Mason Students Are Turning Dried Blossoms into a Digital Database
It’s the second day on the job for George Mason University senior Ushna Ahmad, who’s part of a student team that’s digitizing more than 45,000 dried plant specimens for a national project.
Plants collected over decades from across Virginia will become part of a national database that will detail how the environment has changed. George Mason is leading the project for Virginia that is expected to include about 300,000 Virginia plants. It’s the first such project for the Southeastern United States.
The National Science Foundation is funding a $2.5 million nationwide project called “The Key to the Cabinets: Building and Sustaining a Research Database for a Global Biodiversity Hotspot.”
The 2,000-member Virginia Native Plant Society is funding a curatorial assistant, Mason doctoral graduate Manuela Dal Forno, to prepare the Mason collection for the undergrad team charged with imaging the specimens. The undergrad student team includes Ahmad, environmental science major Maryam Sedaghatpour, and biology majors Joseph Bradley and Sophia Stavrou.
They’re working in the basement of Exploratory Hall where giant metal cabinets house more than 60,000 dried plants for Mason’s Ted R. Bradley Herbarium. Some are 100 years old and haven’t been touched in decades, said Andrea Weeks, a botany professor and Mason’s herbarium director.
A small beep sounds when Ahmad brings some dried parts of the willow family into the digital age on Wednesday. There’s a camera pointing down into a well-lit white box. Ahmad slides the sheet of archival paper into place and the “Salix discolor” becomes part of a national database that will be accessible to the public.
This particular plant was collected along a tributary of Daniel’s Run, a small stream in the Fairfax County, Va.
Ahmad, a senior biology major from Ashburn, plans to build a career that combines data imaging and biology. The herbarium project is a good start.
“I like working with professors because it’s real research and contributes to the world,” Ahmad said. “It’s something more than school work.”
A genetics class in high school sparked her interest in biology, which she plans to combine with information technology.
“I’m one of the few biology majors who likes the subject as it is,” she said. “Biology is more than an entry way to medical school.”
The Virginia Native Plant Society is helping preserve Virginia botany while giving Mason students hands-on experience, Weeks said.
“I am very grateful that there are societies that see the benefit of herbaria,” Weeks said. “They’re knowledgeable about diversity. The society is active in paying attention to regional initiatives that have impact on the integrity of the local environment.”
The project could reveal some unknown or lost species as they are brought to light during the digitizing process, Weeks said.
And that’s fitting for the Virginia Native Plant Society’s mission.
“By supporting the search for lost treasures, we can take the next step to protect them,” said Nancy Vehrs, society president.
This article originally appeared on Mason News
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