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This week I celebrate 20 years at the Museum, and my diary has included preparing for a researchers' night highlighting museum science, Tweeting as part of #AskaCurator day and visiting a miniature steam railway.

 

Monday

 

Most of today has been spent preparing for Science Uncovered, our EU-funded researchers' night on Friday 27 September. The doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like myself will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment.

 

We are showing some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf off SW Ireland through sediment that was deposited during the last glaciation. It's a great opportunity to show the key role micropalaeontology plays in quantifying and dating past climatic episodes. The core relates to periods when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Tuesday

 

A major part of my job is dealing with enquiries about our microfossil collections and subsequently hosting visits or preparing loans. Two main collections are our most requested, the Challenger Foraminifera and the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Since three specimens from our Blaschka collections have been on display in our Treasures Gallery, we have had an increased number of enquiries and visitors to view the other 180 specimens that are not currently on display.

 

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Image of one of our Blaschka glass radiolarian models that was widely retweeted during #AskACurator day.

 

Today we are showing the undisplayed Blaschka collection to an artist, last week it was a glassworker from Imperial College and later this week it is a photographer hoping to create a book of images from Blaschka collections across Europe.

 

Wednesday

 

I have spent virtually the whole day on Twitter monitoring questions and providing answers as part of #AskACurator day. Fellow curators from over 500 different museums and 35 different countries have been fielding questions over Twitter causing the hashtag to trend. At one stage it was globally the second most discussed subject on Twitter.

 

I answered questions like:

 

'Do you require a masters degree to become a curator?'

'Which museum, other than your own, inspired you recently?' (the Foraminiferal Sculpture Park in China)

'Which specimens in your collection give you goosebumps when you see them?' (Blaschka glass models

'What sparked your interest to become a curator?'

'Do you need to be an obsessive to be a curator?'

'Which specimen not currently on display would you like to see being displayed?' (100 year old microfossil Christmas card).

 

Many of the questions I was able to expand on using links to blog posts, particularly the one entitled 'How to become a curator'. I started to reply to the 'what is a curator?' question but could not cram 'someone who cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users' into 140 characters.The day certainly showed what a varied job we all have, how passionate we are and that one day is never the same as another.

 

Thursday

 

My colleague Steve has worked out that we had 65 new interactions (messages, favourites, retweets, new followers) during #AskACurator day yesterday as well as some more hits to this blog. However, I am saddened as I read a well known museums blog that says that the best way to reach a wide audience is to avoid niche subjects like micropalaeontology and links direct to my blog as an example. It starts me wondering if accumulating vast numbers of hits really show that a blog is successful?

 

A string of meetings are scheduled too; we are applying for funding for a major 3 year conservation project, the photographer arrives to discuss his project and we are finishing an application to hire a new PhD project studying traits of evolution. Microfossils are extremely useful as their fossil record is relatively complete compared to other fossil groups and collections can be made relatively easily across large geographical areas.

 

Friday

 

Earlier in the week I got to work to find two of my train mad, three year old son Pelham's Thomas the Tank Engine stickers on my socks. On Monday he is starting nursery school so today we are taking him and his younger sister Blossom to one of our favourite places, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. I feel that this family day is a suitable way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum as a volunteer.

 

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On Friday 27 September the doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like me will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat at Science Uncovered, our EU funded Researchers' Night. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

This year Tom, Steve and I are on the Climate Change table in Waterhouse Way demonstrating some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf SW of Ireland. The cores were drilled through sediments representing the last ice age. Information on the distribution and composition of microfossils, allied with other scientific data, shows six 'Heinrich Events' through the last glaciation. These events are thought to relate to climate related cyclic episodes when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Science Uncovered 2012 welcomed an incredible 8,523 visitors over the night who spoke to over 350 scientists. If it proves to be as successful as last year where we presented our microfossil zoo or 2011 when I was able to use a giant plasma screen to show some of my research then it promises to be an amazing night. Do come and join us if you can.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets (far right) and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment and prevent mold growth on the core.

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The Museum has been running an inspiring schools activity under the "How Science Works" strand of the National Curriculum, in which children carry out their own microfossil research project. In just over an hour, they investigate the microfossils in some Gault Clay collected from Folkestone, and learn the processes behind research including how scientists collect data, use it to solve problems and publish their findings.

 

Feedback from the school groups shows that it is a fun and engaging way to learn about science away from the normal classroom environment. After completing the exercise, many children indicated that they were more enthusiastic towards a career in science and some even felt that they were already scientists!

How_Science_works_sally_871X9998.jpgSally Collins and Jamie Robinson about to start a "How Science Works" session with a school group at the Museum.

 

The activity was developed by Sally Collins, currently part of the Museum Content Development Team, and Dr Craig Koch, while he was studying for his PhD in the Palaeontology Department. It can now be run entirely by Museum educators, while the use of commonly available kit such as washing up bowls and plastic screw topped bottles means that there is potential for holding this schools exercise in locations away from the Museum.

 

The 'How Science Works' activity

 

Before the exercise, Gault Clay from Folkestone is crushed into 1-2cm lumps while still wet, and subsequently left to dry. At the start of the class, approximately 100g is then placed in a plastic screw-topped container and boiling water added. After the container has cooled down a bit and some cold water added to bring it down to a safe temperature, it is shaken rather like a cocktail shaker.

 

While the sediment is soaking, there is time for the class leader to explain the exercise and how micropalaeontology is used in earth science research. A video is shown, featuring Craig and his supervisor Dr Jeremy Young on a research cruise and working in the laboratories at the Museum.

 

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Sieving sediment in the classroom.

 

After soaking for 15 minutes, the sediment is sieved, dried in a microwave and rehydrated before a final sieving and drying. The microwave heating and subsequent drying ensures that the process can be carried out in a short period of time.

 

The small microfossil residues produced are then examined under a microscope by the children and a chart is provided to help them identify the microfossils present. By analysing the geological ranges of all the species present, it is quickly possible for the children to determine the age of the clay.

 

This is similar to the work that a micropalaeontologist might carry out on a well site, where age information could be used by the drillers to decide to continue drilling or stop. Drilling a well too deep can be a costly mistake so sometimes the micropalaeontologist on a well site is put in a major decision-making position!

 

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The chart used by the students to identify their microfossils and  decide on the age of the clay.

 

There is still time for a final class discussion of the results obtained by each group and how scientists communicate their findings by publishing their data. The session I attended recently ended with a very entertaining discussion amongst the children about how the 'peer review process' effectively makes sure that scientists' results are checked before they are published.

 

Teacher and student feedback

 

Some of the school class teachers have provided feedback, including:

'Perfectly engaging, challenging and inspiring

'The students were pretty curious and asked a lot of questions which in my opinion shows that the workshop had a stimulating effect on them.'

Children taking the exercise have also had the chance to feedback. Here is a selection of answers given when participants were asked if taking the class had affected their plans for taking science:

'I was thinking about studying science for A-level beforehand -  my visit today has reinforced that'

'Yes makes me want to study science more'

Yes, I’d love to do something related to micropalaeontology'

Yes because now I am thinking of becoming a scientist'

Yes, I will go home and purchase a microscope!'

'I will take my science lessons more seriously'

'No it has improved my desire to study science more. I am inspired.'

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The foraminifera Epistomena spinulifera; one of the age indicative species of microfossils in the clay.

 

When the children were asked to say what they 'didn’t know or never realised' some answers were:

I never realised that ...

‘you could have so much fun with clay’

'there were microfossils in clay'

'I do actually like biology'

'that rocks could be dated!'

'science facts had to go through a long process before getting published'

 

Finally some general comments that I think sum up the impact of the exercise nicely:

'We got to do our own experiment and discover things and come to a conclusion which made us feel like scientists'

[I enjoyed it very much] 'because it was really fun and I learnt more than I probably would in a normal science lesson'

'I enjoyed looking at the fossils from millions of years back and it makes me feel special to realise that I am the first one to see them'

[I enjoyed it very much] 'because we could be scientists and actually find the results on our own. Rather than a classroom where you are told what happens and told the results.'

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This positive feedback from previous "How Science Works" schools vists shows that it is a very successful format for learning. Unfortunately it is not currently being run by the Museum due to lack of bookings and staff resource issues. Sally Collins reports that 'we could only run it for half a class at a time due to the space limitations of the Earth Science Teaching Room and the need for everyone to be able to access sinks and electricity. The trend in the past couple of years has been for secondary schools to bring larger and larger groups.'

 

The exercise has been modified to use washing up bowls instead of sinks and the use of microscopes in other spaces in the Museum such as the Earth Lab mean that larger groups could be accomodated in the future.

 

The Gault Clay exercise is currently being run successfully at Peterborough Museum. My colleague Dr Steve Stukins has been working with Peterborough and the Natural History Museum's Real World Science Officer Hannah Pritchard to develop a similar hands-on activity using local Oxford Clay. I look forward to hearing about the Oxford Clay exercise and hope to see the successful Gault Clay schools activity running again at the Museum soon.

Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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