USF's Museum Blog

Intern-connectivity: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

by Fahimeh Rahravan

In December 2007, when I first visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, the second most visited museum in the world, I found myself wanting to join the team. Volunteering in the library, cataloging in the Department of Botany and collections assistance in the Department of Paleo-biology for two years before I started graduate school gave me a precious opportunity to experience working at a large institution and a great background to get an amazing summer internship this year.Since June 2015, I have been an intern at the NMNH Department of Paleo-biology. I have digitized over 550 ancient fossils, whose digital records will help researchers learn more about evolution. I’ve been assisting doctoral student Qingqing Xu from Sun Yat-sen University on digitizing fossil plants from north-central Texas in Early Permian period, ca. 298 million years ago, and their insect damaged regions. My tasks have involved microscopic photography, working with digitizing software, and calculating percentages of damages on particular host plants, such as horsetails, lycopods, ferns, and a variety of seed plants that include medullosans, peltasperms and conifers.

Locating and numbering the specimens, equal or larger than 5 mm2. Photo credit: Fahimeh Rahravan

Locating and numbering the specimens, equal or larger than 5 mm2. Photo credit: Fahimeh Rahravan

My assignment was to digitize drawer 07 of the North-central Texas Early Permian collection, which contains 32 rocks and 550+ specimens. There are approximately 3500 specimens in the collection.

I would describe digitizing as:

  • Taking microscopic photographs from the rocks or the specimens;
  • Locating and numbering the specimens, equal or larger than 5 mm2;
  • Using the software, outlining the margins of each specimen (and occasionally the damage) in a new layer of the Adobe file;
  • Color-coding the outlined specimen and saving it for the calculation phase;
  • Using a different software, calculating the surface area of each color-coded specimen (and the damage) and data entry in the database.
Color-coding the outlined specimens. Photo credit: Fahimeh Rahravan

Color-coding the outlined specimens. Photo credit: Fahimeh Rahravan

I have been supervised by Dr. Conrad Labandeira, curator, former Department Chair, a wonderful leader and an amazing person. Conrad has had extensive studies on fossil flora around the world. The goal of this current research is to determine ratios of different types of damages in different plant groups for the Williamson Drive Flora, from north-central Texas, to understand the evolution and specificity (targeting) of particular plant groups by Permian insect herbivores.

The results of this research, in conjunction with other relevant studies currently being conducted in the Department, will indicate how much of the damages have been made by insects, how much by other factors, and maybe what types of insects existed 298 million years ago. The results may also give more exact clues about the Permian climate in Texas and suggest which plants have been more palatable to the insects because some of them have undertaken more than one type of damage. After all, visitors of natural science museums are curious about the relationship between fossil plants and insects, as much as about dinosaurs in their backyards.
This is a study on a fossil collection that the Department has assembled and curated. Once published, it will have fulfilled the Department’s mission by increasing public and scientific understanding of the biological and environmental history of Earth through the study of fossil plants.


The NMNH paleo-lab is unique and working on this collection provides me with an opportunity to think about different aspects of handling, and preservation of extremely sensitive materials. The research project will also help with more accurate documentation, which has always been one of my areas of interest and concern in the museum field.


Plant Identification Workshop at NMNH Department of Botany. Photo credit: Smithsonian Office of Fellowships and Internships.

As a museum worker, my area of focus has been collections management and it has occasionally involved also digitizing. This summer, I have had the opportunity to use what I have learned and experienced so far, towards a meaningful goal, which serves the Department’s and the Museum’s mission.

FossiLab, and “Science Guys” with exceptional sense of humor. Photo credit: Breann Young

FossiLab, and “Science Guys” with exceptional sense of humor. Photo credit: Breann Young

The most noteworthy thing about the NMNH and particularly the Paleo-biology Department is the staff. They are known in the museum as “The Science Guys”, famous for being friendly and cooperative. I’ve been lucky to work on such a smart and supportive team.

For more information on USF’s Museum Studies program, click here.





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