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September 2011 is the 18th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum when I started as a volunteer. I came straight from university as a fresh-faced graduate desperately seeking some work experience to pad out my CV. A brief 3 month spell of volunteering ultimately shaped my future career. Volunteers are vital to the running of the Museum but I would argue that this is not just a way for the Museum to get work done for nothing. Volunteers also gain valuable experience to help them with their futures. Some of my previous volunteers have gone on to jobs in the museum sector, to postgraduate degrees and even to industry.


My current volunteers Johanna and Daryl working in the Micropalaeontology Library


To recruit volunteers we first have to write a simple task description that gets advertised on the Museum's website and prospective volunteers are asked to apply. My two current volunteers Johanna and Daryl were recruited because of the skills they could offer to the museum but also because the tasks needing doing suited the directions they wish to take in their careers.

Johanna is considering training to become an archivist. She originally did a Zoology degree and has always been passionate about the Natural World. "I chose this project because it gave me the opportunity to find out what this kind of work would be like in a Natural History context.
I am enjoying the process of being involved in this project and the historic context of the subject in a museum environment. The experience so far indicates to me that I would really enjoy being an archivist in a Natural History context."
Some of the references that have been sorted by Johanna and Daryl


Initially Johanna and Daryl both worked on a project checking potentially duplicate scientific literature against lists of materials we have in the Museum already. Over the last 10 years we have accumulated vast quantities of micropalaeontological books and offprints, many of which are duplicate. We are under pressure for space so we need to identify which items can be disposed of to make room for our ever expanding fossil collections. These items are often consulted by visitors to the collections and are a useful resource in managing and documenting the fossil collections we hold.
One of the pictures archived by Johanna. Dennis Curry, former Director of electrical firm Currys and amateur micropalaeontologist is on the second row. He donated his collections to the Museum and made funding available for their curation.


Johanna has subsequently moved on to projects related to archiving, and more recently sorted and documented a series of portraits of famous micropalaeontologists. These will soon be making their way to the Library and Archive collections. Daryl is now working on updating the information about a collection that has recently been published in a book.

Daryl says that, "volunteering within the department has allowed me to experience some of what it must be like to involved in collection management and I can certainly say that it is a path I would like to follow, and I believe that what I have learned, and will learn, is a helpful step towards this.  The cross referencing and alphabetising of articles has also allowed me to gain skills which could be transferrable to other fields."

One of my colleagues recently passed me the letter I wrote to the Keeper of Palaeontology volunteering my services back in 1993. I remember phoning the Keeper's Secretary asking to whom I should address my application letter. Getting volunteer opportunities at the Museum is a lot easier and a lot better organised these days. If you fancy a spot of volunteering then details of current volunteer opportunities are available on the Museum web site.

Johanna and Daryl have certainly made a big impact on the physical organisation of the micropalaeontology section here. I hope that their experiences here will also help them with their long term futures.

Research published this year by University of Leeds PhD student Matthew Pound and his co-workers has presented a global vegetation reconstruction for the Late Miocene (11.61-7.25 Million years ago) that suggests a wetter and warmer world at that time. Part of Matthew's research was carried out at the Museum, consulting a vast database of palynological biodiversity compiled over his long career by Palaeontology Department Scientific Associate Dr John Williams.



The above model shows the present day vegetation model (with interpretations for densely populated areas) and a vegetation model for the Late Miocene below (Image courtesy of Matthew Pound).


Pound used John Williams's index to compile a list of published references and species of spores and pollen from worldwide geological sites of Miocene age. Vegetation is very sensitive to climate and therefore the distribution of vegetation can tell us what a climate in the geological record was like.



John Williams consulting his Index of Palaeopalynology (JWIP). (Image courtesy of Dr Susanne Feist-Burkhardt)


Climate models can also predict the distribution of vegetation, so if we have a good data set of fossil vegetation we can evaluate the predictive ability of climate models. This will hopefully show any problems in them, as we will rely on these models to show us the future of global climate change, said Pound.



Without John’s collections he would have only half the data he has now which would not have been enough to accurately evaluate climate model predictions. Thanks to John’s collections he has a dataset of over 600 fossil vegetation sites from a ten million year period.



John Williams with some of the 23,000+ references he consulted to compile his database. (Image courtesy of Dr Susanne Feist-Burkhardt)


John started compiling his index when he was working as a Research Palynologist for BP at Sunbury and continued, first as a Consulting Research Scientist here at the Museum and after he retired, as a Scientific Associate in the Department of Palaeontology. The Index is known as the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology and is added to on a daily basis by John.



The comprehensive index cross references fossil names, geological age, country and author relating to all palynological groups including spores, pollen and other types of oceanic organic plankton like the dinoflagellate cysts. It is unrivalled as it was compiled by only one person and therefore provides an accurate and consistent interpretation of the literature. It also draws heavily on the scientific information locked away in the unique library collections at the Museum and includes data from some very obscure publications that are not widely available to academic researchers.



Matthew Pound's research is funded by NERC and the British Geological Survey University Funding Initiative, and hosted at the University of Leeds. He hopes to continue to study climate change models as a post-doc and plans to make further use of John's Index of Palaeopalynology. John's index has also been extremely helpful in providing information to manage the Museum palynology collections but is available to any scientific enquirers on request.


I have lost track of the number of times I have explained to people what I do and they have replied that they had no idea that this type of work was going on behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum. On Friday 23rd September it was our chance to take centre stage in the galleries in Science Uncovered, the largest 'show and tell' the Museum has ever put on.


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Using a large plasma screen to bring tiny fossils to life (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)


Explaining about microfossils can be a difficult task considering their size and relative unpopularity compared to the dinosaurs and early human fossils that were being displayed on the tables less than 10 metres away. I have previously taken part in science communication events like these and found that microscopes have been a big draw to get the crowds in. This time at Science Uncovered, I found that a large plasma screen showing some eye catching videos and images were more a effective communication tool than ever before. Members of the public were drawn towards the screen to see what I had to say about my subject.


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Showing a video of a living ostracod on the giant plasma screen (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)


I won't say too much at the moment about what I was talking about other than I was introducing some recent studies on some of our most important ostracod collections. I intend to make that research project the subject of a future blog entitled 'What microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous'.


The important theme to this evening was to show the relevance of our collections and research to every day life and showcase to members of the public our science. The ostracods I showed are vital to exploration offshore Brazil and West Africa in areas where oil is being found. Knowledge of the reproductive strategies of ostracods is also vital to interpreting, not just the modern day distribution of ostracods but also the fossil record. Ostracods can give detailed information about past environments (see the Ockley dinosaur blog) and are increasingly being used to interpret past climates.



A video of the living ostracod Eucypris virens. This is related to the fossil examples that I was showing. (Video courtesy of Dave Horne, Queen Mary College, University of London)


It is quite tiring speaking about your subject non-stop for any period of time and my voice was quite dry after an hour. I remember taking part in a similar public event entitled the 'Fossil Road Show' back in the late 1990s and losing my voice completely by the end of the day. Fortunately this time we were using a rota system that changed the staff and specimens on the Palaeontology Station every hour. After my hour was finished I was quite disappointed to be stopping and wished that I could have carried on for longer.


Another minor disappointment was that I did not see other aspects of the event and get the chance to fully see what my colleagues from around the museum had to say.




Some scale models of the Cretaceous ostracod Harbinia micropapillosa and my badge.


I do have one momento from the event; a badge with 'I'm a scientist.... talk to me'. Guardian journalist Camila Rus joked that some Museum staff had intended to wear their badges on their commute to and from work. I'm not sure this would work considering the almost complete lack of action of fellow passengers when my Natasha wore her 'Please give up your seat, I'm pregnant' badge. What I do know is that large plasma screen was an enormous help to me at 'Science Uncovered' and made my job of explaining my science much easier.

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.

View Giles Miller's profile