Importance of Personal Research Collections for Graduate Students

As a first blog post for my new website I thought I would talk about something very important to me:  my insect collection.


Perhaps the most formative experience of my academic career was taking insect field taxonomy as a senior entomology major at the University of Delaware.  I had declared entomology as my major entering undergrad, and had been fascinated by insects for years before that – but there was something new and different and exciting about creating a collection.  I was required to find over 1000 insects that belonged to ~200 different families, and it was this endeavor that truly opened my eyes to the overwhelming diversity of insects.

Preserved insect specimens have been at the forefront as I advanced in my career, first working as a collection assistant at the American Museum of Natural History and then beginning my Ph.D. program at Arizona State University studying the systematics of the desert stink beetles.  Throughout the early stages of my career I have gotten a sense that many people look down on personal collections as “amateur” or “unscientific”.  I have not heard anyone say that out loud, and I know not everyone in the field shares that sentiment, but it seems like an underlying assumption that if you are doing ‘real, open science’ that all of your specimens will immediately go to an institution.  While I wholeheartedly agree that specimens should always belong to “science” and available to the community at large for study, I also strongly feel that the research collection I am continuing to build is an invaluable tool and driver for my continued research and career.  In the rest of this post I hope to outline what I see as the major benefits of building a personal research collection as well as some key issues that others may want to consider while growing their own insect collections.

Current State of the MAJC

My collection, super officially named the M. Andrew Johnston Research Collection, or MAJC for short, consists almost entirely of specimens I have obtained since I started my Ph.D. at ASU.  Information about my collection can be found on the MAJC page on this site, and the virtual data portal is available through SCAN.

I estimate that I have around 10,000 specimens of darkling beetles (family Tenebrionidae) and perhaps 2-3,000 other beetles (most of which I try to give to other researchers to make room for more tenebrionids!).


Benefits of Building a Collection

I think the largest benefit is personal satisfaction.  Perhaps that isn’t an ‘academic’ goal, but keeping your passion alive for your research is definitely important and makes the long nights and weekends worth it.  My guess is that most people go into biology, entomology, and specifically systematics because there is a personal connection to some aspect of nature, and that is always worth encouraging.

Other, perhaps more tangible, benefits include natural history observations, understanding the geography and habitat your group lives in, and a more thorough appreciation of the value of preserved scientific specimens.  Label data from museum specimens can often be less informative than we wish, and even when it is very precise it is hard to understand exactly what situation these insects live in, what they are doing there, how they move and interact with the environment.  It is also often difficult to fully understand the shifts in geology, flora, temperature, etc when just looking at a map or google earth (though these are still invaluable tools!) – actually visiting the field and making these observations for yourself can have a huge impact on how you go about your science.

I should also mention here that while these benefits are probably true for anyone doing fieldwork, why do we need to collect the specimens instead of just making observations and field measurements?  I think the answer to this depends on what you study.  For insects, even a specialist on a group often does not know what species something is in the field – it isn’t until we bring them back to the lab and get them under a microscope (and likely dissect them) that we can know what they truly are.

But hey, these points are true for collecting in general – so why have your own collection and not just place the specimens elsewhere?

Benefits of Having a Collection

Personal satisfaction and connection is again important.  That extra motivation to endure the rain or go without a shower for another few days can be very beneficial, but so too is being able to pull out a drawer of insects, see your locality labels and remember and amazing trip to a field station, or how you were so focused on picking up a beetle that you didn’t see the rattlesnake next to it (not that that has ever happened ….).  The physical connection to people, places, and nature is one of the things I like the best about looking back at my specimens.

Your collection is akin to a reprint library.  These days with e-publications, open access, and interconnected libraries it is fairly easy to find nearly any article almost instantly, so the idea of a reprint collection might seem antiquated.  Before the internet (at least so I have been told), having access to reprints was crucial.  The only way to access published scientific knowledge was to have the paper at your fingertips.  While computers have made literature easier to access, they have not done the same thing for specimens.

Having authoritatively identified comparative material is vital to systematic research.  Museums are treasure troves of this material, and loans have facilitated systematic research for generations – but we don’t all have real-time access to these collections.  For those systematists that work at major natural history museums, perhaps the personal collection is not important.  But early career systematist generally do not know where they will end up.  The job market is tough, and we seem to be going away from large museums with many specimen-based curators towards dispersed researchers at a larger number of institutions, institutions that often have much smaller (if any) insect collections.  Having your own collection is a resource that frees you from the constraints of having direct full-time access to a large museum.  For reference, my collection now has more diversity of identified darkling beetles than most universities – at least those without a long standing entomology department.

One last reason is that you are becoming the expert on the group – the collection will actually be used if it stays with you.  Yes, all collections should be available to the community at large, and you should make specific plans for where your collection should be deposited by the end of your career.  But instead of leaving insect specimens scattered at other institutions that likely do not have someone working on your focal group – keeping them with you for the duration of your career will ensure that these specimens will be consistently used.

Important Considerations for Burgeoning Collections

Once I decided to build my collection, I had to make some decisions that I wasn’t expecting at first.  A few of the more important ones are outlined below.

The Pin or the Vial?

A dried, pinned (or otherwise mounted) specimen is still the ‘industry standard’ for insect collections.  Properly preserved and mounted specimens stand the test of time (at least for a few centuries!) and seem to be the most efficient method to quickly sort, identify, and study the external morphology of specimens.  But what about DNA?

Despite current advances in obtaining DNA from old museum specimens, the gold standard (for DNA at least) is an ethanol tissue collection.  While we know we need vouchers for current and future work, we also know that specimens in alcohol in vials are much more time consuming (and often difficult) to sort, identify, and store.

I think it is important to consider your future research program, and to prepare for what you will need.  It sure is unfortunate to have a pinned specimen of something from 3 years ago that you need to sequence now – and you aren’t able to get back to where you collected it, or perhaps that habitat doesn’t even exist anymore!  But it is also a shame to have a stockpile of specimens with no IDs and that have been left out of current taxonomic works because they were inaccessible in the back of a freezer full of bags of vials.


Sure, it’s your collection presumably being used mainly by you.  But shouldn’t it still be up to modern best practices?  And, wouldn’t it be great to access your specimen data from the web?

Just like most major collections have been doing for the past decade or two, you should consider digitizing your collection.  Starting while the collection is still small is an added bonus – you can digitize as you identify and grow from the beginning and then you won’t be in a pinch (like most of our major institutions) when it comes time to digitize an enormous collection.  This does, however, take some additional time.  I think it’s absolutely worth it, but you should decide for yourself!

Scope and Curation

Sure, we all need an “Oh My!” drawer to use for outreach and to show off the coolest of our bugs.  But what else should you keep in your collection?  I think that this is a collection each person has to ask themselves with their future career in mind.  Do you need a world-wide representation of fly families?  Do you need large series of a particular genus in ethanol for future population genetic studies? Do you have a somewhat narrow or broad primary research focus?

The broader the focus, the more time, space, and resources you will need for your collection, but it will be perhaps more relevant for certain projects (or for expanding your research focus in the future).  But how much time do you really have to devote to your collection? Will you be able to find the time to identify those old world dung beetles? Or to sort through all of the beetles in your pitfall traps when you really only needed the grasshoppers?  Like all aspects of research, I think it is important to not limit yourself  too narrowly, but to also not spread yourself too thin to the point that a useful product is never created.

What I’ve done with the MAJC

Primarily Pin, but Don’t Forget to Pickle

I have decided that it makes sense to have most of my material mounted and preserved dried in cabinets.  But I also have many research questions and projects that rely on molecular data – so I have developed a curated tissue collection.  I’ll probably write another blog post about my tissue collection, but I generally try to keep at least 1 exemplar of each species from each locality that I collect at in alcohol, and to pin the rest.

So far this has been just right for me.  I have been able to use my collection as a reference to make many identifications and to use as comparative morphological material and I have also been able to use tissue collection specimens for my own projects as well as quickly locate and hand-off specimens to colleagues.  I have also been more cautious when sorting samples from exotic or hard-to-access localities to be sure that I keep potentially important molecular specimens in the freezer.

Specimen Digitization in SCAN

One of the aspects I am most proud of for my collection is having my specimen data on-line.  I chose to use SCAN (Symbiota Collections of Arthropods Network) partially due to my lab’s affiliation, but also because it has a free, easy to use web-based data portal through which I can database my specimens (or have undergraduate researchers help with …).  With SCAN, I retain full control over my specimen data, while having it instantly available to the world as each specimen is digitized.

Not only is this data being made available for anyone with internet access, but my specimens are being combined with the specimens form collections around the world.  This is an incredible tool for myself!  I am able to see my specimens displayed on a map, either as just my collection (or even just my tissue collection if I need to find a specimen to sequence) or in conjunction with holdings from other institutions.  I know many other insect systematists that utilize digitized specimen data from other institutions, but their own data is not integrated with it on the fly – which is a huge advantage when planning projects, field trips, and museum visits.

Mostly Darkling Beetles – But a Few Others

I intend to work on darkling beetles for the rest of my career (not that I am opposed to gaining additional groups along the way!).  Because of this, I have focused on building a collection of primarily darkling beetles.  At first, I tried to keep all beetles – but I just didn’t have the time or space to properly maintain them in my collection.  I have learned from some long-time collectors of ‘entomological alchemy’ – or turning your lead specimens into gold.  I try to deposit and disperse my non-focal specimens to museums (mostly the ASU Hasbrouck Insect Collection) and other researchers (for specific groups of interest) where they will be better utilized … and out of my hair!  But of course there are always other groups that pique your interest … and that you start collecting.



In the end, I think I am very fortunate to be able to have a career doing what I love.  Whether this  post persuades anyone to work on a personal research collection or not, hopefully the case has been made for the importance of maintaining a personal collection is for a graduate student or other early-career systematist.

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