Mason Students Are Turning Dried Blossoms into a Digital Database

Mason senior biology student Ushna Ahmad takes a dried willow specimen and makes it part of the official Virginia plant record. Photo by Michele McDonald.

Mason senior biology student Ushna Ahmad takes a dried willow specimen and makes it part of the official Virginia plant record. Photo by Michele McDonald.

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.”

Associate Professor Andrea Weeks spearheads a Virginia-wide effort to database millions of plant specimens in herbariums through a $2.5 million NSF grant. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Associate Professor Andrea Weeks spearheads a Virginia-wide effort to database millions of plant specimens in herbariums through a $2.5 million NSF grant. Photo by Evan Cantwell

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.”

Associate Professor Andrea Weeks works with Karoline Oldham, systems biology graduate student, in the herbarium. Photo by Evan Cantwell

Associate Professor Andrea Weeks works with Karoline Oldham, systems biology graduate student, in the herbarium. Photo by Evan Cantwell

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

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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George Mason University’s College of Science (COS) offers over 40 interdisciplinary degree and certificate programs in physical, life, mathematical, earth and space sciences, data, forensics and policy to over 3000 students each year. The college, a crucial part of the university’s goal to promote research of consequence, accounts for roughly 30% of the university’s research expenditure. The college’s broad regional presence, combined with strategic national and international connections, reinforces the college’s mission to provide world-class scientific leadership important to modern society. George Mason University, located just outside of Washington, DC, is Virginia’s largest public research university. For additional information, email cosnews@gmu.edu.