcare-institute/ for information on the WildCare Institute programs, most of which are led by one of the zoo’s animal division curators. The Curator leads their conservation center in addition to managing the animals and staff in their departments at the zoo.

2. See http://www.stlzoo.org/conservation/institute-for-conservation-medicine/ for information regarding the Institute for Conservation Medicine for additional research projects.

3. Also see http://www.stlzoo.org/animals/scienceresearch/ for information regarding the Saint Louis Zoo’s reproductive biology program for additional research projects.

4. Other zoos, such as Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, offer additional research programs or are involved in collaborations. See http://www.omahazoo.com/conservation/ for information regarding projects.

How do you obtain funding for these programs? Do you specifically write grant proposals or is it provided by the zoo?

Dr. Miller: Funding for the zoo and its research programs comes partially from the Zoo Friends Association and the Conservation Carousel at the zoo. There are also outside donors that financially support the zoo. The Curators can also write grant proposals and work with outside organizations to obtain funding. There are some grants that the zoo is not eligible to apply for directly, but by working with universities or museums, the zoo can apply for them. Significantly large grants are becoming rarer, as we often see in academia, but there are many small grants available.

Are there many publications that result from this research? And who writes them?

Dr. Miller states that many publications result from this research, but in his opinion there should be more. He feels that it is not worth doing the research if you do not plan to publish your findings. The partners and scientists doing the work often write the publications. If the curator or staff involved has a graduate degree and the ability to write publications, they certainly do.

Do you collaborate with outside institutions or governments? How important is this when doing conservation work?

Dr. Miller: The Saint Louis Zoo has 180 partners in collaboration. There is a great deal of collaboration that takes place between the zoo and in-country NGOs and existing conservation organizations. There are no formal collaborations with the WWF, for example, but the zoo is always willing to cooperate with them when needed. Researchers at the Saint Louis Zoo also have collaborations with many institutions in Saint Louis, including Washington University, Saint Louis University, and primarily with University of Missouri-St. Louis. Collaborations also occur outside St. Louis, such as one with Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

We would like express our gratitude to Dr. Miller for sharing his experiences while working in the zoo field and for providing advice to students pursuing a similar career path.

Courtney Pike

About Courtney Pike: I am fascinated by many aspects of science, but my interests gravitate toward behavioral ecology, disease ecology, and conservation. I also have a special fondness of birds and amphibians. Currently, I am a Master’s student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in Dr. Patricia Parker’s lab. For my Master’s thesis, I am collaborating with Charlotte Causton and the Charles Darwin Research Station to study Philornis downsi, an ectoparasitic fly in the Galapagos Islands and exploring its potential role in avian disease transmission there. Additionally, I am interning at the Audubon Center at Riverlands.