University News

Herbarium to move to BioMed Center

Contributing Writer
Friday, September 14, 2012

The University’s little-known Stephen T. Olney Herbarium will begin its move this month from its current location in the cramped and gloomy basement of Arnold Laboratory on Waterman Street to a brand-new, glass-encased room on the second floor of the BioMedical Center. The herbarium houses over 100,000 dried and pressed plant specimens, 10 percent of which are the first-recorded collection by any botanist of their species.
This move is a large step in Assistant Professor of Biology Erika Edwards’ project to restore the herbarium to a place of active research and to digitize the specimens it houses.
“I want all of the Brown community to feel (the herbarium) is accessible to them and for it to be a general resource to the whole community for anything about plants,” Edwards said.
Herbarium Collections Manager Kathleen McCauley said she is currently packaging the specimens for the move, and Edwards said she is arranging the final touches on the new space. The move will start in a few weeks and continue for approximately six months, Edwards said.
Once the move is complete, Edwards and her team will begin to create a digital library of the specimens, which will be online and accessible to researchers all over the world. A joint grant with Harvard, Yale, University of New Hampshire, University of Vermont and University of Massachusetts at Amherst will provide funding for the digitization. Edwards said she plans to hire another curator to join McCauley to embark on this project next summer.
Edwards also said she plans to hire students to assist with research in the herbarium and said she wants to open it as a working herbarium for local botanists throughout Providence to collect and document new specimens.
Professor of Biology Mark Bertness said he hopes the increased activity and research at the herbarium will “support the growth of phylogenetics” – the study of evolutionary relations among different species of plants – at the University.
In addition to its role as a historical resource, the new herbarium will provide enough space and the proper equipment for scientific research, including in areas of DNA sequencing and global climate change, Edwards said. McCauley said the airtight metal cases and temperature controlled environment will prevent future damage to the collection, a third of which was ruined by bugs in the old wooden cabinets in the basement.
“I think the scientific world is going to blush at so many treasures stowed away here that nobody knew about,” McCauley said. Since she began working at the herbarium in 2009, McCauley has taken on the daunting task of sifting through the materials in the herbarium, which has had no curator since 1930. Though she started the project without a computer and with overhanging pipes blocking access to some of the cabinets, she has now made some rewarding discoveries. She said she found the first specimen ever documented of Castilleja guadalupensis, a species of Indian paintbrush, which is now extinct, and said she is excited to see what else is hidden in the cabinets.